Sunday, 15 December 2013

Nursery Rhymes

It can be hard to find a topic relating to the seventeenth century that is seasonally appropriate. The last thing I want to write about, let alone read, at Christmas are stories of death and misery! And, of course, we are talking about the century when Christmas was banned (see my Hoydens post of 8 December 2008 - click HERE).

So this week, for something lighter, I thought I would look at some familiar Nursery Rhymes, purportedly with their origin in the seventeenth century.

At the most basic level, nursery rhymes are used as a way of familiarising a child with the patterns of their native tongue. Every culture uses variations of these simple rhymes. I can remember rocking my own fractious babies to sleep with “Rock a bye baby” and thinking at the time that the words must have originated from a frustrated mother, not unlike myself, harbouring dark thoughts about her infant… have you ever thought about how violent the words actually are? “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall and down will come baby, cradle and all…”. So the rhyme served 2 purposes, calming the baby and satisfying the mother’s urge to commit infanticide at the same time!

Back to the seventeenth century. The origins of many nursery rhymes are lost in history and those for which we do think we know the origin, may turn out to be specious.


Ring-a-ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

The common belief is that this rhyme originated with the Plague of 1665 (or the Black death of the 1300s). The words were believed to have described the symptoms of the plague - a rash (the ring of roses) and sneezes and of course death (we all fall down). This interpretation of the rhyme is a comparitively modern one and folklore scholars (now there’s a profession) have dismissed this origin arguing that 1) It did not appear in written form until the mid nineteenth century 2) the description is not accurate for the bubonic plague (although it is for the pneumonic plague) and 3) the plague theory did not appear until the 1950s. Hmm… just because it wasn’t written down until the mid nineteenth century doesn’t mean it didn’t exist in oral tradition for years, if not centuries.

A FROG HE WOULD A WOOING (or courting) GO:

A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go
Whether his mother? let him or no
He rode right to Miss Mousie's den
Said he "Miss Mousie are you within?"
He said "My dear I've come to see"
If you Miss Mousie will marry me"?

I was always under the belief that this rhyme/song referred to Charles II and his love of beautiful women, but scholars believe its origin is earlier. It first appeared in written form in 1611 and it could refer to the reputed marriage of Francis of Anjou to Elizabeth I but versions of it are known from even earlier in the Tudor dynasty. Certainly it is a political satire but which Queen and which Frog are now lost in time.


Georgie Porgie, Puddin' and Pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry,
When the boys came out to play
Georgie Porgie ran away

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham
This rhyme is believed to have originated with George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham and boon companion to Charles I. The beautiful George was known to “bat for both teams” (to use a cricketing metaphor) and was reputedly the lover of both James I and Ann of Austria (the Queen of France). Political furore about his influence over Charles I led to his eventual execution assasination (oops!) and will make a good topic for a future post. 

However there is no real evidence for this story and it could just as easily refer to Charles II (Rowley Powley pudding and pie) or George II, both notorious womanisers. 


I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why - I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell

This little rhyme is said to have been written by the English poet Thomas Brown around 1680 and refers to one of the dons at Oxford, Doctor John Fell of Christ Church, who expelled the young Brown for mischief.

To conclude… one of the best known and most beloved Nursery Rhymes:


Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

Like all the rhymes, its origins are reputedly many and varied. “Humpty Dumpty” was a term used in the middle ages to describe someone of large girth and folklore scholars (them again!) have posited the theory it refers to Richard III but by far the most likely origin comes from the English Civil War. In 1648 the town of Colchester was held for the royalists and besieged. The story goes that the King’s men had a large (and presumably rotund) gun which they placed strategically on the wall of the town. However the wall was not built to withstand the weight of the gun and it collapsed, taking the great gun, nicknamed Humpty Dumpty, with it. Despite the efforts of “all the King’s men and all the King’s horses” the great gun was too heavy to be raised again.

I shall conveniently ignore the earliest written forms of this rhyme which make no mention of “King’s” men or horses or the fact it could refer to a kind of ale mixed with brandy, or an exceptionally clumsy person.

Mons Meg at Edinburgh Castle

But reference to a giant siege gun of the English Civil War segues nicely into a casual mention of my January release… CLAIMING THE REBEL’S HEART, a historical with romance set in a siege during the English Civil War. It will be released on January 22 and for more information and to read an excerpt, visit my website by clicking HERE.



Anita Davison said...

Fascinating Alison - I have often read the Plague attribution to Ring-a-Ring-a-Rosie too - although to be pedantic, George, 1st Duke of Buckingham wasn't executed, he was assassinated by John Felton - a disgruntled army officer.

JG Harlond said...

Great stuff, years ago I had the Iona and Peter Opie book on nursery hymes but I leant it to someone . . .

Anonymous said...

Very informative! Thanks for sharing :)

You may be interested in this:

Innocent’s Song, a ghost story for ‘Oranges and Lemons’ Day

PJ Hodge

Mahesh MSA said...

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