Your grandparents sang them to your parents, who sang them to you. And you sing them to your children. But probably none of you knew the true meanings of the songs you were singing. These sweet children’s rhymes have their origins in gruesome events from the past.
1. Three Blind Mice
Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run,
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice?
In 17th-century Britain, Protestants and Catholics didn’t exactly get along. The three blind mice were three Protestant loyalists who were accused of plotting against the Catholic Queen Mary, called “Bloody Mary” because of the massacres of Protestants carried out in her name. Queen Mary is the farmer’s wife. But she didn’t cut off the tails of the three Protestant plotters. She burned them at the stake. Did you ever see such a thing in your life?
2. Rock-a-bye Baby
Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetop
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
Many mothers probably wonder why they are singing their child to sleep with a song about a baby who dies in a tragic accident. There are competing theories about the origins of this ditty. One holds it’s a sly reference to the child of King James II and his Queen, who was rumored to have been born to someone else and smuggled into the birthing room to ensure a Catholic heir. The “wind” would be Protestantism, which eventually blew them all away.
3. Ring Around the Rosie
Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
When children on the playground fall down laughing at the end of this rhyme, they are reenacting the Great Plague of 1665, in which a quarter of London’s population—100,000 people—fell down dead. The rosie may refer to the rash caused by bubonic plague. The pocket full of posies, the sachets people carried with them to mask the ever-present smell of death.
4. Mary Mary Quite Contrary
Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.
Bloody Mary was murderous enough that she may have been immortalized in several nursery rhymes. Although there are competing theories about this rhyme, one holds that it is about Queen Mary’s favorite pastime: killing Protestants. The “silver bells and cockleshells” refer to instruments of torture. The “pretty maids” would be that efficient new instrument for cutting off heads—the guillotine.
5. London Bridge
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
Versions of this rhyme go all the way back to the Middle Ages. The bridge across the Thames has indeed needed lots of repairs over the centuries, but the most compelling theory about this particular song dates to a bloody Viking raid on the city in the year 1000.
6. Jack and Jill
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.
Some scholars think this is just an innocent bit of nonsense, but at least one historian believes Jack and Jill were a couple of 17th-century teens who went up the hill to have sex. If so, it didn’t end well. In this interpretation, Jack runs away and abandons Jill, who is left pregnant.
7. Georgie Porgie
Georgie Porgie pudding and pie
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play
Georgie Porgie ran away.
According to one interpretation, Georgie didn’t kiss only the girls. This theory holds the rhyme refers to the notorious 17th-century Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, a bisexual pretty-boy and a social climber. He used his good looks to sleep his way to the top, seducing both male and female courtiers and even the King.
8. Humpty Dumpty
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
This little children’s rhyme is either about death or drunkenness. Both theories have their supporters. “Humpty dumpty” was a popular 17th-century drink made of brandy and ale, which might make you fall off a wall. It may also refer a massive armored weapon hauled to the top of a wall and used to rain down death on attacking troops during the English Civil War.
9. Pop Goes the Weasel
All around the mulberry bush
The monkey chased the weasel;
The monkey thought ’twas all in good sport
Pop! goes the weasel.
A penny for a spool of thread,
A penny for a needle-
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.
“Pop” once meant to pawn, and a weasel was a coat. So this rhyme is probably about a poor man forced to trade the coat off his back for cash, so he can keep a roof over his head. The monkey is the rent collector. But by pawning the coat rather than selling it, the poor man hopes to get it back by Sunday, so he’ll have something to wear to church.
10. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep
Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full!
One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane
This rhyme was revised in modern times to make it a little less gloomy. It is about the government taking from the poor and giving to the rich. The original version ends, “And none for the little boy who cries down the lane.” Wool was a major source of wealth in medieval England. In the 13th century, the Crown decided to tax it to pay for the Crusades. So one bag goes to the master (the King), another bag goes to the church (the dame), and nothing is left for the young shepherd, who took care of the flock.