Mother Goose: Innocent Rhymes or Dark Poems?

Megan Woods, Staff Writer

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Many people in the recent century have grown up listening to the nursery rhymes told as bed time stories from their parents. However, nursery rhymes have been around for centuries and many of the ones heard today are from areas across the globe. Most rhymes were not written down until the 18th century, around the same time that children’s books began to be published and were beforehand simply oral traditions passed throughout generations. Such traditions are considered ancient and most are put to simple tunes. There are rare records of recorded rhymes in the 13th century and in the mid-16th century some were lucky enough to be put onto paper through English plays. Much of the rhymes known today date from the 16th, 17th, and, most popularly, the 18th century. Charles Perrault, a Frenchman, was the first to ever publish a collection of Mother Goose Rhymes and folktales in 1697. The book was subtitled Tales of My Mother Goose, and by 1729, it was translated into English.

While most of these rhymes are told and read to children, it has been argued that these seemingly silly poems have dark, gruesome origins. For starters, nursery rhymes, as did many things in earlier centuries, began mostly for adult entertainment. They were popular for ballads and songs and often contained political allusions.

To further this theory, it’s no secret that the famous nursery rhyme “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” or “Ring Around the Rosie” is speculated to be about the Great Plague, otherwise known as the Black Death which occurred in England in 1665. However, many problems arise with this theory, beginning with the fact that such an explanation never appeared until the 20th century.

“Baa, Baa Black Sheep” is another mother goose tale with a particularly confusing hidden message. The nursery rhyme itself can be dated back to 1731 and many scholars claim it refers to the Great Custom, a tax introduced on wool in 1275. However, the rhymes use of the color black and the word “master” sends a racial message out to some audiences. For this reason, it was banned in American schools for part of the 20th century and some changed it entirely to other, less offense colors such as “Baa, Baa Rainbow Sheep.”

Not far in comparison is “London Bridge” which is dated as far back as 1744. Otherwise known as “London Bridge is Falling Down” and “My Fair Lady”, this nursery rhyme has a couple different theories pegged to it. The most popular theory to emerge is of the Viking attack in 1014, where the London Bridge was destroyed at the hands of Olaf II of Norway, though there are many historians who claim that such an attack never occurred in the first place. Other theories include that of child sacrifices and the burial of children in foundations. This is also unlikely however, because of the lack of archeological evidence of any human remains ever found within the London Bridge.

These tales from mother goose are not the only examples of course. “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” is less likely about a mystical garden and perhaps more about torture devices and Mary Queen of Scots and “Goosey, Goosey Gander” might be alluding to religious persecution, but for most of these rhymes, historians aren’t able to say yes or no. As theories arise, so do many problems with their relationship between the what and when’s of these poems and so many of these claims are unable to be confirmed and instead stay just as they are: Mother Goose nursery rhymes with perhaps hidden dark themes that continue to be passed from generation to generation.