As children, we all were eager to learn nursery rhymes. They seem to be simple, creative works of art to attract the young ones. These rhymes are centuries old and some of them contain historical meanings in them. What many of us don’t know is that these short rhyming couplets reflect some historical events of their times. It was also a way of commenting on the contemporary political scene by the common people. Direct criticism would lead to death. Let us look into the hidden message in some of the rhymes.
Ring a Ring O’ Roses
Ring of roses was a reference to the body rash due to infection, the posies were the herbs to defend against the infection, “Atishoo” is the sneezing and “all fall down” actually refers to death. These all were the symptoms of Black Death or the Great Plague. It killed nearly half of the population of London in 1665. And we thought it was a play and fun song!!!
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
The Mary in this rhyme is the Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII. She was referred to as the “Bloody Mary” and a staunch Catholic. The garden is actually the graveyard of the martyred Protestants. “Silverbells” is a euphemism for “cockleshells” and “thumbscrews” which were used to torture. That surely doesn’t present a good picture.
Jack and Jill went up the hill
According to the French history, Jack is a reference to Louis XVI and Jill stands for Queen Marie Antoinette. In 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded during the infamous Reign of Terror. Therefore the line “broke his crown (head)”. What followed was Queen Antonette’s beheading. Hence ,“Jill came tumbling after”.
When Adam delved and Eve span
England was plagued with the deadly Bubonic Plague, killing half of the population. The farmers realized their importance and they wanted freedom from the life of servitude, unfair taxes and controlled wages. “When Adam delved…” became the anthem for the Peasant Revolt of 1381 as it was simple, catchy and easy to remember. Truly revolutionary!!!
Little Boy Blue
The little boy blue might be a reference to Cardinal Wolsey, a wealthy, arrogant Oxford scholar. The heads of 4 blue leopards were displayed on his robe. “Come blow your horn” as he was known for boasting. ‘Where’s the man who looks after the sheep’ this line is a sarcastic remark on Wolsey, who was interested in his own interests rather than that of his people.
So, the next time you teach your child the rhymes spare a thought for its origin!!!