The Not-So-Innocent Origins of Nursery Rhymes

When you picture dark storylines, Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King and H P Lovecraft come immediately to mind- however the nursery rhyme, Mary Mary, Quite Contrary, with a not-so-innocent origin can’t be too far behind.
Here is a list of some nursery rhymes poems which have some of the darkest origins.

Baa Baa Black Sheep: Although many English Literature scholars are in agreement that the nursery rhyme is a reference to the tax on wool introduced in 1275 called the Great Custom, many believe that the use of the words ‘master’ and ‘black’ might not have a more racially discriminating origin. In the later part of the 20th century many schools banned the poem Baa Baa Black Sheep which further called into question the origins of the nursery rhyme- many of the academic institutions simply replaced the word black with a less offensive term and reported the spread of the term Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep as a substitute.

baa baa black sheep

Jack and Jill: Many believe that the poem refers to Frances Louise XVI and his queen Mary Antoinette who were beheaded due to treason. However, the poem Jack and Jill was written 1765, nearly 30 years before this event occurred. Scholars believe that a better possibility is the account of King Charles I attempt at tax reformation on liquid measures. After he was refused by the Parliament, he ensured that the volume was reduced on half and quarter pints, known as jack and gills accordingly.

Mary Mary Quite Contrary: Mary Mary Quite Contrary is one of the most famous English nursery rhymes for kids and reads like a request for advise on gardening- however in reality, it’s a recount of the murderous nature of Queen Mary I of England also known as Bloody Mary. A believer of Catholicism to the point of fanaticism, the era of 1553 to 1558 was marked by the execution of hundreds of Protestants. The terms ‘silver bells’ and ‘cockle shells’ refer to torture deices not gardening ornaments!

Ring Around the Rosie: The Ring Around the Rosie has one of the most infamous backstories- its most popular connotation refers to the Great Plague of London in 1665 that created a rosy rash on the diseased person- the smell from the rash was covered up by placing posies in ones pockets. The plague killed about 15% of England’s population which makes the last verse Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down quite self-explanatory.

However others have contested this explanation, saying that the nursery rhyme referred to the religious ban on dancing among Protestants in the 19th century. Adolescents in the USA and America found a loophole in the ban by suggesting ring games that lacked musical accoutrements but otherwise were a copy of square dances. These play-parties were a big hit in the USA!

Although a lot of these nursery rhymes have posed as innocent non-sense ditties, a lot of them are reference to actual historical events or are kids moral stories. To know more nursery rhymes go to our online learning website for kids.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.