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 Nursery rhymes - just childish nonsense?

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PostSubject: Nursery rhymes - just childish nonsense?   Sun 05 Oct 2014, 09:13

Searching for the origin of the word ‘tuffet’ I inevitably came across references to Little Miss Muffet and her arachnophobia, and to the supposed origins of that nursery rhyme. The most common explanation cited is that Miss Muffet was actually Patience, the daughter of a celebrated 16th century naturalist Dr Thomas Muffet whose particular interest was insects and spiders. Plausible enough but at the end of the day there seems to be very little to substantiate this connection other than the coincidence of names and interests. Far less plausible was another suggestion that Little Miss Muffet was an oblique reference to Mary Queen of Scots being frightened by John Knox, but the evidence for that one seems more elusive.

I’ve seen explanations for several other nursery rhymes and their characters and whether true or not the explanations are always interesting. So what other nursery rhyme explanations are there? How many I wonder are indeed allusions to real people and events, or are they in fact mostly just childish rhymes?
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PostSubject: Re: Nursery rhymes - just childish nonsense?   Sun 05 Oct 2014, 10:39

It is fitting that Wikipedia, being the modern equivalent of the 18th century "pamphlet, ballad and billboard" dynamic but seriously flawed method of spreading information to a wide audience and readership (including many ditties now classed as nursery rhymes), should in recent times have become probably the best place to which to turn if one wants to see the roles that fantasy and imagination play in constructing history - with its treatment of nursery rhymes being probably one of the best examples!

From even its earliest manifestations, Wikipedia (or maybe, more correctly, one dedicated contributor), provided for their readers a slew of pages concerning individual nursery rhymes and their supposed origins. In these early days attestation on Wikipedia pages was even more suspect than today, though it did not take a scholar to notice that where such accreditation for theory existed it inevitably led back to Iona Archibald Opie and Peter Opie, the married couple whose 1951 "The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes" almost single-handedly introduced the popularity of the notion that actual historical context could be applied to what had hitherto been generally regarded as nonsensical ditties.

To be fair to the Opies, they were a little more diligent in citing their own sources than those early Wikipedia contributors, but what their "dictionary" lacked (for a publication whose name suggested a definitive academic work) was any critical assessment of these sources' comparative worth, an omission that would have one unfortunate outcome. One can almost date to the very day of their books' publication the popularity of such theories as "Little Jack Horner" representing Thomas Horner's acquisition of Mells Manor, "Ring-a-ring-a-roses" representing the great plague of 1665, etc etc, though the Opies were referencing theory already established, and in some cases for hundreds of years. For a brief period however these uncritically presented theories entered common lore as "fact".

In many instances the Opies could name specific earliest examples for such theories. In most cases they could not, though surprisingly many seem to have first evolved in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, even if the ditties themselves could be traced much further back. This in itself is of enormous value to anyone interested in the history of literature, literary analysis, or indeed the history of analytical thought in an historiographical sense. For presenting these theories in one easily accessible volume (and even more for the vast library of "children's literature" that the Opies developed and which has now been gifted to the Bodleian Library) we should all be enormously grateful.

However, back to Wikipedia and its role in demonstrating fancy as opposed to academic technique when constructing history. Those early Wiki pages, based so slavishly on Opie footnotes from their Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, have long since been redacted and superseded by versions which, at least to the casual view, appear much better researched, annotated and presented with a view to removing spurious or unsupported factual claim. But are they? Take almost any well-known nursery rhyme and check its page on Wikipedia these days. There, embedded in each entry, you will still find the original Opie-reliant version of its theoretical historical origin. However in almost all cases you will find also a rebuttal - sometimes very strenuously phrased - questioning such theory. You will find equally as often references, not to other origin theories on the rhymes' behalf, but to instances of the rhyme in other cultures, sometimes non-English but much more frequently American - unsurprising in the context of English-language poetry but surprisingly frequent nevertheless in the context of these ditties being, linguistically, of universal appeal and therefore of potentially universal origin.

The net effect of this is to suggest that Peter and Iona Opie's research and claims in 1951 are now viewed as flawed, or even fraudulent. It also suggests that an historical origin should be dismissed. Both suggestions have apparently been taken to heart, in that these days one will hear both being cited as "what scholars presently think" much more than one will ever hear anyone support the view that the Opies were on to something. However what the Opies were documenting was not simplistic origin theory for the rhymes but a long and interesting relationship between the rhymes' own evolution and what was then current political, social and philosophical theory, throughout several periods of history. With some very old ditties this documented relationship is almost equally long and all the more fascinating for that. Wikipedia however, while wearing the mantle of an academic treatment of the subject, is actually negating the value of examining this long and complex area of study of English language, literature and thought, being content as it seemingly is in most cases to refer the reader to a "conclusion" which resides within the rather narrower field of English as it is relevant to American history and folklore.

I am unashamedly an Opie fan when it comes to this subject, one which in historiographical terms is actually of immense importance. Whether historical contexts reflect true probable origins or have been added later is less material than that someone felt the need to add them at all in the past (study of the past being "history", after all). So for me the overlap between Jack Horner's thumb in the Christmas Pie and Thomas Horner's fortuitous purchase of Mells Manor (aggressively denied by generations of Horner's descendants) is fascinating. Likewise, Mary Mary Quite Contrary's over-attention to orderliness and display and its apparent coincidence with contemporary opinion in England of the eponymous Scottish queen whose reign so dramatically contrasted with an English queen of the same period is not one to be dismissed, even if it did only occur to someone a century later (as did the "fit" between the rhyme's subject and the same English queen's sister). These are clues to how people thought about historical events, whenever that thought occurred, which should never be discounted for their informational value. This academic approach to data is one that Wikipedia, and by extension popular opinion regarding the historicity of nursery rhymes, has jettisoned in favour of pleading ignorance as the only stance worth having, while fancifully citing American and other sources as evidence for so wide a spectrum of potential points of origin as to render the exercise of identifying any as pointless. This erroneous logic is promoted above the rather obvious (to me) requirement to examine the channels through which European cultures and thinking interacted and spread, and which of course must have played a huge role in the evolution of any popular linguistic artefact, especially in America where the artefact is the outcome as much of cultural dissemblance as it is interaction. Theory behind the history of any English linguistic artefact with a pedigree of apparent centuries old vintage should recognise American dissemblance and cultural interactivity in its evolution, of course, but it must look first to an English source as its most likely point of origin.

Those who so readily dismiss historical theory behind any such ditty as being simply obvious fancy should look no further than to "Humpty Dumpty" as cautionary admonition for such unequivocality. While David Daube's 1956 entry in The Oxford Magazine, in which a case was cogently put for its possible origin in the siege of Gloucester and the documented disastrous failure of a "tortoise" siege engine, might be dismissed as "ingenuity for the sake of ingenuity" (as it was), bear in mind that no matter what one pictures in one's head upon hearing the name "Humpty Dumpty", at no point in any version of the rhyme that we know of throughout history has he ever been explicitly described as an egg.

The role of imagination in constructing "fact" is a complex one. Nursery rhymes illustrate one very fertile ground for the study of its presence in an historical and cultural context.
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PostSubject: Re: Nursery rhymes - just childish nonsense?   Mon 06 Oct 2014, 14:03

"Wee Willie Winkie" does have historical pedigree, though the popular nursery rhyme written by the Scotsman William Miller in the 1840s simply borrowed the name, a satirical euphemism from 150 years earlier used in Scotland for the Dutch king William III, especially in ballads. The most well known of these nowadays is "Willie Winkie's Testament", a dig at the king's character and Dutch accent which enjoyed resurrected popularity and success during Bonnie Prince Charlie's military campaign.


1. O Tell me, Fader Dennison, [2]
Do you tink dat my life be done ?
So be, den do I leave vit you
My parshments and my trunks at Loo;
Von cup, von cloak, von coverlid,
Von press, von black book, and von red;
Dere you vill find direction give,
Vat mans shall die, and vat must live.

2. Dere you vill find it in my vill,
Vat kings must keep deir kingdoms still,
And, if dey please, who dem must quit;
Mine good vench Anne must look to it.
Voe's me, dat I did ever sat
On trone!—But now no more of dat.
Take you, moreover, Dennison,
De cursed horse dat broke dis bone. [3]

3. Take you, beside, dis ragged coat,
And all de curses of de Scot,
Dat dey did give me vender veil,
For Darien and dat McDonell. [4]
Dese are de tings I fain void give,
Now dat I have not time to live:
0 take dem off mine hands, I pray!
I'll go de lighter on my vay.

4. I leave unto dat poor vench Anne,
Von cap void better fit von man,
And vit it all de firebrands red,
Dat in dat cap have scorch'd mine head.
All dis I hereby do bequeath,
Before I shake de hand vit death.
It is de ting could not do good,
It came vit much ingratitude.

5. And tell her, Dennison, vrom me,
To lock it by most carefully,
And keep de Scot beyond de Tweed,
Else I shall see dem ven I'm dead.
I have von hope, I have but von,
'Tis veak, but better vit dan none;
Me viss it prove not von intrigue—
De prayer of de telfish Whig. [5]

Source: Jacobite Minstrelsy, published in Glasgow by R. Griffin & Cie and Robert Malcolm, printed in 1828.

[1] According to a note by Hogg in his "Jacobite Relics", this song "is a parody of an older song of the same name that describes the effects of a poor wretched countryman. It was a favourite mode of writing in those days, many such testaments being still extant that were written about that time.
Though there is an attempt at making it broken Dutch, it is no more than "Aberdeen Dutch"."

[2] Dennison: This is a misnomer, and alludes to Dr Thomas Tennison, Archbishop of Canterbury, a celebrated polemic writer against popery, who attended King William during his last illness.

[3] King William's death was occasioned by his horse stumbling on a mole hillock. ' The little gentleman in black velvet," was afterwards a favourite toast with the Jacobites of that day, in allusion to the mole which was the cause of his death.

[4] 'Darien and McDonell,' mentioned in the third verse, evidently alludes to the Scots settlement at Darien, and the massacre of the McDonalds at Glencoe which are here made to hang heavy on the mind of William.

[5] A pertinent remark made by Hogg: The character of King William drawn by a Scottish historian coincides very well with the sketch given in the song: "...William was a fatalist in religion, indefatigable in war, enterprising in politics, dead to all the warm and generous emotions of the human heart; a cold relation, an indifferent husband, a disagreeable man, an ungracious prince, and an imperious sovereign."
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PostSubject: Re: Nursery rhymes - just childish nonsense?   Mon 06 Oct 2014, 15:43

[2] Dennison: This is a misnomer, and alludes to Dr Thomas Tennison, Archbishop of Canterbury, a celebrated polemic writer against popery, who attended King William during his last illness.

Though, coincidentally, William Miller lived in Ark Lane which is in Dennistoun. Spooky, eh?

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PostSubject: Re: Nursery rhymes - just childish nonsense?   Tue 07 Oct 2014, 12:11

I had always taken the explanation of "Ring o' Roses" and the Plague to be correct; it is a logical explanation. I shall be disappointed if it is untrue.  I saw in my youth a Disney "short" with Dr Von Drake (who I could quite cheerfully have throttled if he hadn't been a fictional/cartoon character) explaining the origins of "London Bridge is Falling Down".  I could believe there was some truth in the often cited explanation that the rhyme grew up around the time (the old) London Bridge was eroding.  (Maybe somebody will now say it isn't so). I didn't know "Wee Willy Winkie" referred to William III.

In my first year at secondary school, we had the same teacher for English, History and (oh crumbs) Speech Training.  She decided to link the subjects and had us learning Hugh Chesterman's "John was a tyrant, John was a tartar....etc", although you couldn't really call that a nursery rhyme as we were about 11/12 at the time.
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PostSubject: Re: Nursery rhymes - just childish nonsense?   Tue 07 Oct 2014, 13:52

"Ring-a-Roses" with sickness is definitely a logical connection, LiR. However linking it to any specific plague, or even plague in general, is where invention creeps in. Though coming from an age in which even measles might prove fatal to child and adult alike one probably does not have to look further than sickness for the poem's enduring popularity in the nursery, even if its original phrasing and wording might have reflected something else entirely.

I have heard a case made often for "London Bridge Is Falling Down" being a "folk memory" of the occasion on which King Olaf, in alliance with Aethelstan, had the bridge destroyed during his assault on the city to wrest it from Canute's grip in 1014. Equally plausible of course (though as yet a theory I have never heard) is that it was the hastily constructed replacement, criticised for its shoddiness by contemporaries and eventually carried away in a flood in 1094, that could account for the sentiment. However the even more likely explanation (and here even Wikipedia relies still on the Opie account) is that the poem echoes a plethora of poems already long popular in other languages and countries in which the city might be interchangeable but its bridge is always "falling down". The anatine Dr Ludwig Von Drake might have had a very valid point, in any case. Controversy over the state and upkeep of London Bridge, for centuries the only one across the Thames, was a perennial topic of discourse for Londoners, and rarely were they satisfied with it. A poem expressing expectation of its inevitable collapse would have struck a comic (and possibly not so comic) chord with many of them, enough to keep variations of the rhyme popular.

The Opies were on much surer ground when they traced the origins of "Georgie Porgie". The earliest found versions in print coincided neatly with the prominence of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, in the court of James Stuart in the early 1600s - especially when one compares the lyrics with George's reputation as the effeminate "companion/lover" of the king. It is in fact one of several poems that were circulating right up to Buckingham's assassination in 1628, few of which were complimentary and many of which may well have been encouraged in their circulation (if not even written) by parliament members who mostly abhorred him. Public opinion reflected parliament's and it was even rumoured at one point that Buckingham was the devil himself, his disguise as a mortal abetted by his physician Dr Lambe, the subject of even more little ditties of the same ilk. Lambe himself died from injuries sustained when a mob attacked him in 1627.

Ones that didn't make the leap into the nursery were:

The king loves you, you him;
Both love the same;
You love the king, he you;
Both Buckingham.
Of sports the king loves games,
Of games the duke;
Of all men you; and you
Solely, for your looke!

Rex and Grex are of one sound,
But Dux doth Rex and Grex confound.
If Crux of Dux might have his fill,
Then Rex and Grex might worke their will.
Three subsedies to five would turne,
And Grex would laugh that now doth mourne.
O Rex, thy Grex doth sore complaine,
That Dux beares Crux, and Crux not Dux againe.

Some say the duke was gratious, vertuous, good,
And Felton basely did to spill his blood.
If that were true, what did hee then amisse
In sending him more quicklie to his blisse?
Pale death seemes pleasing to a good man's eye,
And onely bad men are afrayd to die.
Left hee this kingdome to possesse a better?
Why Felton then hath made the duke his debtor.

John Felton, the assassin, enjoyed almost as many ballads in epitaph as the man he killed. After hanging in Tyburn his corpse, by royal decree, was mounted in a gibbet in Portsmouth, the scene of the murder. This was seen as a spiteful act on the king's part and Felton was in danger of becoming a famous English hero in public eyes. One poem even attempted to illustrate that being suspended in a gibbet elevated (in every sense) Felton's likelihood of salvation over that of Buckingham, or even James when the time came.

Th' impartiall worme (which is not brib'd to spare
Princes corrupt in marble) cannot share
His flesh; which if the charitable skies
Embalme with teares; doeing those obsequies
Belong to men: shall last, till pittying fowle
Contend to beare his bodie to his soule.

Despite some weak attempts to counter these anti-Buckingham odes with ballads supportive of the Duke it was undoubtedly the derogatory ones that won out. Proof of their enduring popularity, even long after Villiers' demise, could be said to be the fact that small children still recite a ditty of contempt for the man.

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.
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PostSubject: Re: Nursery rhymes - just childish nonsense?   Tue 07 Oct 2014, 23:19

I have a shelf of books beside my computer (no Ipads etc yet for me).  It contains about twenty books, including a dictionary, thesaurus, word histories, Maori translations, Leonard Maltin's movie guide, and Labatt's 500 Britain's All Favourite Tracks.  Amonf all these is the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes edited by Iona and Peter Opie which I have had recourse to frequently over the years.  I had read things denigrating their research so am pleased to hear it stands up to analysis.  But it's a long time since I read it fully (which I did do from cover to cover once).

It doesn't take long for the actual history of these folk rhymes to be uncertain, though.  Even in my country with its short European history there are arguments about whether things have originated in New Zealand or Australia, or if they pre-date settlement here and hark back to British words and rhymes.
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PostSubject: Re: Nursery rhymes - just childish nonsense?   Wed 08 Oct 2014, 10:11

Not a nursery rhyme as such but a tale (though Robert Browning did write a poem) from the Middle Ages, which has had number of theories.

In the tale, The Pied Piper of Hamelin steals away the town's children after the townsfolk refuse to pay him his fee for ridding Hamelin of it's rats. This is the version the Brothers Grimm published, the rats are believed to be a later addition.
What event it was based on has prompted ideas such as The Children's Crusade, the Black Death* or another plague, a natural disaster such as a landslide or emigration to eastern Europe; Poland, Bohemia or Transylvania being the suggested destinations.

The earliest image of the Pied Piper;

* the traditional date is June 1284, which is too early for the Black Death
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PostSubject: Re: Nursery rhymes - just childish nonsense?   Wed 08 Oct 2014, 12:14

This from the Scandinavian saga as cited by Snorri Sturlsn in Gylfaginning (the beguiling of Gylfi) from his Prose Edda.

"He (Måne/Máni/Moon) took from the earth-two children, called Bil and Hjúki, they that went from the well called Byrgir, bearing on their shoulders the cask called Sægr, and the pole Simul. Their father is named Vidfinnr. These children follow Moon, as may be seen from the earth."

Hjúki and Bil, bearing their pole and pail across the heavens as punishment for filling from the forbidden well, are still according to Swedish folklore shapes that can be discerned from gazing at the moon's craters (much like The Man In The Moon) and can be seen appearing last as the moon waxes, then leaving last as it wanes. The Grimm brothers noted several stories in German folklore that mentioned the brother and sister, Bil particularly seeming to have endured as a minor deity right into Christian times and featuring in several folk tales as a result.

The jump from Hjúki and Bil to Jack and Jill is still conjectural though.

"Jack and Jill (Gill)" was itself a phrase in English used to signify a typical boy/girl combination long before the first recorded instance of the nursery rhyme. Skelton's morality play "Magnificence" from early Tudor times contains an example "What availeth lordship, yourself for to kill, With care and with thought how Jack shall have Gill". Even earlier, the Townley Mysteries from about 1460 contain the phrase "[not] for Jak nor for Gille," meaning for neither man nor woman, therefore for no-one at all.

However the presence in the nursery ditty of a well situated on top of a hill (also traditionally associated with magical or religious rites in European belief systems) does certainly add some weight to the theory that somehow this ditty has preserved a fragment of ancient Saxon beliefs, in however accidental or roundabout a manner this preservation occurred.
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PostSubject: Re: Nursery rhymes - just childish nonsense?   Mon 30 Jan 2017, 21:31

The Grand Old Duke of York nursery rhyme is believed to refer to Richard, Duke of York. Richard was the claimant to the English throne and Protector of England and participated in the Battle of Wakefield on December 30, 1460.
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