Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing: The Murky Secrets That Lurk Behind Nursery Rhymes

History isn’t only what we read in textbooks. There are alternative histories, darker, bleaker histories, that get told by means other than books. Some stories make their way through the ages by word of mouth, some take on the avatar of a song. Some stories get lost in translation, while others get distorted beyond recognition, like in a game of Chinese Whispers.

Some stories are hidden in seemingly innocent disguises, and have been masquerading the world over, for centuries. So many nursery rhymes, for instance, are in fact subtle hints of some of histories darkest secrets, while some talk about the things one cannot discuss in polite company. ‘Little Miss Muffet’ is believed to be about child sexual abuse; ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ about the Black Plague; and ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ about drugs.

Here are the dark stores that hide behind some nursery rhymes so many of us grew up with:

1. ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’

If you thought this one’s a nice little rhyme about there being enough wool for everyone, you’re dead wrong! Baa Baa Black Sheep is about a wool tax imposed by King Edward which caused little or none of the wool to be left for the farmers.


2. ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’

This one is based on a real-life event in which a young girl named Mary Sawyer took her pet lamb to school.


3. ‘Goosey Goosey Gander’

This nursery rhyme has a doubly dark history. Back when it was written, the word “goose” was a slang term for prostitute. And the old man being thrown down the stairs probably refers to Catholic priests being punished by Henry VIII. Either way, this one’s got sinister-sounding roots!


4. ‘Yankee Doodle’

This old favorite is an insult that British soldiers directed at American colonists. The idea was to mock the Americans for thinking that sticking a feather in your cap makes you stylish enough to hang with London socialites.


5. ‘Jack and Jill’

It’s believed to be an account of King Charles I’s attempt to reform the tax on liquid measures. When Parliament rejected his suggestion, he made sure that the volume was reduced on half- and quarter-pints, known as jacks and gills.


6. ‘Little Jack Horner’

In this rhyme, Jack represents Thomas Horner, a steward to Henry the VIII. Horner was rumored to have stolen one of several deeds to lavish manors that were being smuggled to the King inside a pie.


7. ‘Georgie Porgie’

Geaorgie Porgie probably refers to Prince Regent George, a fat, greedy man who loved the ladies. It could also be about a nobleman in King James I’s court who loved seducing other noblemen’s wives, sometimes without their consent. Not the best role model for kids, this guy!


8. ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’

The story behind this one is as dark as it is sad. Abandoned by her father, Henry VIII, because he wanted a male heir, Mary was Elizabeth I’s half sister. As Henry VIII’s firstborn, Mary ascended the throne upon his death and wanted to undo her father’s decision and make England Catholic again. A decision that did not sit well with the public. She then ordered the torture and murder of hundreds of Protestants.


9. ‘Humpty Dumpty’

Humpty was a cannon owned by the supporters of King Charles I. It fell into marshland and was damaged beyond repair during the English Civil War. The idea of Humpty Dumpty as an egg-shaped man comes from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and has nothing to do with the nursery rhyme.


10. ‘Ring a Ring of Roses’

Once believed to be about the Black Death in Europe, Ringa Ringa Roses (as we Indians know it) has, over the years, shaken off any and all doubts there may have been about its origins. As it turns out, it is nothing but an innocent rhyme after all!

11. ‘Here We Go ‘Round The Mulberry Bush’

This merry little earworm is believed to have been a popular chant at Wakefield Prison in England, where female inmates had to exercise around a mulberry tree in the prison yard.


12. ‘Oranges and Lemons’

Oranges and Lemons follows a condemned man en route to his execution. Certainly not kid-friendly stuff, this!


Facebook Discussions