Nov 20, 2020

The Dark History of Nursery Rhymes

“Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies,” is a rhyme you probably chanted at least once during primary school. This well-known nursery rhyme was always accompanied by a gleeful dance that ended with all singers in a gleeful heap on the ground, completely exhausted. And while shouting said rhymes was always a fun recess pastime, we never really stopped to think about the meaning behind the rhymes, though we probably should have. 

Nursery rhymes have been a part of culture and childhood literature for centuries— one of the earliest ever officially recorded was “Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, bakers man,” in a 1698 play by Thomas d’Urfey— and are thought to be instrumental in helping children develop an ear for language. The short, rhythmic style of nursery rhymes help children to sound out unfamiliar words, aiding them in vocabulary expansion as they begin learning how to read and process other crucial language skills.

“Experts in literacy development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by the time they're four years old, they're usually among the best readers by the time they're eight,” says Mem Fox, author of Reading Magic, and an educationist specializing in children’s literacy. 

 “Once children have masses of rhythmic gems like these in their heads, they’ll have a huge store of information to bring to the task of learning to read, a nice fat bank of language: words, phrases, structures, and grammar,” Fox continues. 

However, despite their cheery lyrics and fun dances, many internet conspiracy theorists would argue that your favorite childhood nursery rhymes are actually rife with dark, gruesome undertones. But are they right? 

Are your favorite nursery rhymes actually terrifying? 

According to certain theorists, “Ring-Around-A-Roses”  (or ring around the rosies, as it is often adapted) is thought to be a dark reference to The Great Plague of 1665 in Europe. This widely believed theory states that the plague presented itself as a rosy rash and “pockets full of posies” were how people protected themselves from the smell of death all around them. 

This theory is commonly debunked (the earliest versions of the rhyme were said to be completely plague-reference free) but the thought of it possibly being connected to the plague is enough to leave a chill running down the nape of your neck. 

But Ring-Around-A-Roses isn’t the only rhyme with a disputed dark history, in fact, there are many rhymes thought to be connected to dark moments through history. “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” is said to be a rhyme in reference to the Great Fires that destroyed the London Bridge in the 1630s or possibly even connected to the brutal Viking attacks on the bridge during the centuries prior. 

The theory is that the bridge is built on grounds of human sacrifice and that’s the only thing that keeps it standing today. Intriguing as this theory may be, publication dates often dispute this theory since the poem was first officially published years after these incidents had occurred.

Perhaps one of the most widely known rhymes, “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,” is thought to   reference Queen Mary I and her mass execution of Protestants during her reign (Three Blind Mice is thought to be another rhyme based on her executions). The cockle shells and silver bells are reportedly a reference to torture devices used during the era. 

The real meaning of nursery rhymes

If you love to speculate about potential nursery rhyme theories just as much as we do, dive into some of your favorites and uncover their potential backstories with the help of the books below:

Pop Goes The Weasel: The Secret Meanings Of Nursery Rhymes by Albert Jack

When it comes to secret histories, Albert Jack’s book is one of the best. Dive even deeper into the potential meanings behind your favorite nursery rhymes and uncover key elements about their history in print.  

The Real Mother Goose 

Of course, you can’t truly dive into the meaning of nursery rhymes without actually taking a look at this classic collection. Mother Goose first appeared in literary history around the 1600s and has been an important element in children’s education ever since. When diving into the history of nursery rhymes, it’s best to start at the origins. 

What nursery rhyme is your favorite? Do you know it’s history? If there’s one thing we recommend you do this weekend, it’s exploring the theories behind the origins of classic nursery rhymes. You might be a little horrified (or at least intrigued) by what you find out.