The secrets behind nursery rhymes

Nursery rhymes seemed so innocent when we were children. A mouse runs up a clock, and an old lady lived in a shoe, but the deeper meaning behind these rhymes is not innocent as one might think.

“Ring Around the Rosy”, as many know, is specifically about the plague. The first line, “Ring around the rosy” describes the rash one got from catching the plague. A rosy colored rash appeared on the skin, with a dark ring around it. The second line, “pockets full of posies” signifies the pockets and pouches of herbs people would keep with them, thinking it would protect them from the plague. “Ashes ashes, we all fall down” refers to the death and cremation of those with the plague. In a different version, “ashes ashes” was replaced with “A-tishoo, a-tishoo” which imitated the violent sneezing also caused by the plague.

“Rock-a-bye-baby” is another sinister nursery rhyme about the death of a baby. The English nursery rhyme is about the son of King James II who was actually someone else’s child. The child was secretly brought into the birthing room, so that an heir was ensured to the throne. The “wind” in the nursery rhyme symbolizes the Protestant forces coming down from the Netherlands, and the cradle is the royal House of Stuart.

“Mary Mary quite contrary” is believed to be about Bloody Mary, or Mary Tudor Stuart. The second line “How does your garden grow” refers to the graveyard where Protestants who wouldn’t convert to Catholicism were laid to rest after being executed. The “silver bells” and “cockleshells” were believed to be torture devices used on males. “Three Blind Mice” is a continuation of Mary, Mary Quite Contrary about the three famous Catholic priests who tried to overthrow the queen. However, they were thrown onto a stake and burned to death.

“Goosey Goosey Gander” is about religious persecution, and the nursery rhyme doesn’t try and hide it. In the second verse it says “Then I met an old man / Who wouldn’t say his prayers; / I took him by the left leg / and threw him down the stairs.” The rhyme was published in 1784, where religious persecution of Catholics was prominent. The rhyme is blatantly obvious as “left-leggers” was a common term used against Catholics at the time.

Understanding the origins of these rhymes may make someone think twice before telling them to small children.