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Origins: Jack and Jill

Banksy - Jack and Jill (2005)

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down
And broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

A second and third verse, now less widely known, follow:

Up Jack got, and home he trot
As fast as he could caper,
To old Dame Dob
who patched his nob
With vinegar and brown paper.

Then Jill came in, and she did grin,
To see Jack’s paper plaster;
Her mother whipt (sic.) her
Across her knee
For laughing at Jack’s disaster.

The second and third verses of this ditty were probably added in the early ninteenth century, when the narrative was published as a chapbook.

As is so often the case, Jack and Jill has attracted competing romantic theories as to its origin. In 1866, Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould offered this suggestion in Curious Myths of the Middle Ages:

This verse, which to us seems at first sight to be nonsense, I have no hesitation in saying has a high antiquity, and refers to Eddaic Hjuki and Bill. The names indicate as much. Hjuki, in Norse, would be pronounced Juki, which would readily become Jack; and Bill, for the sake of euphony, and in order to give a female name to one of the children, would become Jill.

[…]

[Hjuki and Bill] signify the waxing and waning of the moon, and the water they are represented as bearing signifies the fact that the rainfall depends on the phases of the moon.

Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1996), p 199-200

In 1947 Lewis Spence ponders that the rhyme may be about a religious rite or ritual if only because no one would climb to the top of a hill for water unless the water was of some special significance. That it may simply be that hill is a handy rhyme for Jill seems to have escaped the notice of scholars desperate to find in the rhyme some deeper meaning.

It is not known who first offered the frankly ridiculous suggestion that Jack and Jill are in fact Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, with the Jack’s broken crown being the of the regal variety rather than the anatomical one. Another, similarly regal, suggestion involves Charles I, who sought to raise money through a series of tax reforms. He demanded that half a pint of beer, known as a ‘jack’ be reduced in volume while keeping the tax the same. As a consequence  a quarter pint, or gill, was also smaller in volume. This theory is often presented as fact, though it’s unlikely there is any truth in it.

The first publication of nursery rhyme as we know it is, as is so often the case, in Mother Goose’s Melody in 1760, but the use of the names Jack and Jill in tandem has a long history as a term for a generic boy and girl, appearing twice in Shakespeare (Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and in Skelton’s (1460?-1529) morality play Magnificence:

What availeth lordship, yourself for to kill
With care and with thought how Jack shall have Gill.

The term itself is likely older still. So, Jack and Jill are no one in particular. It follows, then, that the rhyme commemorates no particular event and exists simply as an entertainment. Morality lessons can be drawn from the extended versions of the rhyme that appeared in the early eighteenth century – a feature of the age – but the original lyric features nothing of the sort.

4 responses »

  1. interesting, I hadn’t come across the thrid verse I don’t think but we always included the second verse when I was a kid, with the slight variant of the middle couplet being ‘He went to bed/ To mend his head’.

    The Oxford edition of AMND suggests Tilley’s Dictionary of Proverbs (A164) for an entry on ‘Jack and Jill’ as generic male and female names.

    Kaye

    Reply
  2. There’s an inconsistency: “The second and third verses of this ditty were probably added in the early eighteenth century, when the narrative was published as a chapbook.” Versus: “The first publication of nursery rhyme as we know it is, as is so often the case, in Mother Goose’s Melody in 1760.” Might you have meant the 19th rather than 18th century?

    Reply

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