The dark corners of the nursery

Most people know that the children’s rhyme Ring a Ring o’ Roses is supposed to be about the Black Death – a-tishoo, a-tishoo, we all fall down (dead). But I’ve noticed that an inordinate amount of children’s literature, from nursery rhymes to cautionary tales and cartoons, is very dark and disturbing, dealing with violent themes more often found in an adult horror movie than in a playroom. Why is that?

When I was a kid, I read a weird old German picture book called Struwwelpeter (above). The book is named after the first story (Struwwelpeter, which means Shock-headed Peter) and is filled with gruesome stories: in one, a thumb-sucking infant who refuses to quit his habit has his thumbs cut off by a roving tailor wielding a giant pair of scissors; in another, a boy who won’t eat his soup wastes away and dies; in a third, a child who wilfully goes out into a storm is blown away to his death when the wind catches his umbrella. I read it uncritically and, as far as I remember, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now it seems ghoulishly violent. I can’t really imagine schools today or even the most liberal of parents giving this old-fashioned compendium of carnage to their children to read.

What put this in my mind was something I came across on Twitter the other day about the Muffin Man.

Until then, if I had thought about it at all, I assumed the Muffin Man was a jolly old fellow who sold delicious breads from a basket, calling out his wares in the streets, something like this guy below . . .

I hadn’t realised that the Muffin Man song commemorated a paedophile mass murderer. I did know that nursery rhymes often had interesting stories behind them. When I was researching the Holcroft Blood trilogy, I discovered that Humpty Dumpty was not a person or an egg but a massive bulbous siege cannon that exploded at the Siege of Colchester (1648) during the English Civil War. It had been placed on a wall and the explosion killed and maimed many Royalist soldiers and so completely shattered the great gun, so that: “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men could never put Humpty together again”.

Other nursery rhymes have equally fascinating origins. Baa Baa Black Sheep dates from the time of Edward I, who imposed a harsh new tax on sheep farmers. One for the Master, meant one portion of the wool for the King, one for the Dame – ie, the Virgin Mary, or the Church – but “none for the little boy who cries down the lane” meaning the farmers were left with no profit. George Porgie Pudding and Pie was about handsome courtier George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (below), who seduced the wives of other men at court (and may also have been the first King James’s lover). He “kissed the girls and made them cry” but ran away “when the boys came out to play”.

Adulterous sex, unfair taxes, the brutality of war . . . these might seem unlikely themes for children’s stories. And some are even more grim. Oranges and Lemons charts the route of a condemned prisoner on his way to the gallows past the churches of London. Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush is about a women’s prison in Wakefield where the inmates had to exercise around a mulberry tree in the yard.

Researching my novel Blood’s Revolution, I discovered that Rock-a-bye Baby refers to event just before the Glorious Revolution. The baby in question is supposed to be the son of King James II of England, but was widely believed to be another man’s child – a changeling smuggled into the birthing room in a bedpan to ensure a Catholic heir. The “wind” that rocks the cradle is the Protestant forces blowing in from the Netherlands, contemporaries spoke of a “Protestant Wind” ensuring victory; the “cradle” was the House of Stuart. The Glorious Revolution, of course, replaced Catholic James II with Dutch King William III.

So why are 21st-century children still encountering these rather macabre and disturbing stories? The German picture book Struwwelpeter is a genuine attempt to teach good values to children (being neat and well groomed, eating up your dinner, etc). It seems strange now because our cultural values and treatment of children has changed since 1845. The nursery rhymes’ question is more complicated. Firstly, children don’t know they are singing about plague or adultery or royal bastards or condemned men’s last journeys. And, secondly, the songs that end up as nursery rhymes often began as adult-aimed doggerel penned by ballad singers and other street performers. There is a long-standing tradition in Europe of political resistance to mighty monarchs and other powerful politicians by satire and caricature.

The Grand Old Duke of York, for example, who fruitlessly marched his troops up and down a hill, is said to be about Richard, Duke of York, who lost the battle of Wakefield in 1460. But these verses can also be repurposed, some say the song is about the ineffectual Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany who commanded the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. They can also be exported – there is a version about the King of France and his 40,000 men and one about a Prince of Orange who had 100,000 men.

In largely illiterate societies, the simple words and catchy melodies helped people remember the stories and, crucially, pass them on to the next generation as a kind of oral history. So why are children still singing them in this post-literate age? Because they are memes. They are bits of culture that are passed from person to person, and down the generations too, like a rude joke or a clever card trick or video of a cute kitty-cat playing the piano on Twitter. There is nothing more sinister to it than that!

Angus Donald’s latest novel – The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3) – is available as an eBook or paperback from Amazon. Click on these links to buy The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1) and The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2). If you enjoyed the nursery rhymes blog above and want to help out an impoverished writer in these financially troubling times, you can buy Angus a figurative coffee or even a pint at Ko-fi/angusdonald

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