Top 10 Nursery Rhymes With Dark Origins

When you want to give a baby sweet dreams, you might well be tempted to open a book of nursery rhymes…and soothe them to sleep with tales of murder, plague and Tudor politics. Surprised? Most nursery rhymes started off life in very different places to the dimly lit bedroom they’ve ended up in. The simple words and catchy rhythms were more like a taunt, like soccer fans might use to unnerve their opponents. But such catchiness translates well to the nursery and the playground, so they’ve become children’s staples. Find out where your baby’s favourite rhymes come from in our Top 10 Nursery Rhymes With Dark Origins.

 

10. Oranges and Lemons

What could be more innocent that a rhyme about fruit? And church bells? The clue that there might be something darker involved comes at the end: “Here comes a candle to light you to bed/Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” Yes, it’s about executions. The various bells mentioned in the rhyme are supposed to represent the way that the condemned men would be woken on the morning of their deaths. The churches are all around what is now the City of London, and it is possible that they were on the route to the gallows. St Clements was also near the docks where fruit was unloaded, hence the oranges and lemons…although it may also have just been a convenient rhyme.

 

9. Little Bo Peep

A morality tale next, or at least it was in its original form. Little Bo Peep lost her sheep, but it’s all OK because they come scampering back to her, with tails waggling in joy. Such a happy ending! Sadly, the earlier versions weren’t so happy- their tails weren’t behind them, they were beside them, having been separated from the sheep. Not such a happy ending.

The moral comes in the rarely-used second verse (and the subsequent rarely used other 3 verses) that says “Little Bo peep fell fast asleep/And dreamt she heard them bleating/But when she awoke, she found it a joke/For they were all still fleeting” In other words, if you fall asleep on the job something horrible is going to happen to your sheep. Remember that, shepherdesses!

 

8. Goosey Goosey Gander

Some of these rhymes are a little oblique about their dark roots, and others proudly wear their sinister credentials on their sleeves. This one falls into the latter camp – the line about the old man that says “I took him by his left leg and threw him down the stairs.” Whichever century you live in, throwing elderly men down the stairs is pretty dark. According to folklore, the old man who wouldn’t say his prayers is a Catholic, refusing to embrace the new wave of Protestantism that swept Britain during the reign of King Henry VIII. And the throwing down the stairs was a metaphor for torturing and executing them (the “left leg” is also said to refer to Catholicism. Additionally, “goose” was slang for a prostitute (“to be bitten by a goose” meant contracting VD), so it was comparing the Catholic Church to a prostitute. Nice.

 

7. Ring o Roses

One of the most famously dark nursery rhymes, Ring o’ Roses was said to originate from when the Plague swept England in 1665. A “ring of roses” on your palm was one of the first signs that you had the plague, and the sneezing (“atishoo, atishoo”) would follow, with falling down not long after that. And yes, falling down is a metaphor for death. Again. That one comes up a lot.

Modern versions often have a second verse (“Cows are in the meadow, eating buttercups” or “Picking up the daisies”) but these were later additions, designed to sanitize the rhyme for children. As it happens, children are quite blas√© about disease and death and just accept that the rhyme had sinister roots. The main fun is dancing in a circle and then falling down, right?

 

6. Jack and Jill

Another rhyme which had a verse added on to provide a happy ending. In the modern version, Jack goes to bed to mend his head with vinegar and brown paper, but there was no such reprieve for supposed real-life subjects – Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antoinette. They were nicknamed “Jack and Jill” presumably to mock them by using commoners’ names (“Jack” represented an everyman) and Jack “lost his crown” (i.e. his head) and Jill “came tumbling after.”

It’s a neat explanation but sadly it is probably apocryphal, as the earliest versions of the rhyme appeared before the French Revolution. Even Shakespeare used the phrase “Jack shall have Jill” to describe the tangled affairs of the lovers in “Midsummer Night’s Dream“. The true origins are unknown, but it could have been a Norse myth or something to do with Catholic priests again. Still, it’s safe to say that mending heads isn’t as easy as Jack makes it look…

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