There was an old woman who lived in a shoe;
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth,without any bread,
Then whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed.
This rhyme is interesting for the revisionism it has undergone, as well as its possible meaning. The earliest extant printing of the rhyme is in Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1794), where the final line reads ‘She whipp’d all their bums, and sent them to bed’, a more graphic line than the one we’re used to.
In more recent years printed versions have substituted ‘kissed them all soundly’ in the closing line, bowdlerising the verse completely and stripping it of sense. It’s seems, though, that we’re not getting the whole story with these lines. Infant Institutes, published just four years after Gamer Gurton’s Garland, has an additional couplet:
Then out went th’ old woman to bespeak ’em a coffin,
And when she came back, she found ’em all a-loffeing.
(Infant Institutes, 1797)
Why is the old woman buying a coffin? Is she going to kill herself or one of her children? Why are the children ‘a-loffeing’, or laughing? Do they not fear her?
This element of morbidity is mirrored in a Scottish version of the rhyme, collected in 1842:
There was a wee bit wifey
Who lived in a shoe;
She had so many bairns,
She kenn’d na what to do.
She gaed to the market
To buy a sheep-head;
When she came back
They were a’lying dead.
She went to the wright
To get them a coffin;
When she came back
They were a’lying laughing.
She gaed up the stair,
To ring the bell;
The bell-rope broke,
And down she fell.
(The Nursery Rhymes of England)
Like the rhyme I wrote about last week, ‘Simple Simon‘, the verse has a correctional message; where ‘Simple Simon’ uses shame to incite good behaviour, ‘The Old Woman that Lived in a Shoe’ reminds us of the physical punishment we might be forced to endure if we misbehave. What’s intriguing is the way that the rhyme prohibits a wide range of misbehaviour.
The threat of the rhyme is subtly contained in the second line: She had so may children she didn’t know what to do. It is a room 101 of a threat from an irrational parent driven to distraction. In this case the children are whipped, but what other punishment is their mother capable of? The rhyme also serves as a warning to mothers to toe the line and to manage their fertility as well as their temper. This is noted in Doug Larche’s modern revision of the verse, which blends top-notch parenting skills with a brutishly naive question:
There was an old couple who lived in a shoe,
They had so many children they didn’t know what to do.
So they gave them some broth and some good whole bread,
And kissed them all sweetly and sent them to bed.
There’s only one issue I don’t understand.
If they didn’t want so many why didn’t they plan?
Would that it were that easy, Dr. Larche.
‘The Old Woman that Lived in a Shoe’ appears referenced widely in popular culture (it was recently used in the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal), which suggests that it is commonly known today and, unlike many of the rhymes I feature, evidence can be found that ‘The Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe’ was a part of folk culture significantly before its first printed appearance, giving us perhaps one of the most constant of the rhymes we sing today.
The word a-loffeing, found in the closing couplet printed in Infant Institutes is an archaic term for laughing that is contemporary with Shakespeare. This linguistic link with the Tudor era disproves the rhymes most common origin theory, the Queen Caroline theory.
The legend supposes the old woman of the rhyme to refer to Caroline of Ansbach, queen consort to George II, and her eight children. George II was the second Hanoverian monarch, and Queen Caroline had gave birth to her first child in 1707, which suggests that even if her reputation for fertility, (thus her link with the rhyme) was premature it still succeeds usage of the word ‘a-loffering’ significantly*.
Speculation that there may be a connection between the rhyme and the Tudor tradition of casting shoes after the bride and groom as they left for their honeymoon (as a fertility charm) also provides some support as ‘The Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe’ as a Tudor rhyme.
Shoes are a common fertility symbol. Alan Dundes, a psychoanalytical folklorist, in his book Parsing Through Customs, describes ‘The Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe’ as a literalization of the metaphoric connection between shoes as a symbol of marriage and, with their yonic shape, of childbearing. Perhaps it is not surprising the old woman is raising such a brood.
*Another theory, that the old woman is a reference to George II himself (after his habit of wearing powdered wigs before they were a la mode), while the children are his Members of Parliament who are also kept in line by the use of a Whip, suffers the same fate.