We all know “Jack and Jill” just as we are familiar with what happened between Little Miss Muffett and the spider and what Little Jack Horner did while he sat in a corner. Most of us are familiar with these Mother Goose stories and the rhymes attributed to Mother Goose because they were an intrinsic part of our childhood; most of us don’t remember exactly where we first heard them, what they mean or where they originated, we just know we enjoyed them and giggled when we fell down like London Bridge. While we know the rhymes and stories, it’s important to review the history behind some of the most popular Mother Goose rhymes in order to better understand ourselves and our cultural history.
“Jack and Jill”
Jack and Jill went up a hill to fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and lost his crown and Jill came tumbling after.
Up Jack got and home did trot as fast as he could caper.
And went to bed to mend his head with vinegar and brown paper.
While this poem may seem like a water fetching task atop a very tall hill gone awry, the history behind this particular rhyme is far more morbid, and actually belies French history. Jack and Jill are actually King Louis XVI of France and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette. Jack, aka King Louis XVI, lost his crown when he was beheaded; his wife, aka Queen Marie Antoinette, was beheaded soon after. The ending was changed to create a happy ending for children reciting the rhyme. Both Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI were killed during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror in 1793 and, coincidentally, the lyrics of “Jack and Jill” were published for the first time in 1795, tying in perfectly with the historic events of the time.
“Hot Cross Buns”
Hot cross buns, hot cross buns.
One a penny two a penny
Hot cross buns.
Hot cross buns, a very important traditional food commonly eaten around Easter time, usually on Good Friday, are small, spicy buns with candied fruit inside. They are decorated with a white cross of icing, rice paper, a flour and water mixture or, sometimes, simple cuts. They are usually eaten when they are hot, hence their name “hot cross buns”. Hot cross buns were sold by street vendors who would hawk them by shouting “hot cross buns, hot cross buns, one a penny two a penny hot cross buns!” They were traditionally sold and eaten around Easter time, hence the cross, which signifies the death of Christ on the cross and his subsequent resurrection.
There are many other Mother Goose rhymes that allegedly carry morbid connotations. One of the most famous ones is “Ring Around-a-Rosie”:
Ring around a rosie
Pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!
This particular Mother Goose rhyme supposedly refers to the Black Plague, though some suggest the timing of its original publication and references to symptoms of the plague do not correlate. It is said that “Ring around a rosie” described the boils and sores, which presented as a ring around a reddish or blackish sore, with which most people were afflicted. Posies were carried around because the sweet smell was thought to protect people from the Black Plague, as it was supposedly spread through bad smells. “Ashes, ashes” refers to the cremation of bodies because there wasn’t enough room to bury all of the dead and “we all fall down” refers to the fact that when people were felled by the plague they indeed ‘all [fell] down [dead]’.
We all, or most of us anyway, remember reciting these rhymes as songs or parts of games as children. However, the history and theory behind some of these rhymes is very interesting too, whether or not it’s verifiable truth.