Toxic Rhymes

English rhymes that we would recognize today date back to the fourteenth century.  When free speech was frowned upon or punished severely, a nursery rhyme could innocently comment on or condemn real royal and political events and people.  Generally, rhymes associate words with similar sounds using a rhyming couplet or short verse. Rhymes are often short and easy to remember, so they could be shared easily.

     One of the oldest rhymes relates to the aftermath of the Black plague.  About one-third of the population of England had died from the plague that 1350.  Some of those who survived moved to the cities where they pursued various trades (the birth of the middle class).  Those peasants who remained realized the value of their work.  The following poem embodied their belief:

     When Adam delved* and Eve span**

     Who was then a gentleman?

                 *farmed     **reference to spinning

Other rhymes referred to more grisly doings.  For example,

     Ring around the rosy
     A pocketful of posies
     “Ashes, Ashes”
     We all fall down

  •  During the Great Plague of London in 1665, the symptoms of bubonic plague included a rosy red ring-shaped rash, which inspired the first line. It was believed that the disease was carried by bad smells, so people frequently carried pockets full of fresh herbs, or “posies.” The “ashes, ashes” line is believed to refer to the cremation of the bodies of those who died from the plague. 

     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.

  • This rhyme dates back to the English Civil War when a huge cannon named Humpty was mounted on top of a high wall-like church tower. During the Siege of Colchester, the tower was hit by enemy cannon fire and Humpty suffered a great fall. There was no fixing the cannon or the tower, and the Humpty Dumpty rhyme was born.

      Mary Mary quite contrary,
     How does your garden grow?
     With silver bells and cockle shells
     And pretty maids all in a row

  • This rhyme is a reference to Queen Mary of England (“Bloody Mary”), the oldest daughter of King Henry VIII. The garden refers to growing cemeteries the Catholic Mary filled them with Protestants. Silver bells and cockle shells were instruments of torture and the maiden was a device used to behead people (This reference to the Maiden is unusual because it wasn’t invented until after Mary’s death.)

     Rock-a-bye, baby,
     In the tree top.
     When the wind blows,
     The cradle will rock.
     When the bough breaks,
     The cradle will fall,
     And down will come baby,
     Cradle and all

  • This American rhyme refers to Indian mothers hanging cradles in trees. When the wind blew, the cradles would rock and the babies in them would sleep.                                

     Three blind mice. Three blind mice.
     See how they run. See how they run.
     They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
     Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
     Did you ever see such a sight in your life,
     As three blind mice?

  • Another Queen Mary rhyme.  When three Protestant bishops were convicted of plotting against Mary, she had them burnt at the stake (as well as several hundred other Protestants). However, it was mistakenly believed that she had them blinded, which didn’t happen.

 Tomorrow, Hoisted with One’s Own Petard             Rita Bay


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4 responses to “Toxic Rhymes

  1. Steve

    Fascinating! A great blog as usual and thanks.

  2. Years ago I saw on something, can’t remember what about Mary Mary Quite Contrary. That it referenced Mary Queen of Scots. Seems I remember that it referenced her being a vain woman who surrounded herself with only pretty ladies in waiting (maidens). And the cockle shells part was a jab at her ‘supposed’ infidelity to her husband-cuckold . I forget the rest.

    I’d never heard the origin of rockabye baby before. Makes it a little less morbid.

    • Hey, Mercy. Mary is mostly known for trying to return England to the Catholic faith. Both her mother and husband lived in Spain dominated by the Inquisition. Unfortunately, she was not past using their methods to achieve her goals. I didn’t write too much about it but the bells, cockles and maidens are all medieval torture devices. I don’t know, however, if she allowed them to be used. I believe they preferred the rack. Rita Bay

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