The Jessie Willcox Smith Mother Goose (1914) (Wikimedia Commons)

English Nursery Rhymes with Unexpected and Sometimes Disturbing Historical Origins

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Many people associate nursery rhymes with reading happy stories to children, or remember being children themselves and chanting them while they play. However, the popular explanations for the origins of several English nursery rhymes shows that they may be more complex and at times more disturbing than they first appear.

There is controversy regarding exact dates when they were created and the message behind some of these rhymes. Nonetheless, most researchers agree that often the rhymes were meant to provide morals and values, or warnings, to their audience.

Some researchers have also suggested that these seemingly nonsensical rhymes were not really meant for children at all, nor are they nonsense. Instead, the rhymes were steeped with political and satirical messages, created in such a way to confuse the authorities listening; thus, preventing legal or other backlash.

1. Baa Baa Black Sheep: Feudal Taxes

Baa Baa Black Sheep (1916) Dorothy Miller (Wikimedia Commons)

Baa Baa Black Sheep (1916) Dorothy Miller ( Wikimedia Commons )

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!
One for the master, one for the dame
But none for the little boy who cries down the lane. (Final line until the late 16th century)


And one for the little boy who lives down the lane. (Changes to be more suitable for children.)

Baa Baa Black Sheep was first published in 1744. However, most scholars claim that this rhyme is based on the reality of life in feudal times in England in general and the export tax for wool farmers of 1275 created by King Edward I (the master) in particular. The "bags of wool" (or produce from the farmers) first went to the nobles, then the church, and in the end practically nothing was left for the poor "little boy" (farmers).

2. Mary Mary Quite Contrary: A Cruel or Tragic Queen

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary (1860) (Wikimedia Commons)

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary (1860) ( Wikimedia Commons )

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

According to some researchers Mary Mary, also published in 1744, refers to "Bloody Mary," Mary Tudor or Mary Stewart - Mary Queen of Scots. Mary Tudor was a strict Catholic and during her reign from 1553-1558 her garden (a graveyard) grew as many protestants were executed for not converting to Catholicism. "Silver bells" and "cockle shells" may have been the nicknames of torture devices (thumbscrews and instruments attached to the genitals). The "maids" (shortened from maiden) in the rhyme is thought to be another nickname - for another device for torture or the guillotine.

If Mary Queen of Scots is the Mary referred to, then the "silver bells" and "cockle shells" are said to be a mention to ornaments she received on a dress from her first husband, the Dauphin Francis II of France. In this interpretation the "pretty maids" are Mary Stewart's ladies in waiting.

3. Goosey, Goosey, Gander: Religious Persecution/an Obligation to Pray

Goosey, Goosey, Gander (Mamalisa)

Goosey, Goosey, Gander ( Mamalisa)

Goosey, goosey, gander,
Whither dost thou wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady's chamber.

There I met an old man
Who wouldn't say his prayers;
I took him by the left leg,
And threw him down the stairs

First published in 1784, Goosey, Goosey, Gander also refers to the Catholic persecution in the 16th century. At the time "priest holes" became popular as Catholics set up small hidden rooms in their homes to pray. If zealous Protestants found the Catholic praying in Latin, than the whole family would be executed. The "left leg" in the  rhyme is claimed to be the nickname for Catholics at the time as "left-leggers."

Another interpretation suggests that this rhyme may simply be a warning by its creator for listeners/readers to pray or they will receive unfortunate consequences.

4. Humpty Dumpty: A Heavy Person Or a Cannon

Humpty Dumpty and Alice from Through the Looking Glass, J. Tenniel (Wikimedia Commons)

Humpty Dumpty and Alice from Through the Looking Glass, J. Tenniel ( Wikimedia Commons )

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!


Threescore men and threescore more,
Could not place Humpty as he was before.

Humpty Dumpty (published in 1799) also has two possible meanings. A "Humpty Dumpty" is claimed to be a nickname used in the fifteenth century for an overweight person.


Actually the guillotine was used as early as the 1200s. A simple wiki search can tell you THAT much. Perhaps researching YOUR opinions BEFORE posting might be a better idea?!?

guillotine had not been invented in1500's or by 1744. Iron Maiden was tho. Most 6 years old horror fans know that.
SO that alone makes it all questionable. DOES no one ever proof read these for such nonsense?
left leg. Yes Catholics were persecuted. by never ave read that entire families were executed over praying Latin. Praying in Hebrew or Ladino in Iberia, maybe

rbflooringinstall's picture

Jack and Jill sounds to me like it could be foreshadowing of things to come later on in France at that time.

Peace and Love,


Very cool. Thanks!!

angieblackmon's picture

Some of these I knew and was familiar with….others not so much. Love getting to the root of the rhyme though! :)


love, light and blessings



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