Not meant for kids?

Program will spotlight history of children's nursery rhymes

Program will spotlight history of children's nursery rhymes

May 21, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Once upon a time, some popular nursery rhymes may have begun as true tales with unhappy endings.

Scholars have long debated the origins of a number of children's fairy tales, riddles and songs - a topic local historian John Nelson will address at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 22, during "Mother Goose Unplugged: The Truth Behind Nursery Rhymes" at the Jonathan Hager House and Museum in Hagerstown's City Park. "Mother Goose" will be on hand for the event.

"The simple reality behind our most popular nursery rhymes is that they were political in nature and meant for adults," said Nelson, curator of the Hager House. "Many of the characters such as Little Miss Muffet, Little Jack Horner and Old King Cole were based on real people."

Nelson said many nursery rhymes were written to satirize the famous and noble, primarily in England, by individuals who dared not openly criticize the powerful due to the very real threat of imprisonment and death.


While just about all origin theories have been contested at one time or another, even the authors of such reputable sources as the "Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes" and "The Annotated Mother Goose" have speculated about the basis of such popular children's fare as "London Bridge," "Three Blind Mice," "Humpty Dumpty" and "Ring Around the Rosie," said Jeff Ridgeway, children's librarian at the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown.

London Bridge

"London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down,

London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady."

The first two lines of the most recognized version of "London Bridge" have prompted numerous theories about the origin of the rhyme. One of the ideas uncovered by Nelson's research is that the bridge in the rhyme refers to the bridge over the Thames River in London that Viking raiders destroyed in the 11th century. "The Annotated Mother Goose" also mentions this theory, referring to the destruction of the bridge by King Olaf and his Norsemen after a battle with King Ethelred of England.

Three Blind Mice

"Three Blind Mice! See how they run!

They all ran after the farmer's wife,

Who cut off their tales with a carving knife.

Did you ever see such a sight in your life?

As three blind mice."

It's commonly believed that this rhyme refers to Queen Mary I of England and three noblemen who displeased her, according to Nelson's research and "The Annotated Mother Goose." The rhyme might tell the story of the queen, who owned vast amounts of farmland, ordering the deaths - by burning at the stake, not cutting - of nobles Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer.

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!"

Humpty Dumpty has been traced to both kings and a cannon. Nelson found that Humpty Dumpty was the name of a powerful cannon mounted atop St. Mary's Wall Church in Colchester, England, to defend the city against siege in the summer of 1648. A blast to the church tower toppled the cannon, which broke and couldn't be repaired by the king's men. "The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes" puts this theory to the test, however, because the book calls the rhyme an ancient riddle that likely predates the 17th century. Ridgeway agreed that the egg probably came before the cannon.

Another school of thought is that Humpty Dumpty refers to King Richard III, the hunchbacked English monarch who fell from his horse - named Wall - during the Battle of Bosworth and was butchered on the field, Nelson said. Or the fictional egg could refer to King Charles I of England, who lost his throne due to the Puritan majority in Parliament and was executed by the Roundheads, Nelson said.

Ring Around the Rosie

"Ring around the Rosie

A pocket full of Posies

Ashes, Ashes,

We all fall down!"

Many people believe this rhyme refers to the Bubonic Plaque that decimated Europe in the 14th and 17th centuries. The "ring around the rosie" might symbolize the rosy rash that was a symptom of the fatal disease; the "pocket full of posies" the posies of herbs carried for protection against the plague; the ashes either the act of burning the corpse's body to prevent the plague's spread or a biblical reference to death; and falling down death itself, according to Nelson's research and "The Annotated Mother Goose." The third line of the British version of the rhyme reads "Atish-oo, Atish-oo," which likely referred to the sneezing that was the final symptom before death, Nelson said.

"The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes" dismisses this theory, suggesting instead the old belief that gifted children could laugh roses - the first line of the British version is "Ring a ring o' roses" - and that falling down could refer to curtseying.

Nelson's lecture will explore the origins of many other rhymes, including the smuggling thought to have prompted "Little Bo Peep," the gossip that might have spawned "Rub-a-dub-dub," and the Norse mythology thought to have evolved into "Jack and Jill."

If you go...

"Mother Goose Unplugged: The Truth Behind Nursery Rhymes" Saturday, May 22

2 p.m.

Jonathan Hager House and Museum

110 Key St., Hagerstown

Upcoming family events at the Hager House include:

n "Recreation Frontier-Style," a look at what Hagerstonians did for fun from 1790 to 1830

2 p.m. Saturday, June 26

n "Witchcraft in Maryland"

2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25

For more information, call 301-739-8393.

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