A couple of earlier posts looked at the history behind the nursery rhymes which have been recited by (and to) our children for many generations. Having already covered the majority, here are the few remaining:
Lavender Blue was recorded by a number over the years. Burl Ives was the first although probably best-known is that by Marillion, correctly adapted by Marillion. The earliest known reference dates from around 1680, where it was called Diddle Diddle or the Kind Country Lovers. This record interestingly states it should be sung to the tune of Lavenders Green, showing there was already a song in existence (albeit one with a different colour). Maybe this is not the song we should be teaching our children for, at least originally, it is entirely about sex and drink. Breaking down the original lyric it tells of how the man tells the woman she has to love him (because he loves her), that there is a vale nearby where she should lie down with him (simply because he desires it), and that she should also accept his dog. The more suitable modern version developed from around the early nineteenth century.
Little Boy Blue shares the blue colour but little else. The earliest written record comes from 1744, however this is thought to be much older. Some sources suggest this either comes from, or shares an origin in, Shakespeare’s King Lear. In Act III Scene VI, Mad Tom utters the lines: “Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd? Thy sheep be in the corn and for the blast of thy manikin mouth thy sheep shall take no harm.”
Staying with both ‘little’ and ‘Shakespeare’ themes we find Little Bo Peep. First seen in the early nineteenth century, it has been suggested there was a children’s game called Bo-Peep dating from the sixteenth century and one which was referred to in King Lear. However in Ninfield, East Sussex it is held Bo-Peep was their most famous resident of yesteryear. A smugglers’ stronghold locals believe she was paid to walk her sheep across the shore to hide the footprints of the smugglers.
Another ‘little’ character is Little Miss Muffet. Again this appears in print for the first time in the early nineteenth century, this in a book called Songs for the Nursery. Suggestions as to the origins are many, including that it refers to Mary, Queen of Scots, yet none have any credibility and the origins are a mystery. Reliable sources inform me one child some fifty or more years ago unwittingly rewrote the third line so it telling of how the young lady was “…..eating her curtains away.”
London Bridge is Falling Down is first seen in the middle of the eighteenth century. However this has nothing to do with London or England, indeed there are versions at least twice that age set in Denmark, Germany, France and Italy. It seems all will have a common origin, the known versions simply adaptations, yet without knowing what the original was it is impossible to give a meaning.
Mary Had A Little Lamb was the first line of an old rugby song I encountered in my rugby union days. The second line of “She kept it in a bucket” shows this had nothing to do with the nursery rhyme other than the first line and the tune. As a rhyme it was first published in 1830, and for once we know this is based on a real incident. One Mary Sawyer had a pet lamb and, egged on by her brother, took the animal to school when one John Roulstone was studying with his uncle, a minister, to prepare for college. Roulstone was delighted by the event and next day made a special journey on horseback to the old school to hand her a piece of paper. On that paper was written the three original stanzas of the poem entitled Mary Had A Little Lamb.
Monday’s Child first appears in print in 1830. This cannot be the origin for these early horoscope-style rhymes were known by the sixteenth century and probably much, much older.
Nuts in May is first recorded in a book entitled The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century. The title telling us it was already well established. It takes very little thought to see why nuts are not gathered in the month of May in the United Kingdom and thus it seems inevitable the title is a corruption – possibly of ‘knots of may’ which would them refer to small posies of may blossom, produced by the hawthorn. This is also the origin of the phrase “Ne’er cast a clout to may is out”, a reference to the appearance of may blossom and not the end of the month.
Old King Cole is generally accepted to recall a Welsh royal. The evidence said to be that Coel is a Brythonic name and records are found of a Coel Hen (Coel the Old) in Romano-British history. He is said to have been born in AD85 in Wales and died in Colchester in AD170, making him one of the oldest people in England at the time. While the significance of the bowl is unknown, the pipe and the fiddlers are almost certainly both musical and suggest the king was known for his musical talent.
Old Mother Hubbard first appears in print in 1805, the rhyme almost unchanged over the next two centuries. Many explanations have been offered and yet, if this is a political satire, it is a mystery as to what or whom is being satirized.
One, Two Buckle my shoe first appears in print in 1805. Unlikely to have ever been a meaning for what was one of many traditionally counting rhymes
One, Two, Three, Four, Five is another counting rhyme and, as with the previous example, likely has no hidden meaning. First published in the middle of the eighteenth century, it is interesting to note the original English version featured a hare instead of a fish.
Oranges and Lemons is a traditional children’s singing game, first published in the middle of the eighteenth century. It seems unlikely to have any of the gruesome origins usually attributed to it - Henry VIII’s wives, public execution, and even child sacrifice – for these rely on the last two lines: “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Chop, chop, chop, chop, the last man’s dead” and these lines are comparatively recent additions and are not seen in early printed versions. Thus this probably represents a tour of the churches of London although why is unclear.
Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker’s Man first appears in print in 1698, not as a stand alone verse but as lines in the play The Campaigners by Thomas D‘Urfey. The lines are spoken by a nurse to children and thus shows, even then, it was simply a child’s signing game. It is difficult to see it as anything else.
Pease Porridge Hot makes its debut in print in 1760, the origins are unknown but would have been ‘pottage’ and not ‘porridge’ originally.
Peter Piper is a toungue twister first published in 1813 by John Harris in his book Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation – a challenging title to read aloud. Earlier versions are unknown and could have been written solely for the work, in which case the subject may be eighteenth century Mauritian administrator Peter Poivre, who examined the possibility of using the Seychelles for cultivating spices.
Polly Put the Kettle On is first mentioned in print in 1841, when Charles Dickens speaks of it in his work Barnaby Rudge. The tune, if not the lyric, was known in 1770 while the earliest versions speak of ‘Molly’ and not ‘Polly’. It would seem this is simply a children’s song from the Georgian era, when middle class English families would use Polly as a pet form of Mary and Sukey for Susan.
Pop Goes the Weasel has a number of printed references, all in the first half of the 1850s and nothing earlier. This may be sufficient proof the rhyme was written around this time. Much has been suggested regarding its origins which would certainly be from London. Indeed the Eagle public house still stands on the corner of City Road, as mentioned in the lyric which can be found on a plaque inside the pub to this day. Ironically every suggestion as to the origin always meets the same obstacle, the title and first line which has never been understood.
Rain Rain Go Away seems a perfect rhyme for British weather and can be traced back to at least the seventeenth century. However this is not solely British for it is common to many much older cultures including the ancient Greeks.
Thus ends the third and final look at the beginnings of traditional nursery rhymes.
I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. Feel free to drop me a line.