Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Brief Look At The History & Origin of Nursery Rhymes

Nursery Rhymes have been recited to children and by children for hundreds of years. They are a part of most people's childhoods, but where did these rhymes originate from? What is the meaning behind the words?


While the history and origins of the nursery rhymes featured here have been collected over a period of time, I'm sure there are others that I've not heard of.

Please don't forget that no matter how plausible an origin of a rhyme may seem, no one really knows for sure how any of them came into being. In the world of nursery rhymes and their origins, common sense is king!


Little boy blue
Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,
The cow's in the meadow, the sheep's in the corn.
Where is the boy who looks after the sheep?
He's under a haycock, fast asleep.
Will you wake him? No, not I,
For if I do, he's sure to cry.


It has been suggested that Little Boy Blue was supposed to represent Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, who eventually was executed for treason, it does in fact very closely mimic the lines from Shakespeare's King Lear, Act III, Scene VI:

"Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd? Thy sheep's in the corn; And for one blast of the minikin mouth Thy sheep shall take no harm."

Jack and Jill
Jack and Jill went up the hill
The fetch a pail of water;
Jack feel down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

Up got Jack and home did he trot,
As fast as he could caper;
Went to bed and bound his head,
With vinegar and brown paper.

When Jill came in how she did grin
To see Jack's paper plaster;
Mother vexed, did whip her next;
For causing Jack's disaster.


There are several possible origins for this popular rhyme. One is that it is very ancient and has roots in the mythology of Scandinavia. In his 1947 book 'Myth & Ritual,' Lewis Spence suggests that there may be an ancient ritual associated with the rhyme because as he says, 'no one in a folklore sense climbs to the top of a hill for water unless that water has special significance.'

This may be so, and is certainly a puzzle but it has been pointed out by the editors of the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes that 'after' rhymes with 'water' which suggests that it may have originated in the 17th century.

In the 1765 edition of 'Mother Goose's Melody' a woodcut illustration shows two boys, not a boy and a girl as you would expect. This has given rise to yet another explanation which is that the two in question could be Cardinal Wolsey and Bishop Tarbes, who together went to France to arrange the marriage of Mary Tudor to the French monarch.

London Bridge
London Bridge has fallen down,
Fallen down, fallen down,
London Bridge has fallen down,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair Lady.

Wood and clay will wash away,
Wash away, wash away,
Wood and clay will wash away,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with bricks and mortar,
Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar,
Build it up with bricks and mortar,
My fair Lady.

Bricks and mortar will not stay,
Will not stay, will not stay,
Bricks and mortar will not stay,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with iron and steel,
Iron and steel, iron and steel,
Build it up with iron and steel,
My fair Lady.

Iron and steel will bend and bow,
Bend and bow, bend and bow,
Iron and steel will bend and bow,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with silver and gold,
Silver and gold, silver and gold,
Build it up with silver and gold,
My fair Lady.

Silver and gold will be stolen away,
Stolen away, stolen away,
Silver and gold will be stolen away,
My fair Lady.

Set a man to watch all nigh,
Watch all night, watch all night,
Set a man to watch all night,
My fair Lady.

Suppose the man should fall asleep,
Fall asleep, fall asleep,
Suppose the man should fall asleep?
My fair Lady.

Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
Smoke all night, smoke all night,
Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
My fair Lady.


It's possible that this rhyme and the game associated with it, dates back as far as the fourteenth century, and versions of it are found all over Europe. Some theorise that it refers to the destruction of London bridge in the eleventh century by King Olaf and his Norsemen.
There are many tales and superstitions surrounding bridges, one being that the water spirits object to a bridge being built as it is an invasion of their territory. To prevent the possible repurcussions of this 'invasion,' sacrifices were made to the spirits when the bridge building began. This usually involved killing someo ne, most often a child and burying their body in the bridge's foundations. In the 19th century an old bridge was demolished at Bremen and the skeleton of a young child was discovered in its foundations.

Humpty Dumpty
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again!


It is a very old rhyme and is known throughout Europe in very much the same form.
It's possible however that 'Humpty Dumpty' refers to a powerful cannon used during the English Civil War (1642-49). It was mounted on top of the St Marys at the Wall Church in Colchester defending the city against seige in the summer of 1648 which fell 'off the wall' and couldn't be mended.


One two,
Buckle my shoe;

Three, four,
Shut the door;

Five, six,
Pick up sticks;

Seven, eight,
Lay them straight;

Nine, ten,
A big fat hen;

Eleven, twelve,
Dig and delve;

Thirteen, fourteen,
Maids a-courting;

Fifteen, sixteen,
Maids in the kitchen;

Seventeen, eighteen,
Maids in waiting;

Nineteen, twenty,
My plate's empty.


This counting rhyme can be traced back as far as 1780 in Wrentham, Mass.
Different versions of it can be found in Germany, France, Holland and Turkey.
It has been used by generations of children as an aid to counting and may even have once gone up to number thirty.

Hey, diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.


This old nonsense rhyme is probably just that - nonsense, however some people have suggested that the cat is Elizabeth Ist and the dog is Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester who she once referred to as her 'lap dog.'

Hey Diddle Diddle was a new dance accompanied by a fiddle according to a play written by Thomas preston in 1569.

Michelle Cheng kindly offered the theory that the characters in this rhyme are actually constellations of stars, and the line, 'the dish ran away with the spoon' relates to the stars disappearing over the horizon.

Andy Bowers from the UK suggested the following origin for this rhyme which certainly seem quite plausible. He says ....

"I understand that the origins date back to 1765. It's named after an old-fashioned pubcrawl along the A537 Macclesfield to Buxton road in Cheshire/Derbyshire UK. The pubs featured in the nursery rhyme were built in the early 1700s by wealthy stone quarry owners..Hey Diddle Diddle The Cat and the Fiddle = The Cat and Fiddle public house, which is still trading....The cow jumped over the moon = the Half Moon pub, which ceased trading long ago. The little dog laughed to see such fun (The Setter Dog public house, which ceased trading in 2002, was built in 1740). And the dish ran away with the spoon (The Dish and Spoon public house, which in very recent years has changed its name, currently Peak View Tearooms). The pubs are about 6 miles apart. The I'm not surprised there was merriment and jumping over moons, fortified by strong ale!"

The Setter Dog, near the Setter Dog Pub


Little Miss Muffet
Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.


There is a theory that Miss Muffet was Patience, the daughter of Dr. Thomas Muffet, a 16th century entomologist. He had written a work in verse entitled 'The Silkworms and Their Flies' and was known as a man whose 'admiration for spiders has never been surpassed.'

The tuffet she sat upon was probably a small mound of earth but it was also the name of a three legged stool.

Curds and whey is a kind of junket formed from milk, the thick part being the curds, and the runnier, watery part being the whey.


Old woman who lived in a shoe
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
She had so many children she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
She whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.


This is a very old rhyme which first appeared in print (or at least a version of it) in 1797, so it may have some significance in folklore.

It was an ancient custom to throw a shoe after a bride when she left on her honeymoon as a blessing of fertility on the union. This may well be the reason for the old woman living 'in' the shoe and having lots of children, which may in turn be the reason why she was old.


Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.


This popular rhyme probably dates back to the Middle Ages, possibly to the 13th Century, and relates to a tax imposed by the king on wool. One-third went to the local lord (the 'master'), one-third to the church (referred to as the 'dame') and about a third was for the farmer (the 'little boy who lives down the lane').

It was used by Rudyard Kipling within his poem, The Gentlemen Rankers.

More recently it has been the subject of some controversy in the UK where nurseries are citing a 'rainbow' sheep instead of 'black' sheep, as an act of political correctness!!! I give up.......


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