Nursery Rhyme Origins

History Uncovered Episode 115:
The Shocking Origins Behind History’s Most Iconic Nursery Rhymes

Published May 24, 2024

Is "Ring Around the Rosie" really about the bubonic plague? Does the "Muffin Man" refer to an actual serial killer? These are the stories behind history's most well-known nursery rhymes.

Nursery rhymes have long been a staple of childhood around the world. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, these short poems and catchy tunes often used to lull children to sleep or teach lessons became largely synonymous with the fictional author Mother Goose, whose origins likely lay in France before the character was adapted for a wider English-speaking audience.

But while many people associate nursery rhymes with happy childhood memories, the stories behind some of the most popular nursery rhymes may be far darker than they appear.

Take “Ring Around the Rosie,” for example. Initially, the song – and its accompanying dance – seem innocent enough, but why the line about ashes, and the subsequent line, “we all fall down”? As these questions were probed by a larger and larger audience, particularly as the internet age came about, rumors began to circulate that this silly little children’s song may not be so silly after all.

Curious theorists have wondered whether “Ring Around the Rosie” could be a reference to a plague. The ring mentioned in the song, they have suggested, might reference the rings that appear on infected skin. The ashes, they say, could refer to the burning of infected bodies – and the connection between the line “we all fall down” and death needs little explanation.

Ring Around The Rosie

Wikimedia CommonsAn illustration of children playing “Ring Around the Rosie.”

And “Ring Around the Rosie” is far from the only nursery rhyme to purportedly hide a darker meaning beneath its innocent surface. Some have claimed that the “Muffin Man” actually tells the tale of a serial killer, that “Humpty Dumpty” may refer to clumsy drunks, that “Three Blind Mice” might symbolically represent the mass murder of Protestants under the reign of Queen Mary I, a.k.a. “Bloody Mary,” and that “London Bridge is Falling Down” could be a reference to a horrible method of execution.

But is there any truth to these theories? After all, these nursery rhymes have been passed down from generation to generation, translated into numerous languages, adapted for various audiences, and retold orally for decades before they were ever written down. Who knows what may have been distorted and lost in translation over the centuries.

While the origins of many nursery rhymes are hard to discern, there is still a good amount of historical evidence that can clear up at least some of the misconceptions – and thankfully, the alleged “dark truths” behind many nursery rhymes aren’t nearly as dark as some would have you believe.

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