The Secret Life of Mother Goose: Discover the history of nursery rhymes

Nursery rhymes never go out of style. Remakes of medieval and seventeenth-century classics like Baa Baa Black Sheep and Humpty Dumpty crop up on even the hippest kid cds. But for all their popularity, most of us don’t know what the heck we’re singing about. There was an old lady who lived in a shoe? What!? To make matters worse, we’re singing them with children who are at the height of their inquisitive and persistent phase, as in “Why? Why? But why?” You may not want to share the juicy historical explanations Albert Jack digs up in his new Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes, but knowing that Rub a Dub Dub/Three Men in a Tub refers to Victorian-era peep shows will make your singing so much richer. We’ve selected our favorites; they’re shocking but true. – Emily Frost


Baa, baa, black sheep,

Have you any wool?

Yes, sir, yes, sir,

Three bags full;

One for the master,

One for the dame,

And one for the little boy

Who lives down the lane.

Some researchers believe this rhyme was written simply to encourage young children to imitate the sounds of animals when they are learning how to talk. But there’s a far more interesting and historic background to the poem. The version we all grew up with was, in fact, altered to make it more pleasant for young ears. The poem had a different last line until at least 1765, when it was included in Mother Goose’s Melody, published by John Newbery. The last line originally went like this: “And none for the little boy who cries in the lane.”

The surprising story behind this rhyme starts, unsurprisingly enough, with sheep. Sheep have been extremely valuable to the English economy for well over a thousand years. The wool trade in England was already thriving by August 1086 when the Domesday Book recorded that many flocks across the country numbered more than two thousand sheep. By the late twelfth century, sheep farming was big business and towns such as Guildford, Northampton, Lincoln, and York had become thriving centers of production. By 1260, some flocks consisted of as many as seven or eight thousand sheep, each tended by a dozen full-time shepherds, and English wool was regarded as the best in the world. But as the cloth workers of Belgium and France were far more skilled than the English at producing the finished article, much of the wool produced was exported to Europe, where the raw material was dyed and woven into high-quality cloth.

When Edward I returned from his crusading in 1272 to be crowned king, he set about the type of reforms his father, Henry III, had been unable to achieve. England had a growing number of wealthy wool merchants, chiefly in the form of the monasteries, and thanks to the quality and reliability of English wool, an increasing number of eager buyers in the Italians and the Flemish, who dominated European business at the time. Naturally this also led to a growing number of traders and exporters and a great deal of money flowing into England on a regular basis. This, in turn, meant Edward was able to impose new taxes on the exports of wool to fund his military campaigns and keep the royal coffers topped up. In 1275, the Great Custom was introduced in the shape of a royal tax of six shillings and eight pence per wool sack – approximately one-third of the price of each sack. It was this wool tax that is said to be the basis of “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”: one-third of the price of each sack must go to the king (the master), two-thirds to the Church or the monasteries (the dame), and none to the actual shepherd (the little boy who cries in the lane). Rather than being a gentle song about sharing things out fairly, it’s a bitter reflection on how unfair things have always been for working folk throughout history.

During this period of great success (for the ruling classes, at any rate), England’s export of wool nearly doubled from 24,000 sacks to 47,000 sacks per year, and the money raised largely funded the Hundred Years’ War with the French that dominated the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. To this day, the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords (successor to the Lord Chancellor’s role) sits on a sack made of wool, first introduced during the fourteenth century by the third consecutive Edward to rule England, Edward III.




Three men in a tub,

And how do you think they got there?

The butcher, the baker, and candlestick maker,

It was enough to make a man stare.

This is one of those nursery rhymes that we all take for granted. When looked at again, it’s a very much odder affair. At first glance, “Rub-a-Dub-Dub” looks rather like a reference to a gay peep show. Indeed, history reveals that there probably was such a thing, catering especially for royalty and the nobility. There is every chance the working classes also had their own clandestine man-on-man entertainment going on in towns and cities throughout the land. However, the oldest printed version of the rhyme, dating to the fifteenth century, reveals how changing just a few words can alter a story completely, putting an entirely different complexion on it:


Three maids in a tub,

And who do you think were there?

The butcher, the baker and candlestick maker,

And all of them gone to the fair.

Peep shows were popularized by the Victorians during the nineteenth century, but their origins can be traced back much further, to Europe in the 1400s. In those days, wandering artists and entertainers came up with the idea of presenting their art or shows in a large portable wooden box. The inside could be decorated to create scenery and customers would pay to watch the action through holes in the side. It was all innocent fun in the beginning but soon developed into the perfect way of providing “closet” sexual entertainment for the public without breaking too many laws. That was probably when those Victorians became so interested in them.



Ring-a-ring o’ roses,

A pocketful of posies;

A-tishoo! A-tishoo!

We all fall down.

This rhyme usually accompanies a dancing game that ends with all the children falling to the ground, getting their clothes muddy, and going home to a smack upside the head. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

“Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses” is traditionally associated with the plague – the Great Plague of London in 1665 or the Black Death of the late 1340s – and it is easy to see why. A plague victim would show early symptoms of the disease in the form of red, circular rashes all over the body resembling wreaths of roses (Ring-a-ring o’ roses). The rhyme also seems to reflect the superstition that if a person was to carry around a pouch, or “pocket,” stuffed with herbs or “posies,” there was less chance of infection (A pocketful of posies). Sneezing would be also be a symptom (A-tishoo! A-tishoo!), indicating that the person was in an advanced state of infection, certain to fall down (dead) very shortly afterward. So far so neat.

Unfortunately this doesn’t actually accord with the known symptoms of the disease. Between two and six days following infection, the illness becomes obvious in a person. The early signs are headaches, chills, high fever. No rosy rings. Following the fever would come the formation of buboes, an inflammatory swelling of the lymph glands in both the groin and armpits. There is no historical record that posies, herbs, or any other flower were used as preventive medicine, although there is evidence that sweet-smelling flowers were sometimes carried to counter the terrible odors in areas affected by disease. (People were so terrified of catching the plague, in fact, that they are known to have resorted to extreme measures – burning all their clothes, possessions, and sometimes even their houses in the hope of avoiding infection.) And finally, there is no reference anywhere to sneezing as a final and fatal symptom of the plague.

One of the strongest arguments given for the rhyme being connected with the plague is, in fact, one of the strongest arguments against it. Several historians have urged in favor of the association. But the big question is this: if indeed the rhyme dates as far back as the Black Death in the 1340s, then why did nobody write it down for over five hundred years?

No contemporary record of the rhyme has been found from that period. Even Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), the noted diarist and chronicler of a later outbreak, the Great Plague, makes no mention of it, although it seems unlikely that no record should be made until 1881, centuries after it was – seemingly – first sung. In fact, no connection had been made between “Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses” and either of the plagues until 1961, when James Leasor proposed the idea in his book The Plague and the Fire.

In conclusion, while the connection between rhyme and plague makes a good story, it appears far more likely that “Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses” is a simple children’s party game, illustrating nothing more than a group holding hands in a circle and dancing around, to the accompaniment of satisfying sound effects (A-tishoo! A-tishoo!) and actions (We all fall down). In its first publication in Britain, in 1881 – in Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose – the sneezing wasn’t even part of the rhyme, perhaps suggesting a later addition:


A pocket full of posies;

Hush! hush! hush! hush!

We’re all tumbled down.

The version in Alice Gomme’s Dictionary of British Folklore (1898) reads:

Ring a ring of roses,

A pocket full of posies;

Upstairs, downstairs,

In my lady’s chamber.

While, as late as 1949, a version included in a collection of verse entitled Poems of Early Childhood – illustrated with four happy children dancing in a circle and carrying bunches of roses – still carries no reference to the fatal sneezing:

Ring a ring a rosy,

A pocket full of posies;

One, two, three, four,

We all fall down.



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.

The real Humpty Dumpty was a powerful cannon used by the Royalist forces during the English Civil War of 1642-51. Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle led the king’s men and overpowered the Parliament strong-hold of Colchester early in 1648. They grimly held on to it while the Parliamentarians, led by Thomas Fairfax, encircled and besieged the town in what became known as the Siege of Colchester. The supporters of Charles I almost won the day – all thanks to his doughtiest defender, Humpty Dumpty. In pole position, as it were, on top of the church tower of Saint Mary-at-the-Walls, One-Eyed Thompson, the gunner, managed to blast away the attacking Roundhead troops with rousing success for eleven whole weeks. That is, until the top of the church tower was eventually blown away, sending Humpty Dumpty crashing to the ground outside the city wall, where it buried itself in deep marshland. The king’s cavalry (the horses) and the infantry (the men) hurried to retrieve the cannon in order to repair it, but they couldn’t put Humpty together again, and without their weapon of mass destruction, they were soon overrun by Fairfax and his soldiers.

There are another two verses preceding the better-known one that tell the tale in more detail:
In sixteen hundred and forty-eight,

When England suffered the pains of state,

The Roundheads laid siege to Colchester town

Where the king’s men still fought for the crown.

There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall,

A gunner of deadliest aim of all.

From Saint Mary’s Tower his cannon he fired,

Humpty Dumpty was its name.

Written in the same vein as “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” (a song mocking the Nazis that raised the British spirits during the darker days of World War II), “Humpty Dumpty” was a piece of propaganda that passed from town to town as the news of the king’s defeat spread across England and the Parliamentarian troops slowly returned home, teaching even their youngest children to recite the tale of their victory.

But if the rhyme is entirely military in origin, how come we all think of Humpty Dumpty as an egg? The answer to that question is found in the late nineteenth century in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Sir John Tenniel’s iconic illustration shows Alice in deep discussion with Humpty Dumpty as he sits upon a high wall. Tenniel, clearly taken with the idea of the impossibility of Humpty Dumpty’s being put back together again once he’d fallen off the wall, has him shaped as an egg with short arms and legs. This is the first known depiction of Humpty as an egg, one that was to become the definitive image.



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Article Posted 9 years Ago

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