Violet has this big book of nursery rhymes that is at the top of her favorite book rotation.
This means that at least once or twice a week I read her rhymes and songs featured in the book. (It’s this book, by the way, and I highly recommend it despite the questionably R-rated contents.)
Of course, I say that with my tongue firmly in my cheek because nursery rhymes are nursery rhymes, regardless of what book you find them in.
But there’s the thing: have you ever actually thought about some of these rhymes and songs we’ve been repeating since the time we were toddlers ourselves? Sometimes I’ll be reading a little ditty to Violet and what I’m joyfully sing-songing suddenly strikes my brain and I’m all, What in the hell am I singing to my kid? A falling baby? Cutting off mice tails? Domestic abuse?
According to Book Dirt, there was actually a movement for nursery rhyme reform in the fifties. Mother Goose rhymes have been sanitized in recent years but original versions were filled with violence.
Domestic violence is one of the more common themes in old nursery rhymes, with wives and daughters bearing the brunt of the abuse, ranging from beating with a stick to flat-out murder. The early Victorians no doubt thought these rhymes were instructive to their daughters, who would learn to be obedient, dutiful wives.
But much like parents today — outraged over violence in video games and music — moms and dads in the fifties weren’t all that thrilled with nursery rhymes. So much so that a man named Geoffrey Handley-Taylor was charged with the task of surveying 200 popular rhymes and listing in detail the inappropriate content. Handley-Taylor’s list reads like the outline of a horror film including:
- 8 allusions to murder (unclassified)
- 2 cases of choking to death
- 1 case of cutting a person in half
- 1 case of death by devouring
- 15 allusions to maimed human beings or animals
- 23 cases of physical violence (unclassified)
You can read the full list here but, despite the apparent sanitization of Ma Goose, nursery rhymes are still pretty out there. Take a look at 15 popular nursery rhymes chock full of violence, fear and death and read about their origins. Plus, find out which historical figure was so horrifying she’s the star of two popular nursery rhymes you grew up chanting.
1. There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
Nothing wrong with a sound whipping every now and again, right? I also happen to be serving broth for dinner tonight. There is no specific origin for this rhyme, but there are several theories. According to suite101.com, “Some students of Mother Goose believe that the ‘old woman” was a symbol for the English Parliament and that the rhyme represents its treatment of its colonies (children) in the 17th Century. Others believe the “old woman” was Mother Goose herself who they claim was Elizabeth Goose, or Vergoose, of colonial Boston.” Others believe the old woman represents King George III who had a contentious relationship with Parliament and was often called “the old woman” behind his back. “Supporters of “George III as the old woman” contend that the “shoe” represents Great Britain, the “children” are Parliament members, and the “bed” is a symbol for the houses of Parliament.” This is just one of several nursery rhymes based on English history.
2. Rock-A-Bye Baby
In the tree top.
When the wind blows,
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, Cradle and all
Apparently the origins of this song are quite tame although a falling baby is on the morbid side. According to Brainz.org the song comes from a young pilgrim who say Native American Indians hanging cradles in trees. When the wind blew the cradles would rock the babies to sleep.
3. Sing A Song Of Sixpence
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing
Wasn’t that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?
The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.
Now that had to hurt! But the missing nose isn’t the only alarming thing about this little ditty. PETA would’ve had a field day with baking blackbirds into a pie. I can’t believe they taste very good. I’d stick with the queen and her bread and honey. The origins of this song are largely unknown although it’s said that the original line had naughty little boys being baked into the pie instead of blackbirds.
4. Humpty Dumpty
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
It just now hit me: nowhere is Humpty described as an egg. Like, he doesn’t even crack or anything. Where did this egg business come from? Turns out, Humpty Dumpty was eighteenth-century slang for a short and clumsy person. In fact, the first illustration for Mother Goose in 1803 depicts Humpty as a boy. So basically we’re making fun of a clumsy fat kid who died after falling off a wall? Another possible explanation is that a humpty dumpty was a type of canon used in England. They’d sit on top of high walls and if they fell off would shatter. That makes some sense although I’m still not sure how he got turned into an egg although it’s theorized that the rhyme was originally a riddle so that people had to guess what Humpty was and the answer, was an egg.
5. Jack And Jill
Jack and Jill
went up the hill,
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down,
And broke his crown;
And Jill came tumbling after.
A broken crown? That sounds serious. Like, a concussion? A hole in the noggin? Well, crown literally means crown and not a reference to Jack’s head, according to Brainz.org. “This poem originated in France. The characters refer to King Louis XVI, Jack, and his Queen Marie Antoinette, Jill. Jack was beheaded (lost his crown) first, then Jill came tumbling after during the Reign of Terror in 1793.” Oh, a beheading. Much better than a little boy’s concussion… NOT.
6. Ring Around The Rosie
Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of posies
We all fall down!
The dark origins behind this little rhyme are pretty well known, but in case you weren’t aware; the rhyme comes from the Great Plague of London in 1665. England is pretty much the birthplace of most disturbing rhymes. As brainz.org reports, “The symptoms of bubonic plague included a rosy red ring-shaped rash, which inspired the first line. It was believed that the disease was carried by bad smells, so people frequently carried pockets full of fresh herbs, or “posies.” The “ashes, ashes” line is believed to refer to the cremation of the bodies of those who died from the plague.” Fun stuff!
7. Little Miss Muffet
Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away
Not exactly R-rated but is a scary-ass spider really something you want to be reading to your toddler just before bed? Apparently the rhyme was writtenby the stepfather of a small girl named Patience Muffit. He also happened to be an entomologist famous for writing the first scientific catalog of British insects.
8. Old Mother Hubbard
Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor doggie a bone,
When she got there
The cupboard was bare
So the poor little doggie had none
The starving dog troubles me. But the origin for this one is beyond bizarre. Divorce! Perfect for young minds! According to brainz.org the rhyme is about a cardinal who refused to facilitate a divorce from Queen Katherine of Aragon for King Henry VIII, who wanted to marry Anne Bolyn (whom he later had executed.) “The doggie and the bone in the rhyme refer to the divorce, the cupboard is a reference to the Catholic Church and Wolsey is Old Mother Hubbard.” Ummm? Okay?
9. It’s Raining, It’s Pouring
It’s raining; it’s pouring.
The old man is snoring.
He went to bed and bumped his head,
And he couldn’t get up in the morning.
We sing this song every time it rains and I always wonder: is the old man dead? Does he have a concussion? Coma? The blog moreforeleslie.com sums it up best: “Either he got totally wasted last night or he has a severe concussion…either way, I’m pretty sure that’s not a message we should be sending to our children.” Origins of this song are unknown although Wikipedia suggeststhe song is a classic description of a head injury resulting in a epidural hematoma. Either way, not so much for the kids, yeah?
10. Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater
Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well
Keeping his wife in a pumpkin shell? Against her will? Unlike most rhymes that come from England’s dark history of royalty, this one got started in America. This is apparently a rhyme to warn women about cheating on their husbands. According to Brainz.org “Peter’s wife was supposedly a harlot, and Peter’s remedy for the situation was to kill her and hide her body in a giant pumpkin shell.”
11. London Bridge
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down falling down,
London Bridge bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
Take a key and lock her up,
lock her up, lock her up,
Take a key and lock her up,
My fair lady.
I’m not sure which is worse, a bridge falling that could kill hundreds or locking up some poor woman. Again, more of England’s crazy-ass history. “This nursery rhyme refers to the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII of England. Boleyn was accused of adultery and incest and was ultimately executed for treason.”
12. Three Blind Mice
Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run,
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice?
Not only are the mice blind but they have to deal with some crazy-ass, knife-wielding wife? Yet another rhyme based on England’s storied past. This one is about Queen Mary I, the daughter of King Henry VIII. Mary was so well known for her persecution of Protestants that she was given the nickname “Bloody Mary.” When three Protestant bishops were convicted of plotting against Mary, she had them burnt at the stake. According to brainz.org, it was mistakenly believed that she had them blinded and dismembered, as is inferred in the rhyme.
13. Georgie Porgie
Georgie Porgie, Puddin’ and Pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry,
When the boys came out to play
Georgie Porgie ran away.
Nothing like a little old-fashioned bullying to round out your child’s day in the form of some creeper kid who kisses girls against their will. Apparently, the origins of this are just as creepy. According to cracked.com this children’s nursery rhyme is about a gay sex scandal involving George Villiers, the 1st Duke of Buckingham, Anne of Austria, the Queen Consort of France and the king of France.
14. The Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly
There was an old lady who swallowed a fly
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – perhaps she’ll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a spider,
That wriggled and wiggled and tiggled inside her;
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!
This rhyme goes on and one with the old woman swallowing a bird, cat, dog, horse and a cow with the end of each verse cheerily suggesting she might die! Origin unknown.
15. Mary, Mary Quite Contrary
Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row
This popular nursery rhyme isn’t obviously horrifying but its origins are so dark I had to include it in the mix. This ain’t no ditty about a sweet little girl and her garden. It’s actually about the aforementioned Bloody Mary (about whom Three Blind Mice was written) who was so into executing people that the garden refers to growing cemeteries, as she filled them with Protestants. Silver bells and cockle shells were instruments of torture and the maiden was a device used to behead people. Nightie, night little ones!