Reading Solution

August 2020

Remember singing songs about plague, taxes, and religious persecution when you were a little kid? Probably not. We think of nursery rhymes as silly little songs that entertain small children and they are that; but they are also tantalizing glimpses into folk history. These catchy tunes stay with us while their secret message is almost completely lost.

There are good reasons culture retains these ditties. According to child development experts Sue Palmer and Ros Bayley, nursery rhymes significantly aid a child’s mental development and spatial reasoning. There are also hidden messages says Seth Lerer, Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California. “Nursery rhymes are part of long-standing traditions of parody and a popular political resistance to high culture and royalty. At a time when to caricature royalty or politicians was punishable by death, nursery rhymes proved a potent way to smuggle in coded or thinly veiled messages in the guise of children’s entertainment. In largely illiterate societies, the catchy sing-song melodies helped people remember the stories and, crucially, pass them on to the next generation. Whatever else they may be, nursery rhymes are a triumph of the power of oral history.”

Ring Around the Rosie refers to the 1665 Great Plague of London: the “rosie” being the malodorous rash that developed on the skin of bubonic plague sufferers, the stench of which then needed concealing with a “pocket full of posies”. The bubonic plague killed 15% of Britain’s population, hence “atishoo, atishoo” (sneezing) or ashes, ashes (burning the dead bodies), we all fall down (dead).”

Baa Baa Black Sheep refers to the toll on the working class during the reign of King Edward in the thirteenth century. The wool tax was a heavy burden requiring that one third of the price of a sack of wool went to him, another went to the church and the last is left to the farmer. (In the original version, nothing was left for the little shepherd boy who lives down the lane). Black sheep were considered bad luck because their fleeces, unable to be dyed, were less lucrative for the farmer.

By some accounts, Rock-a-bye Baby refers to events preceding the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The baby in question is the son of King James II of England, which was widely believed to be another man’s child, smuggled into the birthing room to ensure a Roman Catholic heir. The rhyme is laced with connotation: the “wind”represents Protestant forces blowing in from the Netherlands; the doomed “cradle” the royal House of Stuart. The earliest version recorded in print added, “This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last”.

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary also known as Bloody Mary, daughter of King Henry VIII ordered the torture and murder of Protestants. Queen Mary’s “garden” is an allusion to the graveyards filling with Protestant martyrs. The “silver bells” were thumbscrews; while “cockleshells” are believed to be instruments of torture which were attached to male genitals.

The French Reign of Terror is told in the story of Jack and Jill. (Jack) King Louis XVI was beheaded (lost his crown) and Maria Antoinette (Jill) followed. Later, an additional section was added during the Victorian era to make it “more acceptable for children.”
With the current penchant for memes and Tik Tok one can only wonder how our era will be immortalized.

Note: Information above comes from and