The Dark, Dark Past of…. Nursery Rhymes??

Remember those sweet little nursery rhymes you used to sing as a child? I have been recently researching just a few and have discovered that these much loved children’s classics are a lot darker than they first appear.

Ring a Ring a Rosy

This old English rhyme dates back to 1665 London when the Black Death (or Bubonic Plague) struck the streets of London. The first line of the rhyme, ‘Ring a Ring a Rosy’ was referring to one of the symptoms of the plague. Victims of the Black Death would discover a red rash on their skin in rings, making their skin ‘Rosy.’ People during this era believed that the disease was passed via bad smells and therefore filled their pockets with sweet smelling herbs, more commonly known as ‘Posies’. The next line, ‘Ashes, Ashes’ refers to the dead bodies that were cremated. The plague was extremely contagious and the death toll rose to an appalling 60%! I can imagine people thought it was never going to end but finally in 1666 it was brought to a close but only due to another great disaster, The Great Fire of London. This could also be what the rhyme is referring to when it says, ‘Ashes, Ashes’. Many of you may be reading this and thinking, ‘How could a fire stop a plague?’ It turned out that the rats that roamed London were carrying the disease were burned during the great fire which stopped the disease spreading onto more people. The last line of the Nursery Rhyme, ‘A-tishoo, A-tishoo, we all fall down’, is referring to another symptom violent sneezing. The last and most horrific line of them all is telling us of them dying (falling down) as they fell to their death.

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary:

As a child this was always one of my favourite Nursery Rhymes because it was featured in the film, ‘The Secret Garden’, but little did I know it was so violent. The Mary in this rhyme refers to Queen Mary the First who was later nick named ‘Bloody Mary’. The rhyme is based around her grave yard of slain Protestants, as you can guess Mary was a devout Catholic during a time of religious turmoil. The Cockleshells and Silver bells symbolise torture devices whilst the ‘Pretty maids all in a row’ refer to the predecessor of the guillotine, ‘The Maiden’. Not what I expected Mary’s garden to be like at all!


Jack and Jill:

Remember those two innocent children who went up the hill to fetch a pale of water? Many people believe that the second verse of the poem was added to make the rhyme understandably, more child friendly. It is thought that Jack represents King Louis who lost his crown by being beheaded and that Jill was representing Marie Antoinette whose head came tumbling after. What would possess a person to write a poem about to victims of the guillotine disguised as children?

Know you can see that Nursery Rhymes are not all they seem to be….



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