The Dark History behind the Propagation of Nursery Rhymes

The Dark History behind the Propagation of Nursery Rhymes

Culture | Aug 21, 2018 / by Ishita Sen
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Juvenile literature

Nursery rhymes often referred to as 'Mother Goose Poems' are a form of juvenile literature that is designed to appeal to children and their vivid imagination, through the sonorous quality of uniform rhyme. Rhymes such as Baa Baa Black Sheep and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star have been around for centuries. The eras may have changed, with the world moving on from crude illustrations in pamphlets to 3-D animated videos, but the stories that are passed on through changing media have mostly remained the same. The critical utility of nursery rhymes is to familiarise a child with his or her immediate surroundings. Roberta Hawkins in her paper entitled Nursery Rhymes: Mirrors of a Culture, remarks, “Chinese verses contain references to oil, hair cues, bean cakes, incense…. Catholic Mexico speaks of the Virgin Mary. Scottish verses tell of oatmeal broth, fish, heather and plaids. Rhymes from the United States reflect an accelerated technology, by including words like the sewing machine, telephone, railroad, radio and T.V.” The local community has a big part to play in how the nursery rhymes develop in a particular area. Among the verses popular in England, most originated in the 17th through the 19th centuries, and have references to contemporary society and culture. In an attempt to familiarise children with the times, the rhymes were also an attempt to transmit the dominant attitude of those times through the verses circulated among children. The long-time rivalry between England and France is implied in many of nursery rhymes, for instance:

Eena, meena, mina, mo,

Where do all the Frenchmen go?

And the same nursery rhyme in the United States catches on a more pressing issue, which nonetheless reflects the dominant racist ideologies of the time:

Eena, meena, mina, mo,

Catch a nigger by the toe.

Without understanding the implications, children can internalise ideas that are often against the basic tenets of human rights. The Mother Goose rhymes of today are filtered down versions of ballads, folk songs, tales, proverbs, tavern or military refrains, favourite songs, satirical political verses and riddles, all compiled by adults. Hawkins says that these are, “all written down by adults, for an adult world. But adults have brought down their world into the realm of children’s verse, and there it has remained.” Unbeknownst to them, children are made prisoners to ideas and ways of thinking that the adult world wishes to propagate among the newer members of society.

The potency of the rhyme scheme and the oral tradition

The fundamental aspect of these poems which adds the mnemonic element is the uniform rhythm and rhyme. This accounts for why nursery rhymes are so catchy and easy to remember for kids and adults alike. For instance, the rhyming patterns in the following lines can be seen in the words 'after' and 'water':

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water

Jack came down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.

The rhythmic pattern is so active that it has invited reinventions, referring to other critical events in the socio-political history of the world. An example of a variation of 'Jack and Jill’ concerning the reign of Charles I in 1630 is,

The King of France went up the hill,

With forty-thousand men,

The King of France came down the hill,

And ne'er went up again.

After the outbreak of World War I, the words again changed to accommodate the newest socio-political anecdote:

Kaiser Bill went up the hill

To conquer all the nations,

Kaiser Bill came down the hill,

And split his combinations.

This goes a long way to show in how potent rhyming schemes are, to carry forward a story. Especially when a story in history was suppressed by those in power to prevent rebellion, it often found a disguised expression in the rhymes for children and passed around among the poor and illiterate circles. This also presented an opportunity for those belonging to the lowest rung in the social ladder to poke fun at those who, often unfairly, ruled over them. For instance, it is often suggested that Jack and Jill were appropriated to refer to the history of King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who were both found guilty of treason in France and subsequently beheaded. Children are exposed to nursery rhymes even before they learn to speak correctly. It is the rhyme of the verse that helps the development of the faculty of language in growing toddlers. Therefore the function that nursery rhymes play about children is confined mainly to the oral aspect of the verse. The moment nursery rhymes begin to be collected, translated or written down by adults, there is a political agenda at work. The guise that it is meant for children serves as sufficient cover for the influential circles to propagate their ideas, and it also allows the marginalized groups to voice their dissent and ridicule their oppressors without being severely penalized for doing so.

The dubious origins

Nursery rhymes often known as Mother Goose poems were collected and published in 1744 in a book for the very first time. The tales were published under the name of 'Mother Goose Tales' in 1780. There were some rhymes based on this character of Mother Goose, which referred to the witch trials that still captured the imagination of people.

Old Mother Goose

When she wanted to wander

Would fly through the air

On a very fine gander.

 Mother Goose had a house;

It stood in the wood

Where an owl at the door

As sentinel stood.

These rhymes reflect the how people were taken with the figure of a witch, a fascination that predates the year of publication. They refer to the widespread witch-hunt that resulted in thousands of women being burnt at stake. The myth of the witch also included the concept of the Familiars, or animals bound to serve their masters. This coincided with the long tradition of fables in the oral culture and seems to have cemented the motif of animals in nursery rhymes, a feature which has contributed to the amusement of kids down the ages. There were many children's rhymes that referred to the large-scale persecution of Catholics in the Protestant nation of England. ‘Mary, Mary quite contrary' was a reference to Mary Queen of Scots, sister of Queen Elizabeth I, a Catholic who was deposed and was executed. 'Ladybird, Ladybird' and 'Goosy goody Gander' also propagated similar anti-Catholic feeling among the people of England, and the rhymes helped keep these sentiments alive. Social issues such as child labour, the status of women and many others social issues were incorporated into rhymes. Though nothing was made explicit, the inherent status was passed on among the people from generation to generation. The socio-political policies implemented by the ruling powers adversely affected the poverty-stricken masses and were craftily documented in children’s rhymes.

The wool industry, critical to the economy of Britain, is celebrated in the rhyme 'Baa Baa Black Sheep'. However, it may also be read as a political satire referring to King Edward I (the ‘Master' in the rhyme) and the export tax which was imposed in Britain in 1275, wherein the English Customs Statute authorized the King to collect a tax on wool exported to all ports of the country. Further research suggests that the verse refers to King Edward II in the 14th century, who resorted to the more skilled Flemish weavers to improve the quality of the finished wool products in England. In both scenarios, the poor peasants were forced to bend to the whims of the monarch which created heavy financial losses on already-difficult lives. The word 'black' brought with it obvious racial connotations as well. However, in 2006 and later in 2011, attempts have been made to change the words and suggest an alternative version, 'Baa baa rainbow sheep' instead, to promote ideas of tolerance and equality among children, keeping in view the movement of the LGBTQ community in the world. Similar changes may be seen in other rhymes. In the US version of 'Eena, meena, mina, mo, Catch a nigger by the toe', the racist term 'nigger' has been changed to 'tiger', which shows that the rhymes can be altered and used to promote definite ideas as well.

The politics behind the printed word

The apparent bias behind the printing of nursery rhymes may be observed in the works of John Bellenden Ker in the 18th century. He hypothesized that the English nursery rhymes were written in 'Low Saxon’, an early form of Dutch. He then proceeded to 'translate' said verses to English, but whatever he produced had a strong tendency to lean towards anticlericalism, a topic that he felt deeply about. The very act of printing nursery rhymes takes it away from the realm of children, towards a more adult world. The verses in print are prone to voice agendas and issues that may not directly concern children. The continuity of the oral tradition and its authenticity is tampered with, and it is the printed versions that have come down to us, with all the political motivations behind them. Prior to the 1570s, nursery rhymes were orally transmitted. In the 17th and 18th centuries, which can be roughly regarded to be the time or origin of most of the nursery rhymes based in England, funny rhymes and stories began to be published in the form of Chapbooks which were small books or pamphlets containing twenty-four or less number of pages without a hardcover or binding. Besides containing the lyrics to the rhymes, Chapbooks often included illustrations and crude wood engravings of the rhymes printed. This made them more accessible to illiterate circles and to those you could barely read, usually belonging to the lowest level of the social hierarchy. Partly the reason why nursery rhymes catered as the medium of the dissent of the oppressed and the underprivileged may be associated with this feature. Nursery rhymes, therefore, can often be said to take up the mantle of protest songs among the lower classes in society.

Too dark for kids?

The often bloody and violent history hidden between the lines of simple verse has often been at the centre of the debate about whether they are fit to be read or recited to kids. The threat of tender minds being exposed to such cruelty and the consequences of that are real enough, and experts have deliberated the issue. The fact remains that children cannot be protected forever from the darkness inherent in society. The reality can be masked only for so long before the children grow up themselves and encounter the issues in their life. Besides, children's stories across cultures are usually unacceptably dark in their content. Folk and fairy tales popularised by the likes of the Grimm brothers and Andersen were given some degree of sophistication. Snow White in the original folk tale was raped. The Little Mermaid lost her identity and her voice when she turned human in the original story. The tales have been severely edited over the years to make it suitable for kids, but the darkness has pervaded the tales. One of the central aspects of children’s stories is the battle between good and evil. For the forces of good to triumph, the forces of evil are necessary. Nursery rhymes may not comprise a narrative with an epic battle between good and evil, but they help in subtly imparting knowledge about the so-called evil forces in society and are therefore essential to the upbringing and education of any individual.

Relevance today

The relevance of these old folk tales may not be obvious, but their function is inherent. Nursery rhymes perform the very primary linguistic function, where the intonation and rhyme helps a toddler to learn the language itself. The exciting content captures his or her imagination that contributes immensely to the process of growth. On a social level, nursery rhymes seem to plant the kernel of truth in young minds about the darkness in society. Racism, oppression and similar issues are rampant even today, across the world. By planting the seed through a simple tale, nursery rhymes build up towards a moment of epiphany in the life of an adult. A familiarity with these issues in a purer form can equip them to deal with the world suitably. Additionally, the potential of nursery rhymes can be utilised to propagate real ideas and ideologies. The attempt to change the lyric of ‘Baa baa black sheep’, for example, is a move in a positive direction, aimed to include the people who have been marginalised, in an attempt at getting children accustomed to a more tolerant and accepting society.


Alchin, Lynda Katheryn (2004). Secret History of Nursery Rhymes. [Google Books Version]. Retrieved on (August 13, 2018) from

Burton-Hill, Clemency (2015, June 11). 'The Dark Side of Nursery Rhymes'. [Web log post]. Retrieved on 2018, August 13 from

Hawkins, R. (1971). Nursery Rhymes: Mirrors of a Culture. Elementary English 48(6), 617-621. Retrieved from

Wood, Jennifer M. (2015, October 28). 'The Dark Origins of 11 Classic Nursery Rhymes’. [Web log post]. Retrieved on (August 13, 2018) from

Image source: Mentalfloss

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Written By Ishita Sen

A student of English literature with confused clarity.

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