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Tag Archives: Nursery Rhymes

Origins: The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe

William Wallace Denslow’s The Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe

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? Read the rest of this entry

Origins: Sing a Song of Sixpence

“Four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie…”

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four-and-twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing;
Now wasn’t that a dainty dish
To put before the King?

The king was in his counting house
Counting out his money,
The Queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey,


The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.

‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ describes a domesticity foreign to most of us.  The first and second stanzas refer to a show stopping dish described in The Accomplisht Cook, published in 1671.

 … where lifting first the lid off one pie, out skips some Frogs, which makes the Ladies to skip and shreek; next after the other Pie, whence comes out the Birds; who by a natural instinct flying at the light, will put out the Candles; so that what with the flying Birds, and skipping Frogs, the one above, the other beneath, will cause much delight and pleasure to the whole company.

Such dishes were designed to display the wealth of those whose table they graced, so it’s not surprising that the King has taken to his counting house – a place where business transactions would take place, essentially a home office – to luxuriate in his wealth. In nursery rhymes royal families often represent ‘proper’ gender hierarchies and relations, and so it is here. The King is patriarch  auditing the means of his control, the Queen in her parlour is social and the maid works for her keep.

The maid of the rhyme is an enigma. ‘Maid’ could refer to a servant, as her activity suggests, or to her unmarried state. And why is she getting her nose pecked off? Could it be a punishment? In Christianity the blackbird is a symbol of damnation and in centuries passed a missing nose was a sure sign of untreated syphilis – is our maid being punished for sexual indiscretions?

A verse closely resembling the rhyme we know today appeared in the oldest book of nursery rhymes Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (vol. II, pub. 1744) to have survived to the present day. The lyric is identical save the first verse:

Sing a Song of Sixpence,
A bag full of Rye,
Four and twenty Naughty Boys,
Bak’d in a Pye.

But it is in Gamer Gurton’s Garland, from around 1784 that we first find the full four verses that we know today. The rhyme appears in all the usual publications in some form or another; Tom Tit’s Song Book, Mother Goose’s Quarto, and The Nursery Rhymes of England (and other less well-known tomes) each reproduce a version, with some adding a ‘happy ending’ in additional stanzas such as this that appears in 1866:

They sent for the King’s doctor, who sewed it on again,
He sewed it on so neatly the seam was never seen;
And the Jackdaw for his naughtiness, deservedly was slain.

Though this tactic appears unsuccessful, it did not stop the BBC having a go on Listen with Mother in 1950:

They made such a commotion that little Jenny wren
Flew down into the garden and put it back again.

It’s possible that Shakespeare references the rhyme in Twelfth Night (Come, there is a sixpence for you; let’s have a song [II.iii]), which dates the verse further. ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ is likely to pre-date its first known publication significantly.

As to the origins of this song, competing theories exist. Since the appearance of this spoof snopes.com page, sometime between 1995 and 2000, the belief that the rhyme is a coded recruitment song for pirates has gained momentum. The theory falls at the first hurdle  – how would the potential recruits understand the coded message before they’d got the job and learned the code?

The most widely accepted theory concerns, as so many nursery rhyme origin tales do, Henry VIII; Henry counts his money following the sizeable cash injection dissolving the monasteries provided, his Queen, Catherine of Aragon and the maid his mistress and soon to be replacement spouse Anne Boleyn.

This theory suggests that sensitive documents – in this case property deeds – were transported about the country inside pies before being gifted to the king by churchmen (blackbirds) hoping for a cushy job in government (or the newly formed Church of England). When Anne Boleyn failed to produce an heir the same blackbirds concocted a plot accusing her of adultery and incest, and had her nose removed by virtue of the fact that it was attached to her head, which they chopped off.

If all that sounds a little far-fetched, well, it is. It’s easy to read far too much into verses designed to be nonsense, and I rather like my syphilis theory, but the Opie’s suggestion that the rhyme is merely ‘a description of a familiar entertainment’ (p. 471) is, alas, most probable.

Origins: Mary, Mary

Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (c. 1744) has the first printed version of ‘Mary, Mary’, as follows:

Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,
How does your Garden grow?
With Silver bells,
And Cockle Shells,
And so my Garden grows.

The final line of the verse went through a a number of permutations in the first half-century of publication:

Nancy Cook’s Pretty Song Book for all Little and Misses and Masters, c.1780, Sing cuckolds all on row.
Gamer Gurton’s Garland, 1784, Cowslips all arow.
Tom Thumb’s Song Book, 1788, With Lady bells all in a row.
Tom Tit’s Song Book for all Little Masters and Misses, c.1790, With Lady bells all in a row.
Infant Institutes, 1797, And cuckolds all in a row.

There are a number of competing theories as to the identity of contrary Mary.

Our Lady

According to Opie, Catholics view the rhyme as a lament for the persecution of the Catholic church and Protestants as a lament for the reinstatement of the Catholic church. This belief is predicated on the interpretation of the verse as a pen portrait of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where the ‘silver bells’ represent sanctus bells, the cockleshells Pilgrim badges and the ‘pretty maids’ nuns.

Bloody Mary

Mary Tudor (Mary I, 1516-1558) was a staunch Catholic. This interpretation of the rhyme suggests that Mary’s garden is her figurative personal graveyard, ever growing as it was filled with the bodies of Protestant dead.  The rhyme appears to be a celebration of Mary’s torturous ways: the sliver bells are said to represent thumbscrews; the cockleshells a (male) genital torture device which crushed the penis, and the maids a colloquial abbreviation of referring to either the Iron Maiden or Scottish Maiden, devices of torture and beheading respectively.

Mary, Queen of Scots.

In the case of Mary Stewart (Mary, Queen of Scots, 1542 – 1587) the pretty maids are said to refer to the Four Marys, her ladies-in-waiting. In this case, the silver bells and cockleshells are said to be decorations on the womens’ dresses.

Victorian publications including the rhyme – Kate Greenway’s 1881 offering Mother Goose, Halliwell’s Nursery Rhymes of England (1842) and Rusher’s Poetic Trifles (1840) – in keeping with the Victorian tradition of outward prudence, inward pervery, bowdlerizes the mention of cuckoldry in some earlier versions, referring instead to flowers.

No evidence has been found that the rhyme pre-dates the eighteenth century, which makes any links to the Queens Mary spurious at best. It’s worth mentioning, though, that a ballad called ‘Cuckolds all a row’ was registered in 1637, which may have provided the basis for the rhyme.

Origins: Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Tweedledum & Tweedledee as reimagined by Tim Burton in 2010's Alice in Wonderland

Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Agreed to have a battle,
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
Had spoiled his nice new rattle.
Just then flew by a monstrous crow,
As black as a tar-barrel,
Which frightened both the heroes so
They quite forgot their quarrel.

Often attributed to Lewis Carroll, this verse was included in an Original Ditties for the Nursery, edited by John Harris, in 1805, almost 70 years before Carroll published Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.

The names Tweedledum and Tweedledee also appear in a rhyme of 1725. Smithsonianmag.com takes up the story:

Free-spirited musical entrepreneurship was more than possible in London, to which Handel moved permanently in 1710. […] Adding zest to the London music scene were rivalries that split the audience into two broad musical camps. On one side were defenders of the more conventional Italian opera style, who idolized the composer Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747) and brought him to London. Enthusiasts of Handel’s new Italian operas cast their lot with the German-born composer. The partisanship was captured in a 1725 verse by poet John Byrom.

There is some contention over the final couplet, which may have been added by Alexander Pope or Jonathan Swift:

Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!

Some say that John Byrom coined the words tweedledum and tweedledee. Still others say that although the version we know well does not appear in print until 90 years after this verse appeared, it is likely to have been the inspiration for Byrom’s satire. It is likely that only one of these assertions is correct, but I wouldn’t like to wager on which one.

Origins: Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater

This is probably not what he meant

This is probably not what he meant

Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife but couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.

Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had another and didn’t love her;
Peter learned to read and spell,
And then he loved her very well.

‘Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater’ was first anthologised in the UK in 1797 in Infant Institutes and in 1825 in North America in Mother Goose’s Quarto: or Melodies Complete. The Opie’s posit that ‘Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater’ is a variant of this verse collected in Aberdeen and its Folk in 1868,

Peter, my neeper,
Had a wife,
And he coudna’ keep her,
He pat her i’ the wa’,
And lat a’ the mice eat her.

and this one from around the same time,

Eeper Weeper, chimbly sweeper,
Had a wife but couldn’t keep her.
Had another, didn’t love her,
Up the chimbly he did shove her.

A psychoanalytical reading of the rhyme suggests that Peter’s treatment of his first wife exemplifies fear of (and desire to control) women. Lucy Rollin explains in Cradle and All: A Cultural and Analytical Study of Nursery Rhymes:

“Keep” here carries the meaning of “provide for” and suggest that Peter was a practical man who used his resources cleverly. But the image of the wife in the enclosed shell certainly implies “keep” in the more sinister modern sense (sinister even when the “shell” is an elegant suburban home).

p. 46

Peter clearly didn’t keep her that well though, as by the second stanza he seems to have remarried. In the most common version of the rhyme ‘Peter learned to read and spell, / And then he loved her very well’.

The association of marriage and learning to spell might have a strong unconscious appeal for the child just repressing  its unsatisfied curiosity about sexual matters in favour of the knowledge that adults offer instead – in this case the knowledge of the alphabet.

p. 111

In a version collected later (1918) the rhyme ends ‘Had another, didn’t love her / Causing instantaneous bother’. Rollin doesn’t mention this alternate ending, which provides a warning to learn from your mistakes, in her psychoanalytical reading, but would perhaps note the lack of companionate marriage is not unusual in nursery rhymes, where Jack Sprat is an anomaly.

More recently Dr Doug Larche has re-written the rhyme to appear in his non-racist, non-sexist, non-violent 1986 collection Father Gander’s Nursery Rhymes: The Equal Rhymes Amendment (which is also incredibly gender essentialist and heteronormative, from what I’ve read so far). His version sees Peter keep his wife:

Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and wished to keep her.
Treated her with fair respect,
She stayed with him and hugged his neck!

This version has not yet caught on.

Origins: Do you know the Muffin Man?

Mmmmmmuffins

Trigger warning – contains mention of Satanic Ritual Abuse.

Do you know the Muffin Man,
The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man?
Do you know the Muffin Man,
Who lives on Drury Lane?

Yes I know the Muffin Man,
The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man.
Yes I know the Muffin Man
Who lives on Drury Lane.

Drury Lane, just east of Covent Garden and in the heart of London’s theatre district is now a tourist-filled thoroughfare between High Holborn and Aldwych, but in the eighteenth century it was an over-populated mish-mash of doss houses, brothels, cock pits and gin palaces where gambling, poverty, crime and disease colluded to keep the proles in their place. By 1820, the date of the first known manuscript to contain the rhyme (which is currently housed in the Bodleian Library) the street had degraded further  into a filthy hodge-podge of rat-infested lodging houses and tenements housing the very poorest Londoners. Read the rest of this entry

Origins: Pat-a-Cake, Pat-a-Cake

Made by Mycakes.com.au

Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can.
Pat it and prick it, and mark it with ‘B’
And put it in the oven for baby and me.

Though Pat-a-Cake (sometimes known as patty-cake or pattycake) first appeared in the form we know it in Gamer Gurton’s Garland in 1784, it is rather older.

In Mother Gooses Melody (1765) the rhyme appears as:

Patty Cake, Patty Cake, Bakers’ Man,
That I will Master, As fast as I can
Prick it and prick it, And mark it with a T
And there will be enough for Jackey and me.

The rhyme was certainly known in the late 1690s, too. From Opie,

[Pat-a-cake] was portrayed as an infants’ ditty as early as 1698. In [Thomas] D’Urfey‘s comedy The Campaigners the ‘affected tattling nurse’ murmers endearments as she suckles her charge.
‘Ah Doddy blesse dat pitty face of myn Sylds, and his pitty, pitty hands, and his pitty, pitty foots, and all his pitty things, and pat a cake, pat a cake Bakers man, so I will master as I can, and prick it, and prick it, and prick it, and prick it, and throw’t into the Oven’.

It is unclear when this less popular second verse was added;

Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man.
Bake me a cake as fast as you can;
Roll it up, roll it up;
And throw it in a pan!
Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man.

It may be that the rhyme refers to the baking of bread in a communal oven, a practice common in England in the middle ages and early modern era. Websters Online Dictionary describes the tradition;

 The family (usually the woman was in charge of breadmaking) would bake on a fixed schedule, perhaps once a week. The starter was saved from the previous week’s dough. The starter was mixed with the new ingredients, the dough was left to rise, then a piece of it was saved (to be the starter for next week’s bread). The rest was formed into loaves which were marked with the family sign (this is where today’s decorative slashing of bread loaves originates from), and taken to the communal oven to bake. These communal ovens over time evolved into what are known today as bakeries, when certain people specialized in bread baking, and with time enhanced the process so far as to be able to mass produce cheap bread for everyone in the village.

This is, as is so often the case, an educated guess.