The Secret History of the Nursery Rhyme
Many of the origins of the humble nursery rhyme are believed to be associated with, or reflect, actual events in history! The secret meanings of the Nursery Rhyme have been lost in the passing of time. A nursery rhyme was often used to parody the royal and political events and people of the day. The humble Rhyme was used as a seemingly innocent vehicle to quickly spread subversive messages!
The Rhyme allowed an element of free speech!
A rhyme associates words with similar sounds using a rhyming couplet or short verse. A rhyme is often short and easy to remember and this was a critical element when many people were unable to read or write and a rhyme was verbally passed from generation to generation - it was also a vital element when commoners wanted to comment on the events of the day! It must be remembered that direct criticism or dissent would often have been punishable by death!
The Rhyme that led to Revolution!
The wording of an individual rhyme can often be associated with historical events and the plausible explanations given to many a rhyme can be seen as political satire. The first really important English rhyme dates back to the fourteenth century! This little rhyme was passed quickly from one person to another, was easily remembered and led to an English revolution - a call for recognition and class equality!
When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then a gentleman
(To delve means to work and 'span' refers to spinning yarn there was
no class distinction when there was only Adam and Eve )
At this time the Bubonic Plague (Black Death) had ravaged England claiming the lives of a third of the population. Peasants realised that they were important to the England's economy. The 'Adam and Eve' rhyme was spread together with it's simple idea of equality. It helped to fuel the fire which culminated in the Peasants Revolt of 1381!
The Nursery Rhyme began to be printed in England as early as 1570! Printing allowed the production of books and cheap pamphlets, or Chapbooks. A chapbook is "a small book or pamphlet containing poems, ballads, stories, or religious tracts". More people during this time were learning to read but the chapbooks were also popular with people who could not read as they contained pictures, in the printed form of crude wood engravings - A Middle Ages equivalent of a Children's comic! So the Nursery Rhyme was then passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth and in a printed format.
Secret History and Origins of the Nursery Rhyme
The relationship of many historical events to the Nursery Rhyme have been long forgotten. The Bubonic Plague and its symptoms were parodied in Ring around the Rosy and the English Queen Mary I (Bloody Mary) was believed to be the 'star' of the Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary rhyme which featured a hidden reference to the Queen's treatment of Protestants using instruments of torture (silver bells) and execution by burning them alive at the stake! It's no wonder that this Queen has since been known as Bloody Mary! Witches and their 'familiars', like cats, frogs, mice and owls, are frequently, but obliquely, referred to in the words of a Nursery Rhyme as we have discussed in The Identity of Mother Goose. We need to understand the people, history and cultures of by-gone days to unlock the hidden meanings of the humble Nursery rhyme. The history and origins of many an 'innocent' Nursery Rhyme can be found on this site! Look closely at the picture that we have used to illustrate the Mary, Mary rhyme - like the words of the Nursery Rhyme it is not what it would at first seem - first impressions can be deceptive!