23.11.13

Hidden Meanings

I was brought up with nursery rhymes and nonsense rhymes. As a child I would blindly and zealously recite these rhymes to please my mum and myself. Now I am older, I rarely hear these rhymes, I suppose like most things that I grew up with, they are deemed old fashioned. However, on the rare occasion that I do catch the tail-end of one, I wonder where it's origins lie and so have begun a little study of them alongside my study of fairy tales. 

Here are a few that I have looked into recently. Please note that the debate about the origins of these age old rhymes is still raging and will probably do so for many years to come.

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It is commonly accepted that the nimble Jack mentioned is Black Jack, an English Pirate who grew in notoriety for his ability for giving the authorities the slip during the late 16th century.

The candle bit refers to the curious game of leaping over candle flames. Originally, the players had to leap over an open fire. Thankfully this was banned as it was deemed too dangerous a sport and the fire was sensibly replaced with a candle flame. There is a possibility that the game was also used for fortune telling and those that cleared the flame without extinguishing it would experience good luck.
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Although this traditional rhyme seems to paint a placid picture for our minds, it's origins are quite different and is believed by many to refer to Mary Tudor or Bloody Mary within who's reign the country's graveyards filled with the bodies of those who dared adhere to their Protestant faith.


The "silver bells" mentioned are a reference to thumb screws. The "cockle shells" were another instrument of torture that were said to me attached to the genitals. In another interpretation, the "cockle shells" reference is a snide remark about the infidelity of her disinterested husband.

The "maids", refer to the original predecessor of the guillotine called the maiden. This vicious crude device could take up to 11 attempts before it actually severed a head.

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The names Jack and Jill were often used as general references for a man and a woman. Shakespeare used Jack and Jill in A Midsummer Night's Dream and in Love's Labour's Lost.


In the case of the nursery rhyme, the Jack and Jill are believed to be King Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antoinette and of course we know what became of them! 

As time past and people grew more sensitive to what they told their children, the rhyme was added to make it more acceptable. 

If you do have a theory on any of the about, please do share!

Links | Wikipedia | Secret History of Nursery Rhymes by Linda Alchin | Albert Black |


3 comments:

  1. How very interesting! Actually if I remember correctly from back in the day, most children nursery rhymes were actually quite dark in nature.

    *Kat*

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  2. This was a very interesting post! I've never thought about the hidden meanings behind nursery rhymes before. Thanks for the explanation!

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  3. Oh my, I've got quite a few now that I have my own child!

    One of them is a rhyme/song I grew up with:

    "See, saw Margery Daw,
    Johnny shall have a new master,
    He shall have but a penny a day,
    'cause he can't work any faster."
    I think this one referred to child labor in England back in the day when children were chimney sweeper. The new "master" also referred to a darker meaning, that is many of these children got sick/succumb to a new "master" of their life. I dig in further and found out that many of them apparently got cancer (esp. boys -- notice the name is Johnny, not Jane or a girl's name) of the testicles due to all the soot that covered their bodies (soot/burned ash contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon/PAH, a known carcinogen).

    Another one is this:

    "Little boy blue come blow your horn,
    the sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn,
    Where's that boy who looks after the sheep"
    he's under the haystack fast asleep,
    Will you wake him? Oh no, not I,
    For if I do, he will surely cry."
    I think this one is about a Cardinal from the Tudor era, his family crest is the color of blue and thus he's the "little boy blue." Obviously the sheep referred to his congregation and how he neglected them in lieu of worldly pursuit.

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