Do you sing to your grandkids about beheadings, poverty and disease?

nursery rhymes

Don’t you just love entertaining your grandkids with nursery rhymes? In that glorious period before they discover pop music and start listening to unintelligible singers with names that include punctuation marks, nursery rhymes are songs you can can soothe them with, teach to them and sing together.

Most of the nursery rhymes we know and love come from the mid-18th century and have been passed down from mothers to babies ever since. But although they might seem like a bit of fun today, it’s worth remembering that many of today’s nursery rhymes have pretty sinister meanings.

“A lot of children’s literature has a very dark origin,” says Seth Lerer from the University California, San Diego. “Nursery rhymes are part of long-standing traditions of parody and a popular political resistance to high culture and royalty”.

Clemency Burton-Hill, presenter of the BBC’s Culture Show writes, “In a time when to caricature royalty or politicians was punishable by death, nursery rhymes proved a potent way to smuggle in coded or thinly veiled messages in the guise of children’s entertainment. In largely illiterate societies, the catchy singsong melodies helped people remember the stories and, crucially, pass them on to the next generation. Whatever else they may be, nursery rhymes are a triumph of the power of oral history. And the children merrily singing them to this day remain oblivious to the meanings contained within”.

Most of us are familiar with the fact that Ring-a-Rosie is about the Great Plague of London– “rosie” being the distinct rash of the disease, the posies used to mask the smell of the dead and 15 per cent of the population falling down. Here’s a handful of other favourite nursery rhymes and the dark history upon which they are based:

Pop Goes the Weasel

No one knows for sure, but a commonly held belief is that this song is about pawing everything you’ve got for a drink. “Weasel” in this interpretation is rhyming slang for “coat”, which is “popped” or pawned. In the third verse, one assumes “In and out the Eagle” refers to a pub.

Mary Mary Quite Contrary

Not to be mistaken for a nice bit of gardening advice, this ditty refers to Bloody Mary, the daughter of King Henry VIII, who was a devout Catholic. Her garden refers to the graveyards filled with Protestants, the cockle shells and silver bells are believed to be implements of torture.

Oranges and Lemons

Have you played this game? Two people link arms to create a “tunnel” for the other kids to pass through. They have to be quick or they’ll get “chop, chop, chopped”. It’s all fun and games until you realise the kids are a condemned man walking past various churches, such as St Clements, on his way to execution.

Rock-a-bye baby

The baby in this rhyme is allegedly the son of King James II, who was widely believed to have been switched at birth so England would have a Roman Catholic heir. The wind in this case would be the protestant forces blowing in from the Netherlands, the doomed cradle the Royal House. Apparently the first time this song appeared in print it was accompanied by the words, “This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last”.

Georgie Porgie

Perhaps the most literal of the bunch, this nursery rhyme is about a homosexual womaniser called George Villiers, who had his way with a string of noble woman while (not so secretly) having an affair with King James I.

Although they may have dark undertones, nursery rhymes play a very important role in bonding, language development and literacy. What’s more, a recent study at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London found singing nursery rhymes to children in the wards reduced their heart rates significantly, and helped them feel less pain.

Tell us, what are your favourite nursery rhymes and do you sing them to your grandkids?

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