8 dark origins of classic nursery rhymes you didn’t know about
We liked hearing them sung as little children, and now parents like singing them to their own children. More than their catchy melodies, their simple and repetitive structure makes these children’s poetry infinitely fun to sing.
But did you know that most of them have such dark themes and origins? Because they could be traced back as early as the medieval ages, most of them are influenced by the time period—and the past is not known to be a period filled with rainbows and butterflies.
Here are 8 popular nursery rhymes with dark origins.
1. Baa Baa Black Sheep
A song about the Great Custom (a tax on wool that was introduced in 1275), scholars believe that the rhyme’s usage of the color black as well as the word “master” hints at the racial issue of slavery. In fact, schools banned the song from being sung in classroom during the late 20th century, when the issue of racism was put front and center in the consciousness of the world.
2. Jack and Jill
A popular theory believes that this rhyme concerns France’s Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who were both found guilty of treason and subsequently beheaded. But those events occurred nearly 30 years after “Jack and Jill” was first written; a more plausible origin would be the account of King Charles I’s rejected tax reform on liquid measures—the alternative to which was reducing the volume on half- and quarter-pints, known as jacks and gills.
3. London Bridge is Falling Down
It is widely believed that “London Bridge is Falling Down” alludes to the destruction of London Bridge at the hands of Olaf II of Norway some time in the early 1000s. It is also believed that the song’s popularity was the Vikings’ doing, bringing the song to the places they traveled.
There’s also a theory that says the bridge must be built on a foundation of human sacrifice in order to keep it upright, and those humans—most of which were children—would he watch over the bridge. Which we’re pretty sure isn’t a practice they teach you in architecture school.
On the next page, find out the scary foundation under the London Bridge
4. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
The origin of this famous English rhyme is downright bloody—and that’s because it’s literally about Bloody Mary herself, Queen Mary I of England. A stout and rigid follower of Catholicism, she was famous for ordering the executions of hundreds of Protestants between 1553 to 1558.
How does your garden grow? / With cockle shells and silver bells—these lines talk about torture devices, not garden accouterments.
5. Three Blind Mice
Another rhyme about Queen Mary I, “Three Blind Mice” is about the three Protestant bishops she had burned at the stake for heresy. The three bishops—Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer—also conspired to overthrow the queen but was unsuccessful. The mice’s “blindness” alludes to the bishops’ religious beliefs.
6. Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo
This popular rhyme was a reference to slavery, with the original script that goes like, eeny meeny miny mo / catch a n*gger by his toe. This rhyme was notoriously taught in American schools in the late 1800s.
Although the more recent versions of this song have switched the offensive N-word to “tiger,” the rhyme can still be viewed as offensive to some. In fact in 2004 two passengers sued Southwest Airlines after a flight attendant said the rhyme (eeny meeny miny mo / please sit down it's time to go) at takeoff.
7. Here We Go Round the Mullberry Bush
“Here We Go Round the Mullberry Bush” is a song sung as a part of a children’s game, but it’s at all about children. Historian R.S. Duncan, also a former governor or England’s Wakefield Prison, said that the song refers to the 420-year-old prison’s female prisoners who used to exercise around a mulberry tree—not exactly the picture conjured in children minds.
8. Rock-a-bye Baby
One of the most famous and widely sung children’s rhyme, Rock-a-Bye Baby has many interpretations. But perhaps one most accepted of which is that the song is about King James II of England and Mary of Modena’s son. Local mythology has it that their child was not really theirs, but someone passed off as their own to secure a Catholic into the throne.
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