by Audrey Harper
Chances are, you know a nursery rhyme. Even if it’s been years since you’ve read one or had someone sing one to you, you can probably remember the words to at least one. As traditional poems or songs for children, nursery rhymes started being recorded for English plays in the mid 16th century. Nursery rhymes have been around for centuries, but many of them are theorized to have dark origins.
Jack and Jill, 1765, is a rhyme about two people who climb a hill to fetch a pail of water, only to fall down and have Jack break his crown. Classic children’s literature. The most common theory behind this popular rhyme is that it’s about Louis XVI of France and Marie Antoinette. Upon being found guilty of treason, both of them were beheaded.
But more likely, the rhyme is actually about King Charles I of England. His attempt to reform the tax on liquid measurement was rejected by Parliament, so instead he made sure volume was reduced to half pints known as jacks, and quarter pints known as gills.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary / how does your garden grow? / With cockle shells and silver bells / and pretty maids all in a row.
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, 1744, seems like a rhyme offering some gardening tips. Right? Actually, this rhyme is talking about the homicidal nature of Queen Mary I of England. Perhaps you know her. She’s also known as Bloody Mary. During her five year reign, she, a devout Catholic, was responsible for executing hundreds of Protestants. And, in case you were wondering, silver bells and cockle shells are torture devices.
Rock-A-Bye Baby, 1765, is probably one of the most well known lullabies. One interpretation is that it’s about the son of King James II of England, and Mary of Modena. As it’s believed, the son wasn’t actually their son, and instead was someone else’s child brought into the birthing room to ensure that there would be a Roman Catholic heir to the throne.
The classic of all classics, Ring Around the Rosie, 1881, is probably the most infamous when it comes to understanding the context of the rhyme. It’s believed to be referring to the 1665 Great Plague of London, with each part of the song corresponding with something to do with the plague. “The rosie” is the rash that would appear on the bodies of those who had contracted the disease, “the pocket full of posies” are how people would deal with the inevitable smell that came from the sick, and due to the plague killing off 15% of the country’s population, the ending of “Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down!” is self-explanatory.
However, according to Snopes, this reading of the rhyme is actually false. Instead, it’s believed that the rhyme originates “in the religious ban on dancing among many Protestants in the nineteenth century…Adolescents found a way around the dancing ban with what was called in the United States the ‘play-party’… which differed from square dances only in their name and their lack of musical accompaniment.”
Nursery rhymes and lullabies have always been a part of many people’s lives. They’ve existed for hundreds of years, bringing with them a macabre understanding of the world in a way that children can access those stories without being fully aware of it. Nursery rhymes tend to have multiple interpretations, theories, and possible origins, so it’s really up for the reader or singer to decide on how they want to interpret them. Plague or dancing ban? That’s up to you.