Why are so many people trying to re-write the nursery rhymes of our childhood to rid them of sexism, violence and social insensitivity? They should be left alone because they are important historic commentaries containing more than meets the eye.
Not content with angry adults already knocking off Noddy, shooting down Biggles and black-balling the gentle golliwog, people are now applying “social engineering” to the world of the nursery rhyme.
In Father Gander Nursery Rhymes, Dr. Doug Larche set out to update what he regards as the “tawdry” traditional tales into modern morals of “healthy relationships”.
The goody-goody gentleman hasn’t done his homework.
A study of the history of nursery rhymes shows that many originally were far from being mere entertainments for “ankle-biters”. They are priceless examples of oral history – some, in fact, were “coded” comments or attacks by common people on their all-powerful betters, disguised to protect the storyteller.
For, while today’s leaders, whose thick skins have been pricked by criticism, tend to rush to their libel lawyers, centuries ago the headsman or hangman determined the punitive damages.
So, the doctor could be tampering with truth, history and early pop culture.
Mary Queen of Scots may have been immortalised as Bo Peep – her lost kingdom, three dead husbands and numerous dead or fled lovers were the sheep. She was also the Mary who was quite contrary.
Another Queen, England’s Catholic Mary I, was the farmer’s wife in Three Blind Mice – they represented Protestants, Archbishop Cranmer and Bishops Ridley and Latimer, whom Mary executed.
Who killed Cock Robin? Nobody knows, but the victim was William II, known as Rufus (Red), who was murdered while hunting. The rhyme was also used later to refer to the downfall of Robert Walpole’s ministry in Britain in the early 18th century.
The revamped Georgie Porgie doesn’t see him running away. Instead it ends with him asking them all “to play and stay”.
Georgie was, variously, George I or George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, or Charles II – all notorious rakes who always loved them and left them.
Charles was nicknamed Old Rowley and his verse uses Rowley Powley instead of Georgie Porgie. He was running away from his many mistresses – and his at least 14 illegitimate children.
Dr. Larche is on shaky ground again when he wants to give social influence to some rhymes that, in fact, already have it. For, coincidentally, in an age now when the rural sector is feeling the pinch, Baa Baa Black Sheep was about a harsh tax on the medieval wool industry.
He was also concerned about the single-parent status of the Old Woman in the Shoe. He missed the point. The old woman was probably based on a very well-married woman, Caroline, wife of George II – who had eight children.
The show traditionally represents fertility in marriage. The old custom of throwing a show after the bride, or its modern equivalent of the shoe tied to the honeymoon car, merely marks the wish for the patter of tiny foetuses.
Father Gander is also honking up the wrong tree when he agonises over the lack of equality in Jack (with, apparently, no Jill) jumping over the candlestick. Candle leaping was a fortune-telling game played by women as well as men in Tudor England. If the tall candle wasn’t snuffed out by the leaper, it meant good luck.
And it’s no good having a sex-change to make Old Queen Cole – there was a King Cole, a powerful duke in Roman Britain.
Unless he condones Orwellian rethinking of history, Father Gander must also leave alone Sing a Song of Sixpence (not five cents, please). It was a “safe” shot at greedy Henry VIII grabbing deeds to 24 properties (blackbirds), belonging to his then wife, Catherine of Aragon (the queen in the parlour) and his next wife, Anne Boleyn (the maid in the garden).
And Little Jack Horner appears to be a true story of a rather odd business enterprise: Jack Horner was a steward to an abbot at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. To suck up to Henry, the abbot sent a right royal Christmas gift – deeds to 12 manors – hidden in a pie. Jack took one for himself, quite a plum.
However, Dr Larche is quite right in saying that some rhymes are sad, angry and violent.
Ring-a-ring-o’roses is widely believed to refer to the Great Plague which hit Britain in the 1660s. The roses refers to the rash on the skin; the posy was a herb ball carried for protection; atishoo marked the cold, one of the dread symptoms. All fall down is obvious – it means death.
The popular child’s game of Oranges and Lemons ends with head-chopping – quite clearly referring to the two wives Henry VIII executed, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
By the way, it would avail Dr Larche naught to regard the Humpty Dumpty verse as a cruel shot at a misshapen human suffering a mishap. Humpty Dumpty was the nickname for a huge mobile , wooden fort that collapsed during the English Civil War killing hundreds of men inside.
So, sure, the world of Mother Goose can be like the real thing, rather tough. But should kids be kept from it? Or should it be sanitised?
After all, Humpty Dumpty (if he had been a scrambled egg) may have said: “L’oeuf wasn’t meant to be easy.
(Note: This was an un-named, undated newspaper articles found in our files.)