When asked to recall childhood memories, very few if any of us, would not include the fabulous tales of Mother Goose, nor would we forget the wonderful nursery rhymes we were able to recite long before we could read or write. These tales and rhymes have stayed with us and many others around the world for years. We have inherited them from our grandparents and will continue to pass them on to future generations.
Although the concept of Mother Goose is a relatively new phenomenon, the world of nursery rhymes and tales has evolved over thousands of year (Delamar, 2). Based on anthropological evidence, Henry Bett concluded that nursery rhymes and tales ". . . date from prehistoric times, and have spread over the world with the migrations of races and the forgotten commerce of many thousands of years" (12). This statement has been based on the language used for such rhymes, the variations in rhymes among countries, and because of their depiction of ancient customs and ideas.
One can witness the slight variations in wording and prose of rhyme both nationally and internationally. For example in America the rhyme is:
Eena, meena, mina, mo,*
Catch a [tigger]** by the toe,
If he hollers, let him go,
Eena, meena, mina, mo.
*Nursery rhymes used throughout the paper have been collected from the sources cited. Original authors are essentially unknown.
**This is not the original American version, rather the version considered politically correct for the time.
while from Devon, England the words are:
Eena, meena, mona, mi,
Pasca, lora, vora, vi,
Eggs, butter, cheese, bread
Stick, stock, stone-dead.
But deciphering the history of nursery rhymes has not been an easy task. Gloria T. Delamar explains that "tracing the origins of nomenclature and identification leads the scholar of children’s literature along many paths. Some are clear, and others are fogged with the haze of poorly documented history" (2). Nevertheless, a history of nursery rhymes and the nursery tales of Mother Goose has been established. This paper will attempt to provide the reader with a chronological overview of nursery rhymes and Mother Goose, as well as a brief understanding of the entertainment reasons for such literary works, and the political allusions.
The history of nursery rhyme dates back centuries, to a time when written language was scarce or limited to the highly educated gentry. A study by Iona and Peter Opie, presented in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (table 1) indicates that "at least one quarter, and very likely one half of the rhymes are more than 200 years old. …More than 40 per cent [of rhymes] have been found recorded before the close of the eighteenth century, and at least one quarter of these set down before the close of the previous century" (7).
|1599 & before||1600-49||1650-99||1700-49||1750-99||1800-24||1825 & after|
|% definitely found recorded||1.8||6.8||3.7||9.6||20.4||21.7||36.0|
|% probably identified||5.6||6.6||4.6||10.4||19.1||21.3||32.4|
|% believed to date||24.2||9.3||15.4||18.0||20.1||10.7||2.3|
It was due to the lack of written material, and more importantly the lack of education for the working class, that the rhymes which we now refer to as nursery rhymes and Mother Goose tales were passed on by word of mouth. It has been suggested that the rhymes, based on the literary styles of composition, were "originally written for the gentry and copied by the ‘folk’ who worked for them, or observed them at their amusements" (Delamar, 2). One can conclude that this is where the term "folk tales" originated, later to become Mother Goose tales and rhymes.
Despite this emergence of rhyme, an interest in these "unappreciated trifles of the nursery" did not appear until the 1700’s (Eckenstein, 2). It was not until this time that publishers began to document the songs found in the nursery and put them into print for those who were able to afford the enjoyment of books. This is also the time where inconsistencies regarding the history of Mother Goose appear.
British literature claims that John Newbery, a publisher in London, printed his first volume of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book in 1744 (Delamar, 6). This work, although not using the identity of Mother Goose, consisted of many of the nursery rhymes we know today. Not only was this piece of work one of the first to focus on entertainment for children, but it was what established John Newbery’s name in the genre of children’s literature. Newbery’s accomplishments were further developed by John Carnan, Newbery’s stepson, who published Mother Goose’s Melody or Sonnets for the Cradle in 1780 (Eckenstein, 3-4).
Accordingly, American literature reserves the 1719 work Songs for the Nursery, or Mother Goose’s Melodies for Children, as the beginning of Mother Goose (Eckenstein, 4; Delamar, 12). Written by Thomas Fleet, a resident of Boston, Massachusetts, this book was said to resemble the format of the later version by Newbery. Unfortunately no record of either of these works has ever been found and as a result no concrete comparison of verification of dates may be made (Eckenstein, 4; Delamar, 12).
A final twist to the origin of Mother Goose can be traced from England back into France. According to Lang, "La Mere Oie was connected with the telling of fairy tales as far back as 1650" (xxiv). Furthermore, "La Mere Oie" has been associated with a storyteller named Bertha. This has given rise to the thought that Mother Goose was an actual person, and more specifically perhaps, one of royalty.
The first possibility is the French Queen Bertha, wife of Pepin. She was "known as ‘Queen Goose-foot’ or ‘Goose-footed Bertha’, possibly because of the size and shape of her foot which was said to be both large and webbed…The other was Queen Bertha, wife of Robert II, also of France… It was rumoured that the close blood-tie [with her husband] had caused her to give birth to a child with the head of a goose" (Delamar, 3). In each case the Queen has been represented, and is often depicted by the image of a child’s storyteller.
Despite the contradictions in the history and origins of Mother Goose, one consistency is how amazingly well the rhymes have lasted through the ages. It must be pointed out that the rhymes often began as poems, or a verse of "…song which [had] been truncated, simplified, and so severed from its original context…" that it no longer resembled its original form and became known within the nursery (Opie & Opie, 5). One does not need to delve too far into the literature to realize that the words, which are supposed to be appropriate and soothing for children, are in actuality the very opposite. Take, for instance, Rock-a-Bye Baby:
Rock-a-bye Baby, in the tree top,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks*, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby*, cradle and all.
Whether this originated from another poem or song is unknown, but the concept is clear—that nursery rhymes "…are fragments of ballads or of folk songs, remnants of ancient custom and ritual and may hold the last echoes of long-forgotten evil" (Opie & Opie, 34).
Regardless of their malevolent words, the nursery rhymes that were popular years ago, and still are today, can in fact be placed into three categories of entertainment. First are the lullabies, the songs and melodies [with] which most are familiar. As was just stated, these were far from soothing but rather are said to have been sung in order to intimidate the child and/or used as an outlet for the emotions of the parent or nurse (Delamar, 30). Two such lullabies are:
Bye, baby bunting,
Bye, baby bumpkin
A second reason for the development of nursery rhymes and Mother Goose was as infant amusement. Many of the counting rhymes, and alphabet rhymes fit into this category.
One, two, three, four, five,
Once I caught a fish alive,
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,
Then I let him go again.
Why did you let him go?
Because he bit my finger so
Which finger did he bite?
This little finger on the right.
Here’s A, B, C, D, E, F, and G,
H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V,
W, X, Y, and Z-
And O, dear me,
When shall I learn
My A, B, C. -1869
Finger games, or what some refer to as tickle games, were also readily used for the amusement of infants and toddlers. Perhaps the two best known are:
Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man,
This little piggy went to market,
The final portion of the trilogy belongs to the group of rhymes that have made their way into the nursery from adult riddles. As the answers to these adult riddles became obsolete, so too did the riddle. However, many have survived and have been passed down through numerous printings to finally land themselves within the collection of children’s nursery lore (Delamar, 40). An example of such a riddle is:
As I went to St. Ives, I met nine wives.*
And every Wife had nine Sacs,
And every sac had nine Cats,
And every cat had nine kittens.
How many Wives, Sacs, Cats and Kittens
Went to St. Ives?
*The riddles used are original versions, not the traditional versions. As a result, words and spelling may be different.
A second example which has lost its role as a riddle and been adopted by the nursery as a rhyme is:
Humpty dumpty sate on a wall,
Humpti dumpti had a great fall;
Threescore mene and threescore more,
Cannot place Humpty dumpty as he was before.
What is so special about Humpty Dumpty is that the same rhyme is found across Europe under various titles--Boule, Boule in France, Annebadadeli in Switzerland, Lille-Trille in Denmark, Humpelken-Pumpelken in different parts of Germany, and a number of others not listed here (Delamar, 49; Opie & Opie, 215).
In connection to adult entertainment, popular theory has claimed that many of the nursery rhymes today are rooted with the political and social undertones of the past. Although there is little documented evidence to prove this statement, it is possible to read into the various rhymes connotations about Kings and Queens, and social injustices. In the circle game Ring-around-the-rosie, links have been made to the Great Plague of London and also of Edinburgh, Scotland (Opie & Opie, 364, Delamar, 38-40). The lines "Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down" or "Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush! We’ve all tumbled down" is referring to the death of the people.
Ring-a-round a rosie,
Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
Other rhymes which have been thought to hold political satire include Humpty Dumpty, where the original Humpty was King Richard III (Opie & Opie, 215), and Baa, Baa, Black Sheep that is said to be written in "protest against the export tax imposed in Britain in 1275. The master [symbolizing] the king" (Delamar, 123).
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 in the lane.
The problem with accepting such satires evolves once one takes into consideration the date the rhyme began, and the fact that most rhymes, or at least variations of them, can be found throughout most of the world. As Delamar states, "For a satire to work, it must be both understood and meaningful to those hearing it" (121). Considering this, it is probably that the political and social satire that is allegedly found in nursery rhymes is of coincidence rather than deliberately concealed.
Whatever the reason, whether for entertainment or protest, the evolution of the nursery rhyme and of Mother Goose has taken place over countless years. The songs, games, tales, and rhymes have been able to survive vast changes in both political structure, technological advances, and of course changes in literary styles and demands. Perhaps it is due to the fact that many of the prose [?] are easy to learn and "catchy" to remember.
It is also possible that the credit of preservation should go to the nursery itself. Henry Bett explains, "we owe the preservation of our nursery rhymes and nursery tales from remote ages to the astonishing persistence of popular tradition, reinforced by the characteristic conservatism of childhood" which insists on having rhymes repeated the same way each time (3). As a result, the history of nursery rhymes and Mother Goose may continue to be debated, and controversy will remain as to many of the reasons for such tales forming. Regardless, the rhymes which we so fondly recall from our childhood will be passed on to our children and produce yet another generation of nursery rhyme lore.
Delamar, Gloria T. Mother Goose - From Nursery to Literature. North Carolina; McFarland and Company, Inc., 1987.
Eckenstein, Lina. Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes. London: Duckworth & Co., 1906.
Lang, Andrew. Perrault’s Popular Tales. 1888.
Opie, Iona, and Peter, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.
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