When you say “nursery rhyme,” we usually think of those tunes played in a kindergarten or during a children’s party. They’re repetitive and probably don’t mean anything, right?
Nursery rhymes for kids are short stories written in rhymes that are usually sung in catchy tunes. Have you noticed how mothers sing lullabies to their children? Or how teachers recite poems to their students?
All these reflect how catchy songs and rhythmic poems have become an integral part of children’s life in many cultures.
The first most common explanation for this is to help children be familiar with simple words and sentences.
When dealing with childhood learning, songs are always so much easier to remember than plain spoken words. Children swiftly learn to sing along a nursery rhyme even before they get to understand what the whole of the song means. Thus, nursery rhymes help children build up their vocabulary word by word.
More importantly, children often learn the basics of reading through the help of nursery rhymes.
Due to their slowly building vocabulary and engagement over repetitive and funny lyrics, they can easily follow the now familiar words as their parents or teachers slowly read to them.
The second more uncommon explanation for this is to preserve an oral record of history. Surprised? There’s more. Remember that history is conserved using two methods: written and oral.
Written records are those information found in books, engraved on tablets, kept in scrolls, and such. Oral records on the other hand, are those stories handed down from one generation to the next through word of mouth alone. What better way to remember them than to wrap stories into melodious songs?
What better way to make oral history last than to put them in a rhyme and have children repeat them, so that they remember these songs until adulthood? And afterwards, pass these songs along to their kids.
Need more concrete examples of how nursery rhymes are both oral history and engaging ditty? Read along.
The earliest records of the original nursery rhymes seems to date back as early as the 14th century. However, the birth of the classics that are still alive today came later, in the 18th century. What exactly are the origins of nursery rhymes? How could they serve as oral records of history?
To answer that, picture a time of political unrest. Say, the King demands excessive taxes from all his people, whether rich or poor; merchant or farmer. To make matters worse, law decrees that whosoever fail to obey the king will be executed, and whosoever dares to defy that king with rebellion shall suffer the same fate the former will.
You can imagine poor folk working day and night, trying to pay the taxes while keeping food on their tables. But of course, not all of them will succeed. Many will have to watch others being executed for trivial matters.
Inevitably, resentment and anger will form. But they do not have the power, nor the courage, to rise against the king.
So what do they do? They will express their voices, their anger and resentment, in the guise of silly rhyming songs meant to entertain children, according to BBC. Like the medieval version of memes.
Of course, no one will suspect such vile messages hidden in children’s songs, right?
Actually, the first part of the story where the king demands unreasonable taxes came from “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, while the second part of the story that talked about execution came from “Oranges and Lemons”.
Nursery rhymes for toddlers had other purposes aside from self-expression, they were also used to sneak obscured messages that are delicately woven in the form of children’s songs so as to pass the stories on to the next generation, and ensure that history will be remembered.
Whichever the case, nursery rhymes for babies proved to be effective in preserving history. Up to this day, children playfully sing them, totally unaware of the true meaning of nursery rhymes.
Let’s take a look at one of the most popular collections of these rhymes, from Mother Goose.
Mother goose is a collection of nursery rhymes that are so popular up to this very day.
Practically every child knows how to go along “Humpty Dumpty”, “Jack and Jill”, and “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”. Did you ever wonder how Mother Goose came to be?
It was the book of the French author Charles Perrault, entitled “Tales from the Past with Morals” that first bore the name of “Mother Goose” in 1697. It was a collection of stories, a book of 10 fairy tales to be precise, that had a front picture of an old woman, a bunch of children, and a cat.
The old woman was portrayed as a storyteller to the children and the cat, under the image of which was a written subtitle: “Tales from My Mother Goose.” As you might expect, all these were written in French.
It was later translated to English by Robert Samber in 1729. From “Tales from My Mother Goose” it became “Mother Goose’s Tales”. It was not until the 1760s that Mother Goose became immensely popular. It was all thanks to John Newbery, who creatively weaved the simple tales into alluring rhymes with his publication of “Mother Goose’s Melody”.
You can easily see the important transition that took place from “Mother Goose tales” to “Mother Goose Rhymes”. This book contained the traditional rhymes that survived from 17th century all the way to the 20th century. Talk about amazing!
In no time at all, many different versions of the book become widely popular in America and England, each with minor revisions but remained true to their rhyming tales nonetheless.
Now that we know enough about the history of nursery rhymes, how about we dissect some and get their actual meaning? Let’s go!
In this section, we are going to take the nursery rhymes we are most familiar with and discover the true meaning behind them.
What does the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty mean? To answer that, let us go back to the origin of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme. Humpty Dumpty’s first known publication was included in Samuel Arnold’s “Juvenile Amusements” in 1797.
Over the years there were many variations made to the lyrics of the nursery rhyme. But all of the versions had one thing in common: they all seem to refer to a clumsy person or to someone who drinks too much alcohol.
The latter speculation came from the fact that “Humpty Dumpty” meant in the 17th century as brandy boiled with ale. So it could mean that the clumsy person drinks too much alcohol named “Humpty Dumpty”.
Whichever the case, the nursery rhyme was clearly taken as a riddle. Today, everyone knows the answer so well, that Humpty Dumpty took on the appearance of an egg. Since “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again” it could be none other than an egg. After all, nobody could fix a broken egg.
But hey, what’s with the “King’s horses” and “King’s men”? Why should an egg be so significant as to have the king’s subjects try to put it together? And “Great Fall”? An egg would easily crack, even with the tiniest force.
All these stirred the curiosities of human minds, which gave way to many theories of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme meaning being linked to historical events. But there is one that seems to be getting most of the attention.
Allegedly, Humpty Dumpty depicts the Fall of Colchester. The town of Colchester was under siege during the English Civil War in the year of 1684.
Allegedly, a soldier named Jack Thompson was stationed on the walls to take charge of a cannon nicknamed as “Humpty Dumpty”. Jack did a great job in wreaking havoc on the invading parliamentarian troops with Humpty Dumpty.
At least, not until the cannon fell to the ground. Considering the fact that the cannon was doing a lot of damage to the opposing army, everyone tried to lift it back to its original position on the wall.
Unfortunately, with the great size and the heavy weight of the cannon, no one was able to put it back. And so, Colchester had no choice but to surrender.
However, there is yet to be any established, concrete connection between the meaning of Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme and the Fall of Colchester. But hey, there’s no harm in trying.
This nursery rhyme is often linked to the medieval wool tax imposed by King Edward I during the 13th Century. Under this imposition, a third of the total cost of a sack of wool went to the King (himself), another third goes to the Church, and the last third goes to the shepherd or farmer.
However, in the original version most of the earnings went to the authorities and almost nothing was therefore left for the little boy shepherd who lives down the lane. Moreover, black sheep were thought to be bad luck because their fleece cannot be dyed--which makes them not as profitable as their white counterparts.
A baby rocking on the treetops is very unlikely. A baby hanging from a swing on the lowest branch is plausible. But treetops? Any mother would freak out.
Besides, a baby falling from the treetop on a windy day is too macabre a sight. This has led theorists to dig deeper into this particular nursery rhyme.
Supposedly, the baby that is being talked about is the son of King James II of England who was commonly believed to actually be another man’s child or a bastard. He was sneaked into the birthing room of the prince in order to guarantee a Roman Catholic heir.
The “Cradle” is said to be the House of Stuart; while the “Wind” that rocked the treetops is said to be the avid Protestant believers who were all out against the Catholics.
Not everyone may agree with this theory, but everyone does agree that the nursery rhyme generally warns those who are so proud as to aspire to climb so high, because sooner or later they will fall flat on their faces.
This melody sings about the horrors of Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary is a nickname of the murderess Queen Mary I of England. She is such an extreme believer of Catholicism that she tortures and kills anyone who dared go against her beliefs.
Allegedly, the “Three Blind Mice” refer to the trio of Protestant Bishops, namely Nicholas Radley, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer who were “blind” because of their “heretic beliefs”.
They tried to overthrow the queen, but were unsuccessful with their attempt, and they ended up being burned in the stake for their mistake.
We cannot deny how carelessly unaware we were in humming these seemingly nonsensical nursery rhymes as we hopped about in our childhood blissfulness. But now that we are aware, should we prevent our children from singing these rhymes?
“What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” is a saying that is all too appropriate to answer our question. After all, singing a song without giving dark meaning to them couldn’t possibly reflect any malicious intentions on the part of the singer.
However, hardly anyone can shake off the melancholy of hearing a child sing a song that actually depicts murder, political unrest, religious crimes, and such.
No wonder the Victorians founded the British Society for Nursery Rhyme Reform in 1941, to try and clean up the world of all these double-meaning rhymes.
In fact, they condemned as many as 100 of the most famous rhymes that we are familiar with, such as Three Blind Mice and Humpty Dumpty. They did this on the grounds that these rhymes contain themes of death, murder, poverty, torture, and other similar elements that children should not be exposed to.
What do you think dear reader? Are you going to keep singing these songs to your children and hope they don’t understand the meaning until they’re old enough?
Or are you going to try picking the harmless rhymes from now on? If there are any. Good luck, parents, and share with us your thoughts in the comments!