Moms

Once upon a time, even Mother Goose had a dark side

April 29, 2011 at 2:56 PM ET

Mario Tama / Getty Images /
Sure, Mother Goose seems like a kindly figure, but some English nursery rhymes have less-than-fairy-tale origins, especially when it comes to royalty.

With the world wrapped up in the pageantry surrounding the royal wedding, it's easy to forget there have been times the royals haven't always been as proper and popular as Wills and Kate are now. Today the tabloids and gossip websites cover the raucous comings and goings of royalty. But once upon a time, these tales were told through sing-song stories, which eventually morphed into now-quaint nursery rhymes.

We remember them as the innocent songs of childhood -- but the cyber bullies of today have nothing on the medieval English when it comes to taunting. Here are a few of the most popular nursery rhymes, decoded with the help of the all-knowing internet:

Georgy Peorgy. Talk about your adulterous royalty.

Georgy was George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham, who had an affair with the Queen of France, ruining her reputation (and making her cry because of it). Oh, yeah, and he wasn't popular, which is why he ran away when the boys came out to play.

Jack Sprat. More royalty with issues.

King Charles I --  dubbed Jack Sprat -- declared war on Spain, but Parliament wouldn't fund it -- he was lean. His wife imposed an illegal war tax on the populace -- to get some fat. He then dissolved Parliament: you know, licking the platter clean.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. Sheesh, no wonder we rebelled. These people are a pain.

Mary is "Bloody Mary" Tudor. The old wench had many innocent people tortured and beheaded for failing to convert to Catholicism. Her "garden" refers to the graveyard for non-converts, minus their craniums. "Silver bells" were thumbscrews, which crushed the thumb between two hard surfaces by tightening the screw. "Cockleshells?" Think torture again. Look at the root of the word and you'll get an idea of what it involved. Ouch!

Of course, other sources say that rhyme is about Mary I of England, mocking her for her miscarriages. Her womb, or garden, was barren and that the original line was not "pretty maids all in a row" but "dead babies all in a row" (as in their little graves).

Jack & Jill. Because the French aristocracy sucked, too.

Since we're on the subject of guillotines, let's chat about Marie Antoinette and her hubby. Jack, King Louis XVI, was beheaded (that's one way to lose your crown) and was then followed by Jill, or Marie Antoinette (hers came "tumbling after"). 

Of course, not all nursery rhymes are dark tales about royalty. Some tackle other, not-so-pleasant, aspects of British life.

Baa, Baa Black Sheep. The English and their taxes.

The subject in this instance was a much-hated wool tax. One-third went to the local lord, "the master", one-third to the Church " the dame," leaving only one third for the farmer, "the little boy down the lane."

Jack Be Nimble. Yo ho, a pirate's life for me.

Jack is allegedly Black Jack, a notorious English pirate, who regularly escaped from the authorities (boy, was he nimble). To underscore the point, they talk about candle leaping, which some English did at fairs back in ye olde medieval times (talk about starved for entertainment).

Humpty Dumpty. Not the cute little egg on a brick wall you thought he was.

Actually, the rhyme refers to a cannon used during the English Civil War. The darn thing fell off its perch and the Royalists, the King's Men and their horses, tried to fix it and get it back up and running, but couldn't because it was so big.

 Ring Around the Rosie. The Broadway version of the Bubonic Plague -- with singing and dancing.

One of the symptoms of the plague was a red rash on the skin (a “rosie” ring). People carried posies around in their pockets to ward off the smell of the disease, and "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down" refers to the high mortality rate associated. (Side note: it's been said the phrase "In the dead of the night" also refers to the plague, as Londoners would take their dead out for collection and burial in the middle of the night.)

So, how did these dark and political rhymes get passed on through the ages? Some say they were originally used as a way to parody royalty and politics in a time when such an offense would be punishable by death. Most people were illiterate, so the sing-song melodies made tales easy to remember. Over time, the meanings were largely forgotten but the catchy tunes endured.

"A lot of children's literature has a very dark origin," said Seth Lerer, Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University California at San Diego. "Nursery rhymes are part of long-standing traditions of parody and a popular political resistance to high culture and royalty. "

Their enduring popularity is all about bonding and teaching kids language, Lerer says. “It is a way of completing the world through rhyme. When we sing these, we're participating in something that bonds parent & child."

Some say that it can be difficult to pinpoint a single historical source for nursery rhymes, because many rhymes have multiple sources which all feed into each other.

"Nursery rhymes are part of oral traditions that are always in movement," said Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian at Harvard University.

What about you: Do you sing these nursery rhymes with your child, and did you know about their origins? Do you ever make up your own words to classic rhymes?

Dana Macario is a TODAY Moms contributor and Seattle mom to two sleep-depriving toddlers. She is currently developing an alarm clock that will start an IV coffee drip 10 minutes prior to wake-up time. Once properly caffeinated, she also blogs at www.18years2life.com.

TOP