Friday, August 15, 2008

The truth about nursery rhymes

An interesting article sheds light on the background to some well-known nursery rhymes.

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

The real Humpty Dumpty was not a person but a powerful cannon used by the Royalist forces during the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651.

Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle led the King's men and overpowered the Parliament stronghold of Colchester early in 1648. They grimly held on while the Parliamentarians, led by Thomas Fairfax, encircled and besieged the town.

The supporters of Charles I almost won the day - all thanks to his doughtiest defender, Humpty Dumpty. In pole position, as it were, on top of the church tower of St Mary-at-the-Walls (Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall) their gunners managed to blast away the attacking Roundhead troops for 11 weeks.

Eventually, though, the top of the church tower was blown away, sending Humpty Dumpty crashing to the ground, where it buried itself in deep marshland (Humpty Dumpty had a great fall).

The king's cavalry (the horses) and the infantry (the men) hurried to retrieve the cannon, but they couldn't put Humpty together again - and without their weapon of mass destruction they were soon overrun by Fairfax and his soldiers.

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

Taken at face value, the rhyme doesn't make sense. Why do Jack and Jill go up the hill to fetch water? Water generally runs downhill, so perhaps it's a cover story for something else.

A small village in Somerset has laid claim to the origin of the rhyme. The story told in Kilmersdon is that during 1697 the village was home to a young unmarried couple who did a lot of their courting up on a hill, away from the prying eyes of the local gossips.

Consequently Jill became pregnant, but just before the baby was born Jack was killed by a rock that fell off the hill and landed on his head. Only days later, Jill also died in childbirth. It's cheery stuff.

The rhyme is today depicted on a series of tablet stones along the path to the hill.

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

The final line of this rhyme until 1765 went like this: 'And none for the little boy who cries down the lane.' It is thought it was changed to make it more pleasant for young ears.

But the original version is at the heart of the meaning of the rhyme, which, unsurprisingly enough, is all about sheep.

Sheep have always been important to the rural economy, and by 1260, some flocks consisted of as many as 8,000 animals, tended by a dozen full-time shepherds.

When Edward I returned from his crusading in 1272, he imposed new taxes on wool to fund his military campaigns. It was this wool tax that is said to be the basis of the rhyme.

One-third of the price of each sack must go to the King (the master); one-third to the Church or the monasteries (the dame); and none to the actual shepherd (the little boy who cries down the lane).

Rather than being a gentle song about sharing things out fairly, it's a bitter reflection on how brutal life was for the working classes.

Interesting indeed! There are more nursery rhyme "background stories" at the link.



Vinnie said...

Black sheep were used s a counting tool, so many black sheep per hundred. that way shepherds only had to count the black ones. Black wool is always kept separate and sheep shearers(like I was) set aside earnings for black sheep for "whores and bartenders and ladies of the evening". By tradition.

Dana said...

How very interesting!