Nursery rhymes are used as lullabies and children’s games, suitable for tiny tots to memorize and recite for guests. But behind the charming rhythms that make up the short poems, considerably darker and more complex origins belie the simple verse. The true meanings behind many favorite nursery rhymes may make them seem considerably creepier, yet they can provide clues to history and concepts of the natural world that delight and surprise the curious historian.
You might wonder why anyone bothered to make up the rhyme about Jack and Jill, the unbalanced water-fetching pair. Rather than mere nonsensical words, this rhyme has many possible origins and is the subject of much debate. Some experts trace the story back to a Scandinavian legend about two children kidnapped and held on the moon, where you can make out their shadows in the visible craters. In this version, when the moon “goes up the hill” or waxes, Jack is visible. Both children are visible at the full moon, whereafter Jack “fell down” and can’t be seen as the moon wanes, and Jill “came tumbling after” at the new moon.
Another, darker version suggests that the poem references the 18th century beheading of King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette. This seems inaccurate, however, as the nursery rhyme existed for centuries prior to their deaths. The curious pair are even mentioned in Shakespeare, both in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labors Lost.
Nothing could be more charming then watching a group of children dance around while singing “Ring around the Rosie,” at least until you realize that the song may be about the Black Plague of the 17th century. While this has never been a proven origin, many experts believe that the song references the folklore remedy of carrying flowers to ward off illness, the cremation of plague victims, and the wide-spread death caused by the plague. Detractors argue that the rhyme appeared too late to be associated with the disease, but few convincing alternative origin has been suggested.
One of the bleakest of all nursery rhymes is the lyrical “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.” The poem is variously attributed to Mary I of Scotland, and Mary I of England who had similar problems. Both were barren, suggesting that asking “How does your garden grow?” is a mockery of their inability to “grow” children, or heirs to the throne. In the Mary of Scotland version, the “cockleshells” may refer to her unfaithful husband, while the “pretty maids all in a row” are her stillborn children. Some who favor the English origin suggest that the “silver bells and cockleshells” refer to the instruments of torture favored during Mary’s bloody campaigns to abolish Protestants in England.
If the depressing list of unpleasant nursery rhymes is beginning to upset you, there is at least one with a pleasant and pastoral explanation. “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” an American nursery rhyme of the early 19th century, about an actual girl named Mary who actually brought her pet lamb to school, causing chaos and uproar. While this explanation may be somewhat of a let-down after the exciting commemorations of other rhymes, at least it remains literally suitable for children.