Although popular collections of nursery rhymes were widespread from the eighteenth century on, and academic collections have been published since the nineteenth century, their academic study really began in the twentieth century. Several approaches have been taken by scholars over the past four or five generations, and these have been largely determined by the academic climate of their day. One such early tack was the expounding, or even invention, of a rhyme’s “history” trying to answer the question deriving from adult wonder about children’s lore: Where does it come from? Contemporary folklorists have been more likely to try to understand the meanings of folklore in use than to plumb its history; centuries of looking closely at the phenomena of folklore have taught them that folklore—including children’s rhymes—is so fluid and changeable, while by dint of its orality being so undocumented in the written record, that the search for its history can at best be quixotic.
The English term nursery rhyme covers a somewhat larger group of folklore than a simple reading of the term would suggest. Although many thus-categorized rhymes are indeed used in the nursery (that is, with children under, say, four years old as audience), a much larger number of them are used by adults with somewhat older children, by children themselves no matter their age, and by adults. Nonetheless, the term nursery rhyme has great utility and has been retained by most authors.
Twentieth-century approaches to nursery rhymes have included attempts to understand variation, to read rhymes as expressions of psychosexual maturation, to show how they introduce children to the tools of language and intellectual thought, and, most recently, to see them as agents of empowerment for children and vehicles of cultural conservation. All of these approaches have attracted many authors and have been fruitful.
Despite academic findings to the contrary, it has often been claimed that earlier generations’ nursery rhymes were “originally” coded messages about political events and historical eras. Such interpretations may be seen as the “folklore of folklore” and most often can be dismissed as modern euhemerism. (Euhemerus was a fourth-century BCE Greek who claimed that myths of the gods were actually transformed stories about real historical people.) Euhemerist traditions about nursery rhymes have circulated, especially in the educated classes, for a hundred years, floating around like migratory legends and—also like legends—localizing from time to time.
It is understandable that such interpretations arise. It is popularly known that much folklore is “old.” Interested and creative people look for ways to show how old it is. New folklore grows as easily as old folklore did, and now it finds itself an explanation of the older folklore. Folklore items have a text (their words or other formal shape), but they also often carry a more variable set of traditional beliefs and understandings as a kind of corona around the text. These secondary texts can take the form of localized legends explaining the “history” of the item.
The Humpty Dumpty rhyme is a good example of this process; in its euhemerist form, Humpty Dumpty has become a local legend in at least a half-dozen places, mainly in Great Britain. In Gloucester, Humpty Dumpty has come to represent a siege ramp built in 1643 by Charles I’s forces to cross the River Severn and take the city from Cromwell. But the ramp, according to the euhemerist tradition, collapsed under the cavalry’s weight:
Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Similar readings have been attached to, among others, the English kings James I, King John, and Richard III, the last because of his hunchback (= Humpty).
Likewise “Pop Goes the Weasel” is interpreted as being about a piece of nineteenth-century textile equipment, or a cobbler’s bench. All folklore varies by text, and the different texts of this rhyme—“carpenter’s bench,” “vinegar bush,” “vinegar jug,” and so on—produce different euhemerist readings. One reading has it in a pawnbroker’s shop and provides a foundation legend for some Salvation Army followers. Often the rhyme’s own words are given as examples of now-obsolete slang that seems to “prove” the truth of the legend. All of these readings are attempts by modern people to connect to historical figures that which would otherwise appear to be “mere” children’s nonsense. But modern texts are commonly used in these attempts to come up with “older” readings.
Interpretations sometimes have contemporary political undertones. In early 2000, in England, Birmingham’s city council banned “Baa Baa Black Sheep” from local schools because, the council said, “the history of the rhyme … is offensive to black people due to the fact it originates from slavery.” In fact, as the research by Peter and Iona Opie has shown, it is most likely not related to slavery, but simply an amusing, and largely nonsensical rhyme. Children, in any era, are amused by nonsense.
The euhemerist belief that “Ring around the Rosie” comes from one of the great plagues seems to have arisen in the 1960s, and was given greater weight by academic promulgations. The claim gained popularity in a 1961 biology textbook about rats and the plague, James Leasor’s The Plague and the Fire. Leasor did not consult folklorists but, based on folklore from his own relatives, assumed the rhyme was known centuries before it was. More recently, Norman Cantor, a historian of the plague, did the same in his In the Wake of the Plague (2001). There are two main regional forms of the rhyme: “Ring a Ring of Rosie,” which is mainly British, and “Ring around the Rosie,” which is mainly North American. The two traditions are not entirely separate; examination of historical texts shows a great deal of overlap. Kate Greenaway’s text (in her little book Mother Goose ) was the first in print, appearing in Britain in 1881. William Wells Newell published a second version in North America several years later, in an academic collection of children’s rhymes. He said it dated back to the 1790s but he does not say who his informant was, or how he knew that fact. This is Newell’s “earliest” text, using the now-British form of the first line:
Ring a ring a rosie,
A bottle full of posie,
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie.
Newell included another more contemporary version, probably circulating in Massachusetts in the 1880s or 1890s:
Round the ring of roses,
Pots full of posies,
The one who stoops the last
Shall tell whom she loves the best.
This text represents very clearly a typical “forfeits” game with an “all fall in” section in the third line. The lack of plague references is apparent here, as in all the pre-twentieth century texts. Only in the mid-twentieth century do the “Ashes ashes” (or “A tissue!”) forms start to appear; such late texts are the “evidence” (clearly inadmissible) of being about the plague.
In the late twentieth and into the twenty-first century, the rhyme grew in symbolic value, giving a human face to plagues. HIV-AIDS groups in the United States used the rhyme to bring attention to the need for research into AIDS and support for HIV+ people. Rock musician Dave Matthews used it in his popular song “Gravedigger” to indicate how disillusioned a child is when she learns her childhood song is “about death.” In an interview in Rolling Stone in February 2004, he said, “It’s the classic of classics about dying.” Not just for activists and artists, it had become a symbol of plague, of death, disease, and the corruption of flesh.
Children’s folklore is a rich area for contemporary scholarly study partly because it continues to pick up traditions and generate symbols. But symbol is not history. The history of “Ring around the Rosie” is much shorter than the plague interpretation would have it. The symbols are modern, not “old,” folklore—but they also show nursery rhymes to be living, contemporary culture.
SEE ALSO Children; Death and Dying; Ethnology and Folklore
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It has been suggested that many of these rhymes originally referred to historical events or personalities, although attempts to prove such arguments in individual cases are rarely convincing. There is a risk of over-interpretation: the analysis of nursery rhymes in John Bettenden Ker's An Essay on the Archaeology of Popular English Phrases and Nursery Rhymes, published in three volumes between 1834 and 1840, is, according to one modern authority, ‘probably the most extraordinary example of misdirected labour in the history of English letters’ which has ‘given delight to students of mania ever since’. Sometimes historical origins to nursery rhymes can be traced: thus ‘Ring o' Roses’ may refer to the plague of the 17th cent., while ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ was almost certainly Frederick Augustus, son of George III, who led a less than successful campaign against the French in the Low Countries in 1793–5.
Most connections are hard to sustain. Thus there is no way of proving the early 18th-cent. notion that Old King Cole can be identified with the mythical founder of Colchester. The ‘fine lady’ riding her horse to Banbury Cross (a structure destroyed by the local puritans around 1600) has been variously identified as Queen Elizabeth I, Lady Godiva (there is a version of the rhyme referring to Coventry Cross), and the traveller Celia Fiennes (1662–1741), ‘Fiennes’ being corrupted as ‘fine’. Such identifications are highly speculative.
It is far more profitable to use these rhymes, and the publications in which they were collected, as evidence of changing attitudes towards children and childhood. That so many of them had their origins in the ‘adult’ milieux of the theatre and the song book before coming to the nursery is suggestive of a certain relationship between the adult world and that of children, while the proliferation of nursery rhyme books around the middle of the 18th cent. supports the suggestion that new sensibilities towards children were developing then. This is a contentious area, and tracing changes in sensibility is always difficult. But the content and illustrations in books of nursery rhymes (the first of any substance published in 1744) would repay serious investigation, and would throw much illumination on the history of childhood.
J. A. Sharpe
nurs·er·y rhyme • n. a simple traditional song or poem for children.