You Are At: AllSands Home > History > Objects > History of nursery rhymes
Everyone grew up with the well-known set of nursery rhymes, such as Jack and Jill, or Peter Peter, Pumpkin Eater, and all the others. The visual imagery invoked by these stories is vivid, such as three blind mice running away from a madwoman with a knife, while Jack made a wild leap over a flaming candle. Best of all for wild imagery, however, would have to be Hey Diddle Diddle.

But these nursery rhymes, most of them, came from historical events or situations. Most of the most popular ones came from British politics, in fact, and were invented as a way of spreading gossip about royalty. And while these rumors and stories have no bearing on our lives anymore, the rhymes they produced have lived on in our lives.

Mind you, a lot of these histories are subject to interpretation. Every rumor about where a story came from is just that, another rumor. You may have heard different stories of where these started, and you may be right.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her,
Put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her, very well.

My personal favorite. Peter was a poor man who had an unfaithful wife. She kept cheating on him (couldn’t keep her), so he had to find a way to stop her running around. His solution, fairly common in the middle ages, was a chastity belt (pumpkin shell). For those who don’t know, a chastity belt is roughly a pair of metal underwear with lock and key, so that no one could enter the private region of the woman except whoever held the key, usually her husband. And as the rhyme goes, once her put her in that belt, he kept her very well.

Ring around the rosies,
Pocket full of posies,
Ashes, ashes,
We all fall down.

This one is very sick, and perhaps the most well known story behind the rhyme. This was about one of the black plagues, where symptoms included circles around the eyes (ring around the rosies), and coughing up dried blood from the lungs, resembling ashes. The pocket full of posies was a medieval belief that posies held some curative measures against the plague, so carrying around that flower would keep you safe. Finally, the last line spells out the unavoidable ending to the story, of everyone falling down, dead.

Three men in a tub;
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick-maker;
Turn 'em out, knaves all three!

I like this one. Why would these three men be sharing a bath? Latent homosexuality, maybe? Not enough water for three individual baths? No, this is a case of not hearing the whole joke, just the punchline. The part of the story we aren’t getting was the setting. A fair side-show, where three young, beautiful women were sitting in a bath-tub, entertaining a mostly male audience, when three of the men jumped up and climbed in with the girls, to be promptly thrown out again by the fair manager. Just three, horny, working folk. Oh and maybe the tub is in reference to some old boat called a curragh or coracle, but that's not as fun is it?

Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick,
Jack jump over,
The candlestick,

This one doesn’t have any intrigue or politics in it, just part of a celebration. Though fire jumping draws its root from the pagan tradition, this nursery rhyme is in reference to the tradition in wedding celebrations. During the festivities, a candle was set up, and people took turns trying to jump over the candle. If you extinguished the flame, you were due for a year of bad luck, but if the candle remained lit, a year of good luck was to follow. Of course, another part of wedding celebrations was drinking alcohol, so the people who got really drunk would likely be the people stuck with the bad luck.

As you can see, almost every nursery rhyme has a story behind it. Humpty Dumpty was actually King Richard III, and the famous farmer’s wife from the Three Blind Mice was supposedly Queen Mary I. Baa Baa Black Sheep was about taxation, and The Old Woman Who Lived In a Shoe was referring to the British Empire trying to control its colonies.

Yet children year after year recite these stories, not knowing the original joke or gossip hidden within, not really caring is Jack Sprat was King Charles I. The fake stories that we invent for the rhyme now are much more fun, anyway.