The dark origins behind 5 of your favourite nursery rhymes

Since the 14th century, mothers have been singing their babies to sleep with the soft, sometimes nonsense sounds of nursery rhymes. The rhyming words matched with catchy melodies “bonds parent and child”, says Seth Lerer of the University of California San Diego. But behind the soft melodies and curious turns of phrase lie some dark origins. Though you shouldn’t fear that singing these popular rhymes to children will have a negative impact on their development, it’s fascinating to guess at the true meaning of words we all know from infancy.

1. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep

This ode to the darker-hued sheep of the flock is theorised to describe a medieval wool tax imposed by King Edward 1. The tax required the proceeds of wool sales to be divided into thirds: one for the crown, one for the church, and one for the farmer.

2. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

The meaning of this rhyme is debated, but some believe it described “Bloody” Mary, Queen of Scots. Different interpretations vary based on the person’s opinion of the Queen – some say the flowers are allusions to torture devices, while her ‘garden’ is the graveyard full of people who refused to convert to Catholicism. Other readings suggest that the ‘silver bells’ refer to cathedral bells, and the ‘cockle shells’ suggest that her husband was unfaithful to her.

3. Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

Historians have suggested that this song originated at HMP Wakefield, where female prisoners would exercise around the mulberry tree in the prison’s yard.

The Colchester tourist board suggested that this tale of the titular egg’s last hurrah was actually about a cannon from the church of St Mary-at-the-Wall in 1648. According to the board, the cannon was fondly referred to as Humpty Dumpty, and when the wall upon which it stood was broken, the Royalists attempted to move it to another spot to resume using it. Unfortunately, the cannon was too heavy to lift.

5. Goosey Goosey Gander

Back when Catholic priests were being persecuted, they often hid themselves in ‘priest holes’ to say their prayers. If they were discovered, they were forcibly removed from the building, which could be the meaning of the lines, “There I meat an old man Who wouldn’t say his prayers, So I took him by his left leg And threw him down the stairs.”

Hero image credit: Wikipedia Commons /Good Housekeeping Magazine 

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