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Origins: Little Miss Muffet

Mary, Queen of Scots, c.1565, artist unknown

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider
That sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

First published in Songs for the Nursery in 1805, there are two spurious theories regarding the origins of the rhyme.

The first concerns physician and entomologist Dr. Thomas Muffet, a staunch Puritan who observed his daughter frightened away from her cheesy meal by a visiting arachnid; the second concerns Mary, Queen of Scots.

The tale goes that Protestant reformer John Knox, all round unpleasant fellow and the spider of the rhyme made an enemy of the Queen with the publication of The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558), with which he intended to demonstrate,

how abominable before God is the Empire or Rule of a wicked woman, yea, of a traiteresse and bastard

from The First Blast of the Trumpet

Knox was enormously influential in Scotland. His sermons regularly involved castigation of Mary, and his influence aided growing animosity toward her. When her nobles rebelled against her, Mary fled to England where her cousin, Elizabeth I, was less than welcoming and kept her under house arrest for nineteen years. So much for sorority. The rhyme, then, is a playful suggestion that, had Mary got Knox on her side, things could have been very different.

A period of 350 years passes between the events of Mary, Queen of Scots reign and the first publication of the rhyme. It’s likely that, were the two connected, reference would have been made significantly earlier than 1805. Little Miss Muffet seems destined for the ‘we don’t really know where this came from’ file box.

Fun fact: We don’t actually know for certain what a tuffet is. Though it’s often supposed to be a stout, three-legged stool, the truth is that Little Miss Muffet contains the only instance of the use of the word in historic English. If the word is a medieval term for a stool, a second appearence of the word is yet to be found.

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4 responses »

  1. I always thought a ‘tuffet’ was a variant spelling of ‘tuft’, i.e. a clump of grass. Though I suppose that would make her Little Miss Muft.

    Reply
  2. purplerabbits

    Mary Queen of Scots was Elizabeth’s second cousin, not her sister. Not that that makes having her executed very much better…

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Origins: Polly Put the Kettle On | TreasuryIslands

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