2015-06-16

On Nursery Rhymes


What's the truth about Mother Goose
The rhymes that children learn today
Let's read the signs between the lines
Conduct a thorough exposé
In The Truth About Mother Goose (1957), Disney apparently explained the origins of some old nursery rhymes: Little Jack Horner, Mary, Mary Quite Contrary and London Bridge is Falling Down. The explanations are colourful, memorable, and patently untrue. Thomas Horner, the last abbot of Glastonbury, purchased his estate from the abbey (and if any foul deeds did occur in the trade, they were nothing near the silliness of the Disney version). Bridge-related rhymes were popular in several countries, featuring named or unnamed bridges. When England got such a rhyme imported, it was an obvious choice to let it be about the most famous bridge of the country. (I prefer an equally false though much better story, going back all the way to 1014.) As for Mary, we'll return to her in a moment.

When science or history is popularized, it's simplified to be manageable by the lay person, a very delicate process indeed. When the result is aimed for children it have to be simplified even more. But it must never, ever be erroneous; "simple" must not, and doesn't have to, be code for "dumbed down", nor "less correct". Disney made a number of far superior attempts in other fields, like Man in Space (1955). Today, we run into stuff on this level on channels like History Channel and Discovery, not to mention countless sites on the net.

Including, as it turns out, BBC Culture.
Plague, medieval taxes, religious persecution, prostitution: these are not exactly the topics that you expect to be immersed in as a new parent. But probably right at this moment, mothers of small children around the world are mindlessly singing along to seemingly innocuous nursery rhymes that, if you dig a little deeper, reveal shockingly sinister backstories.
- Clemency Burton-Hill, The dark side of nursery rhymes, BBC Culture, 11 June 2015

Burton-Hill correctly notes that "the canon of classics that we still hear today" began to emerge in the 18th century. But she adds that "the roots probably go back even further". On this basis, and with the help of people who might or might not have said the things she claim she have heard, she goes on to present the supposed backgrounds for several well known rhymes.
To unpick the meanings behind the rhymes is to be thrust into a world not of sweet princesses and cute animals but of messy clerical politics, religious violence, sex, illness, murder, spies, traitors and the supernatural. A random sample of 10 popular nursery rhymes shows this.
No, she doesn't show this, since she doesn't give us the historical evidence. (The following text assumes knowledge of the nursery rhymes in question, lack of which is easily rectified.)
Baa Baa Black Sheep is about the medieval wool tax, imposed in the 13th Century by King Edward I.
The earliest known version of this rhyme is from 1731. If it's older, it haven't been shown, and if it refers to a wool tax imposed 600 years earlier, it have certainly not been shown. One uncorroborated (that is, with no foundation whatsoever) hypothesis is that it refers to taxes; according to a considerably spicier hypothesis, it's about slave trade. Considering they are equally uncorroborated it's surprising Burton-Hill didn't pick the latter one.

For an even more outrageous interpretation, equally baseless though with the benefit of not being made seriously, one can turn to Terry Eagleton. In How to Read Literature he spent a considerable space to an elaborate analysis of what "Baa baa" really means. (I haven't read it.)

Wikipedia: Baa, Baa, Black Sheep
Ring a Ring o Roses, or Ring Around the Rosie, may be about the 1665 Great Plague of London
"May" be... The first known version is from the 18th century. The plague explanation didn't appear until 1951. Folklorists reject it for a number of reasons, in particular (I'd say) because the modern version, in which Burton-Hill finds convincing details about the plague, isn't the original one. It certainly does not date back to 1665, or even earlier outbreaks of the Black Death. What the unknown authors were thinking of is anybody's guess, not to be confused with anybody's fact.

Wikipedia: Ring a Ring o' Roses
Rock-a-bye Baby refers to events preceding the Glorious Revolution. The baby in question is supposed to be the son of King James II of England, but was widely believed to be another man's child, smuggled into the birthing room to ensure a Roman Catholic heir.
King James II was suspected for being pro-French and pro-Catholic. When he got a son with his Catholic wife the prospect of a Catholic dynasty was one of several reasons "The Glorious Revolution" took place in 1688: The king was thrown out of the country. There was indeed a rumour that the actual child had been stillborn, and that young James Francis Edward Stuart had been smuggled in to provide the royal couple with a Catholic heir (funny how religion is hereditary). The earliest printed version does indeed have a footnote, "This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last". Burton-Hill doesn't mention that the footnote is from ca 1765 which gives the impression of a general, possibly satirical, advice rather than a coded description of a specific event that took place several generations earlier. Just to name one of four explanations posted on the Wikipedia article, which sounds more or less convincing but none of which with any historical evidence.

Wikipedia: Rock-a-bye Baby
Mary, Mary Quite Contrary may be about Bloody Mary, daughter of King Henry VIII and concerns the torture and murder of Protestants.
Again, "may" be; so anything goes? Mary Stuart lived, reigned and was executed in the 16th century. "Mary, Mary" was first published 200 years later. How do we know that the obscure text refers to her? As always, the rhyme could be older, but again, no evidence has been found (as reported by Iona and Peter Opie, the top authorities in the wonderful field of truly scientific studies of nursery rhymes). There is equally little proof of the benign interpretation found in the Disney film above, where the "silver bells" refer to her lavish French dresses rather than thumbscrews. And there is equally little proof for the idea that "Mary" is actually Mary I, the line "How does your garden grow?" referring to the lack of heirs; it's just another guess.

Wikipedia: Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Goosey Goosey Gander is another tale of religious persecution but from the other side: it reflects a time when Catholic priests would have to say their forbidden Latin-based prayers in secret – even in the privacy of their own home.
Fascinating! But is it true? If it is true, how do we know it?
According to amateur historian Chris Roberts, the rhyme is heavily linked to the propaganda campaign against the Catholic Church during the reign of King Henry VIII. However, there is no corroborative evidence to support this claim.
- Wikipedia: Goosey Goosey Gander

I haven't read Roberts Heavy Words Lightly Thrown (2006) but feel compelled to. He is described as "a librarian by night and a London tour guide by day", with a knack for storytelling and inventing/retelling memorable stories with ties to history and London; in short, an excellent tour guide and a dangerously bad historian. His work should not be treated as a serious work and was possibly not conceived as such; maybe he's pulling our legs.

As for Goosey Gander, the earliest known version was printed in 1784. Why it would reflect events taking place centuries earlier is not known. Again, elaborate explanations have been thought out creating a make-believe origin history, examples of which can be found on the scientifically naïve Catholicism Pure & Simple: Three Nursery Rhymes With Surreptitiously Sinister Origins. Because yet again, there is not a iota of evidence.
Ladybird, Ladybird is also about 16th Century Catholics in Protestant England and the priests who were burned at the stake for their beliefs.
Isn't there any nursery rhyme that isn't "really" about death, dark deeds and taxes? Again, Ladybird is known from 1744, and if was written with burned priests in mind, there isn't the slightest trace of trustworthy evidence for it. The wild idea is rare enough not to be mentioned on Wikipedia. Other sources (see the Catholic blog above) identify the ladybird with the Virgin Mary.
Lucy Locket is about a famous spat between two legendary 18th Century prostitutes.
Unusually enough, this origin myth is as old as the printed version: It was thought out by the same man who in 1842 first recorded it for posteriority, James Halliwell-Phillipps. He suggested the short rhyme was about "two celebrated courtesans of the time of Charles II" (who lived in the 17th century). Kitty Fisher was indeed a celebrity of the 18th century, very well known for her many affairs with famous and wealthy men. As for Lucy, we're out of luck. The Beggar's Opera premiered in 1728 and does feature a Lucy Lockit, who wasn't a courtesan at all; maybe it's a coincidence, maybe her name was reused in the rhyme. Maybe Halliwell-Phillipps confused the actual courtesan and the fictional character.
Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush originated, according to historian RS Duncan, at Wakefield Prison in England, where female inmates had to exercise around a mulberry tree in the prison yard.
Duncan is a local historian who published his findings privately. This doesn't, of course, imply that he is wrong. However, in this case he found a local tale about a specific mulberry bush which happens to grow near the old, big and very well known prison. It was, supposedly, originally part of the prison. In another version it wasn't the female inmates but children (of the inmates and/or the staff?) who danced around the bush and sang (even in the oldest sources it's not just a song but an activity). In either case, it's a cool tale with a link to something tangible, which shouldn't be examined too carefully lest it break apart; in other words, it's a typical example of a tour guide myth, of the kind Chris Roberts appear to be an expert. History it is certainly not. One could describe it as a kind of very intellectual nursery rhymes: Memorable yet nonsensical.

Wikipedia: Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush
Oranges and Lemons follows a condemned man en route to his execution – "Here comes a chopper / To chop off your head!" – past a slew of famous London churches [...]
Again, Burton-Hill could have chosen an even grislier interpretation.
Various theories have been advanced to account for the rhyme, including: that it deals with child sacrifice; that it describes public executions; that it describes Henry VIII's marital difficulties. Problematically for these theories the last two lines, ["...To chop off your head!"] with their different metre, do not appear in the earlier recorded versions of the rhyme, including the first printed in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book (c. 1744)
- Wikipedia: Oranges and Lemons

Also, the churches involved differ in different versions, as could be expected in a piece of "living verse" where the children, wherever they happened to live, inserted their local churches. Explanations have of course been dreamt up for the many rhymes; the oranges and lemons supposedly refering to the fruit unloaded at the wharves near St Clemens, the farthings of St Martin to moneylenders in the vicinity, Shoreditch being a poor area and thus the "when I grow rich" etc.
Pop Goes The Weasel is an apparently nonsensical rhyme that, upon subsequent inspection, reveals itself to in fact be about poverty, pawnbroking, the minimum wage – and hitting the Eagle Tavern on London’s City Road.
"Apparently nonsensical" sounds like a problem. When you're trying to read in things that aren't there, it's actually the other way: The less apparent sense the words make, the easier it is to invent a deeper meaning. Consequently, there are a multitude of suggestions regarding this rhyme. Is the weasel a flat iron, a hatter's tool, a mechanism in a spinning machine, a piece of silver, Cockney for eating and drinking, or even an actual weasel? Burton-Hill have decided to go for an interpretation where "pop! goes the weasel" means "pawn the coat".
Other than correspondences [ie apparent similarities], none of these theories has any additional evidence to support it, and some can be discounted because of the known history of the song. Iona and Peter Opie observed that, even at the height of the dance craze in the 1850s, no-one seemed to know what the phrase meant.
- Wikipedia: Pop Goes the Weasel

The dance craze? The song began as a tune without lyrics in 1853. It got wildly popular in the dance scene, and of course it didn't take long until a text was added. As far as anyone who have really studied the subject has found, the text never made any sense and, with all likelihood, wasn't supposed to; neither more nor less so than innumerable other songs.

But who knows? Maybe people in a few centuries will try to conjure the "real", dark meanings of hits like Never Gonna Give You Up, Blue (Da Ba Dee) or some lyrics someone possibly have already written for Axel F. Just like they did with Louie Louie ...

Is it possible to come up with a rhyme that nobody can relate to anything? The answer is no. People are really good at finding patterns, even where there are no patterns. With a little imagination and what history one can find on cereal boxes, pretty much anyone who doesn't care about historical truth can create an interpretation of anything, whether it's there or not.

3 kommentarer:

Anonym sa...

”[F]unny how religion is hereditary[.]”
Before the Enlightment people seem to have taken for granted that all ideas and skills were hereditary in a biological sense. At least the ones you could not remmeber having made an efort to learn yourself (as a person). Incidentely, it was about the time of “The Glorious Revolution” that some people strated to question it.

Anonym sa...

”Isn't there any nursery rhyme that isn't 'really' about death, dark deeds and taxes?”
Some people see a sinister meaning behind every traditional expression they think about just because it is traditional.

Christian sa...

"People are really good at finding pattern, even where there are no patterns."

The below are the lyrics to Elton John's "Solar Prestige a Gammon", a song with completely nonsensical lyrics by Bernie Taupin. One of the first things pointed out about the lyrics is that they contain several types of fish which must mean something. :)

Oh ma cameo molesting
Kee pa a poorer for tea
Solar prestige a gammon
Lantern or turbert paw kwee

Solar prestige a gammon
Kool kar kyrie kay salmon
Har ring molassis abounding
Common lap kitch sardin a poor floundin

Cod ee say oo pay a loto
My zeta prestige toupay a floored
Ray indee pako a gammon
Solar prestige a pako can nord