Mother Goose Rhymes And The Middle Ages

Essay, Research Paper

Mother Goose Rhymes and the Middle Ages

Medieval children learned rhymes and songs from the oral repetition of adults. As many as a quarter of the 550 texts in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes are accurately dated before the 15th Century; many were only oral rhymes and not written down until decades after they were first popularly recited. In 1978, Helen Cooper pointed to a much larger body of potential medieval nursery rhymes, which she collected and modernized in an anthology called Great Grandmother Goose. The rhymes in her collection come from a large number of manuscripts and documented records that survive from the thirteenth century forward (Thomas 42).

There is also folklore inherited from the Middle Ages regarding the personage of the actual Mother Goose. Some believe she may have been Queen Bertha who died in 783 AD. She was the wife of Pepin and the mother of Charlemagne. She is said to have been goose-footed. Others argue that Mother Goose was the Queen of Sheba (Baring-Gould 16). The most plausible reason for the personage of Mother Goose is from the Medieval English Goose Girl. The goose girl tended geese for the entire community as a shepherd tended sheep (Johnson 14). Possibly, the goose girl sang or designed rhymes to pass the time and passed them down to other goose girls. Whoever she is, throughout the ages, Mother Goose has acted as a storyteller, passing down oral history, folklore and the superstitions of the past. She has helped to document some of the pagan beliefs of the Middle Ages and later (Ward 3).

The rhymes were commonly called Mother Goose Rhymes in approximately the late seventeenth century. In 1697, a compilation of popular folk tales was published in France by Charles Perrault called Tales of Mother Goose, Perrault told the fairy tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty along with nursery rhymes. This is the first known time that this personage of Mother Goose appeared in print (Thomas 15).

Majorities of the rhymes were political satires or commentaries on the way of life and the nobility in the Middle Ages. Most were written, sang, or spoken for political purposes or as a way of communicating a problem within the society they lived. The rhymes were recited from memory and varied somewhat as they were passed down (Johnson 9). Also, many of the rhymes were interpreted and changed to fit into the different countries of Medieval Europe (Ward 2).

Illiterate peasants created many of the rhymes and they were indeed fitting criticisms of the time. Only a small number of the peasants were capable of composing the rhymes, but everyone could repeat them. The opinions expressed in the rhymes were understood, appreciated, and passed down orally from generation to generation (Baring-Gould 12). Church officials were mainly the only people that could write during the Middle ages; therefore, since many of the rhymes about church corruption were not written down until long after the Middle Ages (Opie xxi).

Some of the rhymes dealt with the unfairness of the feudal system as the King received or took more and more power, land, and goods from the peasants. However, the rhymes were not only critical of kings and the nobility, but also church officials; for example, many rhymes dealt with the corrupt Cardinal Wolsey. The common people could see the corruptness of the Church; they resented the fact that the church officials were very wealthy while the peasants were struggling to survive (Johnson 13). The people judged the kings as tyrants who became wealthy at the expense of the common people (Johnson 9).

This first group of rhymes shows some of the contempt, circumstances, and feelings the peasants felt about their living conditions with a brief overview explaining the cause or circumstance behind the rhyme.

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Baa, Baa, black sheep, have you any wool?

Yes, sir, yes sir, three bags full.

One for my Master,

One for my Dame,

And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.

During the Middle Ages peasants were required to give one-third of their income to their “master”–the King; one-third to the “dame”–the nobility; and the final third for themselves–the “little boy.” One version of this rhyme ends with, “And none for the little boy.” The question is, which version is more accurate? The peasants in different areas may have changed this last line to depict the tyranny of their particular region more accurately (Ward 5).

Recently politically correct groups have reinterpreted this rhyme as being racist. It seems that a Birmingham nursery school can no longer read children Baa Baa Black Sheep because it has racist undertones. The ruling by the city council delighted political activists but left parents and teachers fuming. The Working Group Against Racism in Children’s Resources, which issues guidelines to education authorities, said: The history behind the rhyme is very negative and also very offensive to black people, due to the fact that the rhyme originates from slavery The rhyme has colonial links: `Three bags full’ refers to the three bags of wool, which the slaves were told to collect and `yes sir, yes sir’ is how the slaves would reply to the masters.”

However, most academics believe the rhyme was a protest against a wool tax in 1275. This wool tax required peasants to give a third of their income to the king (master), a third to the nobility (dame), and could keep a third for themselves (the little boy) (Baring-Gould 35).

Hickory Dickory Dock

Hickory, dickory, dock,

The mouse ran up the clock.

The clock struck one,

And down he come.

Hickory, dickory dock.

This rhyme was simply a rhyme passed down between shepherds. The “hickory, dickory, dock” chant is an example of an onomatopoeia. The words were numbers used by medieval shepherds to count their flocks. These shepherds probably came home from a hard day in the pasture and put their children to sleep by “counting sheep” with the same rhyme (Ward 15). This rhyme may be one of the oldest known rhymes and probably originated in Germany (Opie 185).

Ring Around the Rosies

Ring around the rosies

A pocket full of posies

ashes, ashes

we all fall down!

This rhyme and its interpretation are widely known to refer to the Black Plague. The Black Plague devastated Europe in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, it struck England in 1348 and killed an estimated one-third of its population (Johnson 17). Ring Around the Rosies refers to the rings that formed around the painful sores. One notion is that a pocketful of posies, a small bouquet of flowers in a shirt pocket, was believed to hold off the plague because of the smell. The poesy was also an herb that people carried to ward off illness. The ashes could be the ash of fires from the burning of personal belongings of plague victims or the ashes that were spread on the bodies of the ill to try to prevent more spreading of the disease (Johnson 17). “We all fall down!” obviously represents the devastation of all the dying.

Three Wise Men of Gotham

Three wise men of Gotham

Went to sea in a bowl

If the bowl had been stronger

My song would be longer.

From the Middle Ages until about the end of the last century, Gotham was well known for the stupidity of its inhabitants. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries many stories were told of their foolishness. For example, in order to have perpetual summer, they built a hedge around a cuckoo to keep it from flying away (Opie 193).

During King John s reign in the early thirteenth century, he and his court were scheduled to travel near the city of Gotham. The King required his subjects to provide food for the hundreds of people in his entourage. This would mean the loss of income and food for the peasants of Gotham. The grain and other food would be used up in the weeks of the visit leaving the lord of the manor bankrupt. Also, any road that the King traveled on became a King s Highway. The route used by the king would become a taxed public road thereafter. These two factors made the Gothamites unwilling to have the King visit. They decided to act like raving lunatics when the King approached so that he would not require their services or not come through their territory at all. The people of Gotham were smart enough to conceive this plan to keep the King away. The rhyme apparently started in Gotham as propaganda that would get back to the King before he traveled through their city (Johnson 19). It is unrecorded as to whether or not the plan worked.

Goosey Goosey Gander

Goosey Goosey Gander

Whither shall I wander?

Upstairs and downstairs

In my lady s chamber.

There is an old man

Who would not say his prayers.

I took him by the left leg

And threw him down the stairs.

This last rhyme describing the state of affairs in the Middle Ages is about a man named Richard Whittington who was the Lord Mayor of London in 1397. He was a peasant that worked his way up to the mayorship by becoming wealthy. There is also a legend that says he had a black cat that helped him get his fortune from the King of the Barbary Coast by ridding it of rats. This cat chased away an epidemic of rats that were carrying the bubonic plaque and the King was said to have rewarded him greatly. While no one is quite sure how this part of the myth grew up, Richard Whittington actually made his fortune as a dealer in costly fabrics such as silk, wool merchant and royal financier (Nursery Rhymes). After he became wealthy, he was notorious for having affairs with married women (Johnson 24). The old man who wouldn t say his prayers was probably some husband that found Richard in his lady s chambers.

Lower class people resented a member of their own class have authority over them and becoming famous, even if the persons ability to be in that position was acknowledged. Those commoners who found themselves in exalted positions were said to have jumped up. Since Dick Whittington had jumped up and was not virtuous, many people ridiculed him by constantly repeating the rhyme (Johnson 24).

As stated earlier, many rhymes were about the dishonesty of the church and its clerics in medieval times. The following group of rhymes is a representation of this genre of rhymes.

Ding Dong Bell

Ding Dong Bell

Pussy is in the Well.

In the Middle Ages, the church bells were very important. According to Mason Johnson, they signaled significant news announcements, weddings, deaths, church services, prayer times, celebration days, and they warned of impending danger. When the bells rang, everyone was to drop what they were doing and run to the church (14). The celebration days became so frequent that the peasants started to resent the constant interruption of their work. They felt that the priests invented saints and celebrations days just so that they could ring the bell. The rhyme suggests that the priests would even ring the church bells if a cat died (15).

Little Jack Horner

Little Jack Horner

Sat in a corner

Eating his Christmas pie

He put in his thumb

And pulled out a plumb

And said What a good boy am I.

Jack Horner (or John) was a steward of the Abbot of Glastonbury. The abbot owned more land than any man in England did. The abbot, wanting to build a close relationship with the king, presented the king with the deeds to several church properties (Anderson). The deeds were placed inside a pie; a popular custom at the time was to bake things inside a pie (Johnson 25). Jack was selected to present the pie to the King. However, when the King opened the pie, it was short one deed. Jack had chosen a real plum, a choice piece of land in England (Nursery Rhymes). This robbing of the deed was well known and the Horner neighbors still call the property that Jack took The Plum. The property is still in the Horner family today (Johnson 26).

Jack Be Nimble

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick

Jack jump over the candlestick.

This rhyme also refers to Jack Horner. He advised his servants to hide their treasures in churches and monasteries so that King Henry could not take them. However, many of them were subsequently found by the King s men and confiscated (Johnson 26). He had to be quick and nimble to take the treasures from the peasants to beat the king to it, so he could have it instead.

There are many rhymes written about Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1475-1530). Cardinal Wolsey shaped England’s policy abroad and was a leading figure in both church and state. After becoming a priest, he was appointed royal chaplain. By 1511, Wolsey had been made a privy counselor with a decisive voice in the government. He also became archbishop of York, a cardinal, and finally the pope’s representative in England (Knight 112).

Soon all authority was concentrated in his hands. England was too narrow a field for his immense ambition. He aspired to be the justice of Europe. He threw England’s influence on the side of the Holy Roman emperor. He expected thereby to enlist the emperor ’s aid for his own aspirations to become pope.

The costly display of his palaces outdid those of kings. His servants knelt to wait on him. Ambassadors might consider themselves honored in being permitted to kiss his hand but might not presume to discuss new business with the king before broaching it to Wolsey (Knight 112).

He initiated the policy of destroying the monasteries, which was to be carried through to completion by Henry VIII. Some of the confiscated property he applied to the foundation of Christ Church College at Oxford. However, Wolsey’s greed, arrogance, and insatiable lust for power outweighed his good qualities. His more than ample estate was sustained not by the revenues of his many offices alone but also by enormous pensions from foreign rulers, bribes from English applicants for justice, and the misappropriated revenues of the suppressed religious foundations. His policies and haughtiness alienated both clergy and laymen. Charles V found it prudent to see that Wolsey should not become pope (Knight 112).

Wolsey had reluctantly made himself responsible for the success of Henry’s appeal to Rome for an annulment of the king’ s marriage to Catherine of Argon. When the pope refused, the king’s wrath knew no bounds. Wolsey was taken from his high place. He had already given Hampton Court Palace to the king; now he requested the king to take over all his possessions, and he retired to his archbishopric of York. Summoned to London to answer a charge of treason, Wolsey died on the way, on Nov. 29, 1530, in Leicester (Knight 112).

A Pocket Full of Rye

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye

Four and twenty black bird baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing,

Wasn t that a dainty dish to set before a king?

The king was in his counting house counting out his money.

The queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden, hanging out the clothes.

Down came a black bird and tweaked off her nose.

The pocket full of rye refers to great fields of grain that Henry received from Cardinal Wolsey. The blackbirds were probably the deeds to the property. The term blackbirds according to Mason Johnson, was also used as a nickname for the priests, implying that the deeds were gifts from the church (28). The maid in the garden describes the scene of a garden party given by Wolsey. This is the first time that Henry VIII saw Anne Boleyn. Eventually, the blackbird Wolsey snipped off her nose by prohibiting her marriage to Lord Percy (28).

Little Boy Blue

Little Boy Blue, Come blow your horn

The Sheep are in the meadow

The cow s in the corn

Where is the little boy who looks after the sheep?

He is under the haystack, fast asleep.

Cardinal Wolsey is the little boy in this rhyme. His job was to look after his sheep in other words, his neglected congregation. During various times of need, the Cardinal was fast asleep in his extravagant palace in Hampton Court (Anderson). This palace was lined with gold walls, golden candlesticks, and even the plates at the table were made of gold (Johnson 31). He did not want to be bothered by the poor peasants who needed him and who oddly were the people that had made him wealthy.

Old Mother Hubbard

Old Mother Hubbard

Went to the cupboard

To get her poor dog a bone

When she got there

The cupboard was bare

And so, the poor dog had none.

According again to Mason Johnson, this rhyme also refers to Cardinal Wolsey. The cupboard in this rhyme is the Vatican and the bone was the papal office to which Wolsey hoped to win for himself when the reigning Pope died. The man that composed this rhyme was very courageous to expose Cardinal Wolsey s offenses. All the copies of the rhyme that Wolsey could get were burned and the author was forced to flee to Holland to save his life (33).

The rhymes of the Middle Ages were a method of communication between people in isolated, rural communities. All over Europe, rhymes passed from village to village. It is interesting that in almost every culture you will find songs about shepherds and their sheep, kings that were dishonest and about the influence of the church. There are also an innumerable amount of rhymes that discuss the evil superstitions, pagan mysticism, and witchcraft of the Middle Ages. When most people read to their children from a Mother Goose book, the rhymes seem innocent enough. Nevertheless, we can be sure that some seemingly innocent rhymes still read today have their origins in the dark days of the Middle Ages.


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