.. he fact that whoever got the plague would fall down dead. This rhyme has evolved over time and the third line nowadays is Ashes, ashes! instead of A-tishoo, a-tishoo. This third line of the evolved rhyme is often translated as when the victims of the plague died, all of their belongings were burnt to kill any of the viruses that were left on them (Lightfoot pars.1-3). I have also heard that line to be interpreted as the bodies of victims of the plague being burnt in piles because of the mass amount of deceased.
Many scholars are skeptical of this version because many sources print that this rhyme is indeed the memory of the Black Death of 1347-1350. Ian Munro, a professor at Harvard argues that if indeed this rhyme was a memory of the Black Death of the 14th century or even a memory of the Plague in London in the 17th century that the rhyme had to go underground for one hundred to four hundred years with no one ever writing it down because there is no mention of this rhyme until 1881 withKate Greenaway’s collection Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes. Her version of the rhyme is quite a bit different than the more popular version I quoted earlier. It goes like this: Ring-a-ring-a-rosies, A Pocket full of posies; Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush! We’re all tumbled down. No one knows if Greenway doctored these old rhymes for her own purposes or if this is the true original rhyme, but it is the first time it was ever published (4).
Phillip Hicock , an influential folklorist, agrees with Munro’s ideas and is also skeptical that the rhyme refers to either of the plagues. He states that the facts clearly point to the second version of where the rhyme originated. He states in his column Said and Done in Folklore that: The more likely explanation is to be found in the religious ban on dancing among many Protestants in the nineteenth century, in Britain as well as here in North America. Adolescents found a way around the dancing ban with what was called in the United State the Play-party. Play-parties consisted of ring games, which differed from square dances only in their name and their lack of musical accompaniment. They were hugely popular, and younger children got into the act, too.
Some modern nursery games, particularly those, which involve rings of children, derive from these play-party games. Little Sally Saucer is one of them, and Ring Around the Rosie seems to be another(4). Folklore rarely appears from nowhere and Hiscock thinks that although Ring Around the Rosie originated from the ban on dancing, that parts could have been borrowed from a rhyme describing the plague, but that the rhyme as we know it does not date from the plague years(4). The third interesting variation of this rhyme states that it is based on a Hindu worship rite. Richard Stoney has researched mythology for years and is certain that the origins of Ring Around the Rosie lies in the mythology of the Hindu god Shiva, who is the god of destruction. There is a dance that is used to re-energize life and the cosmos, and these represent the inseparability between life and death, and therefore, reincarnation.
He interprets the first line of the rhyme as the ring of roses around another ring of roses, which is essential in the ritual Twilight Dance. The ashes referred to are from the great fires at the ritual. The Hindu’s also believe that because when children play this game they continually get up and sing the rhyme over and over after they fall down dead, this they think is proof that the rhyme is talking about Hindu concepts of reincarnation. Hindu’s readily believe that fun rhymes like this are reasons for celebration of life full of actions that are enticing to kids. They don’t think that a rhyme for children could come from such a dreary event such as a plague (Stoney pars.7-8).
The popular rhyme Jack and Jill also has controversial views, but not as heated as the Ring Around the Rosie rhyme. The evolved rhyme as we have heard it for years in school goes like this: Jack and Jill went up the hill To fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown And Jill came tumbling after. Charlotte Foltz Jones reports that according to several different sources, there was no girl names Jill in the original version of this rhyme. The rhyme was about two boys – Jack and Gill – who in real life were Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Bishop Tarbes.
Wolswy and Tarbes served England’s King Henry VIII (1491-1547). In 1518, Wolsey and Tarves tried to settle a feud between France and the Holy Roman Empire. They failed, and war broke out. Wolsey committed British troops to fight against France, and he raised taxes to pay for the war, which the people resented. This rhyme mocked Wolsey and Tarbes (27).
Charlene Winters of the Daily Herald also notes this version of the origins of this rhyme in her article about James Christensen’s latest book, Rhymes and Reasons. He states that The rhyme mocks the collapse of the men’s uphill battle for peace (Pars.14-15). Another interesting theory about the origins of Jack and Jill comes from John Barth of The Paris Review. He believes that the rhyme has underlying adult implications about an incestuous affair between the two children and their fall depicts the societal disapproval of such a relationship (214). The most reasonable believed version comes from Chris Howell, a local historian. His research on this rhyme has made him believe that in the 15th century, a youth named Jack died of a broken crown in Kilmersdom, England.
His wife died from a broken heart after giving birth to their son. Their surname was Gilson and there are descendants of the son still living in England today (111). A favorite rhyme of my children’s today is that of Humpty Dumpty. The nursery rhyme goes like this Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again. Charlotte Foltz Jones gives the explanation for this rhyme as Humpty Dumpty being a nobleman who fell from the favor of the King (26).
Terresa Lightfoot writes down the widely publicized view. In her version of the origins of this rhyme, Humpty Dumpty was actually a powerful cannon that the English used during the English civil war (1642-1649). It was at the top of St. Mary’s at the Wall Church in Colchester to be used to defend the city against the siege from the Royalists. The enemy hit the church tower and it was blown off, thus sending Humpty to the ground. The King’s men did try and put the cannon back together, but to no avail (Pars.1-2).
Marli Murphy points out in her article that recently there has been quite an uproar over the old rhymes and their politically incorrect nature. Consider this standard of one of the old original rhymes: Peter, Peter pumpkin eater, Had a wife and couldn’t keep her. Put her in a pumpkin shell And there he kept her very well. The new age parents of today are worried that rhymes like this can damage the self-esteem of young girls. Some see this as a form of spousal abuse and in this age when people are finally cracking down on domestic abuse, this rhyme is sending the wrong message (CO2).
A new book titled The New Adventures of Mother Goose has been written by Bruce Lansky. He states that I’m on a mission to create a new body of children’s literature thatreflects contemporary values(110). In his new book the formally Three Blind Mice are the Three Kind Mice. Lansky says that he first noticed how sexist and violent Mother Goose rhymes were when his children were small. He couldn’t explain to his children why The Old Woman in the Shoe whipped her kids when today that is considered child abuse. This book is great for the new 20th and 21st century, conscientious parents, who want good reading material for their kids (qtd in Seligman 110).
Many people are appalled at the bawdy nature of some of these rhymes; in all actuality they were never intended for children, but once they had heard them, the children incorporated them into their play. Like any other things in history, we can only theorize about the origins and the purposes the authors had in mind because they are not around to ask. We can only look at the clues we have and try to put them together to find the truth. There are many versions of these rhymes and different cultures have changed their words to fit into their own culture. Sadly we may never know for sure the original intentions these anonymous authors had in mind, so for now and maybe forever we can only speculate the truth.
We must not overlook the importance of these rhymes, nonsense, ditties and songs. These rhymes are a piece of all the threads of time and talk that adults spin around growing children in their homes, in the street, or at school. These rhymes play a crucial part in the development, not only language, but also clapping, the skipping, counting out rhymes, and all other sources of inventive word play. Language in its patterning sets the course of young lives; the importance of acquiring expressiveness can not be overstated. Without linguistic agility, we can not be at our true potential.