History of Nursery Rhymes

Everyone grew up with the well-known set of nursery rhymes, such as Jack and Jill, or Peter Peter, Pumpkin Eater, and all the others. The visual imagery invoked by these stories is vivid, such as three blind mice running away from a madwoman with a knife, while Jack made a wild leap over a flaming candle. Best of all for wild imagery, however, would have to be “Hey Diddle Diddle”.

But these nursery rhymes, most of them, came from historical events or situations. Most of the most popular ones came from British politics, in fact, and were invented as a way of spreading gossip about royalty. And while these rumors and stories have no bearing on our lives anymore, the rhymes they produced have lived on in our lives.

Mind you, a lot of these histories are subject to interpretation. Every rumor about where a story came from is just that, another rumor. You may have heard different stories of where these started, and you may be right.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,

Had a wife and couldn’t keep her,

Put her in a pumpkin shell,

And there he kept her, very well.

My personal favorite. Peter was a poor man who had an unfaithful wife. She kept cheating on him (couldn’t keep her), so he had to find a way to stop her running around. His solution, fairly common in the middle ages, was a chastity belt (pumpkin shell). For those who don’t know, a chastity belt is roughly a pair of metal underwear with lock and key, so that no one could enter the private region of the woman except whoever held the key, usually her husband. And as the rhyme goes, once he put her in that belt, he kept her very well.


Three men in a tub;

And who do you think they be?

The butcher, the baker,

The candlestick-maker;

Turn ‘em out, knaves all three!

I like this one. Why would these three men be sharing a bath? Latent homosexuality, maybe? Not enough water for three individual baths? No, this is a case of not hearing the whole joke, just the punch-line. The part of the story we aren’t getting was the setting. A fair side-show, where three young, beautiful women were sitting in a bath-tub, entertaining a mostly male audience, when three of the men jumped up and climbed in with the girls, to be promptly thrown out again by the fair manager. Just three, horny, working folk.

Jack be nimble,

Jack be quick,

Jack jump over,

The candlestick,

This one doesn’t have any intrigue or politics in it, just part of a celebration. A wedding celebration, in fact. During the festivities, a candle was set up, and people took turns trying to jump over the candle. If you extinguished the flame, you were due for a year of bad luck, but if the candle remained lit, a year of good luck was to follow. Of course, another part of wedding celebrations was drinking alcohol, so the people who got really drunk would likely be the people stuck with the bad luck.

As you can see, almost every nursery rhyme has a story behind it. Humpty Dumpty was actually King Richard III, and the famous farmer’s wife from the Three Blind Mice was supposedly Queen Mary I. Baa Baa Black Sheep was about taxation, and The Old Woman Who Lived In a Shoe was referring to the British Empire trying to control its colonies.

Yet children year after year recite these stories, not knowing the original joke or gossip hidden within, not really caring is Jack Sprat was King Charles I. The fake stories that we invent for the rhyme now are much more fun, anyway.

- Author’s name omitted by request

Title: History of nursery rhymes
Description: A real look at the origin of nursery rhymes that we remember to this day, where they came from, and what they meant.
Copyright 2001 by PageWise, Inc.

Fee! Fie! Foe! Fum!
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he ‘live, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.
CLICK HERE for more Nursery Rhymes

Posted in: Hot Topics