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Nursery Rhymes and their origins

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I got the idea to start this thread from a couple of posts in the poetry chain thread, (posts 2069 & 2070 by Heather and Megs)


I had a little nut tree,

Nothing would it bear,

But a silver nutmeg,

And a golden pear.


The King of Spain's daughter

Came to visit me,

And all for the sake

Of my little nut tree.


I skipped over water,

I danced over sea,

And all the birds in the air,

Couldn't catch me.


Her dress was made of crimson

Jet black was her hair

She asked me for my nut tree and my golden pear

I said "so fair a princess never did I see"

I'll give you all the fruit from my little nut tree.



My dad always used to tell me that the origin of this was to do with Catherine of Aragon and her inability to provide an heir, the silver nutmeg and the golden pear relating female or dead, or illegitimate offspring. When I've looked it up on the web, there are also suggestions that it relates to Juana of Aragon, Catherine's sister, who was also a potential bride for Prince Arthur, Henry VIII's older brother who was originally married to Catherine.


I didn't know about the last verse until I just looked it up. Neither Catherine nor her sister had black hair (although I suppose the author could have presumed they did with them being Spanish), however Anne Boleyn did, which got me speculating in that direction, although Anne wasn't a princess. Of course we shall never know the original meaning, but it's fun to speculate isn't it?


The nut tree and the golden pear (pair) in the last verse clearly have sexual connotations.

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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.


The Siege of Colchester, during the English Civil War, it is claimed, inspired this nursery rhyme. Humpty Dumpty is said to have been the nickname of a large Royalist cannon strategically placed on the wall next to St Mary's Church. The Parliamentary cannon attack of the 14th July damaged the wall, causing 'Humpty Dumpty' to be destroyed. Attempts to remove it to another part of the wall failed. Similar stories attribute the name Humpty Dumpty not to a cannon but to a Royalist sniper, 'One-Eyed Thompson', who occupied the belfry of St Mary's Church and was shot down by Parliament forces.

Alternative theories about its origins are that it referred to Richard III, because of his 'humped' back, or that it was a C19 riddle.

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The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, by Iona and Peter Opie, is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the origins of nursery rhymes. They state that 'Humpty Dumpty' is undoubtedly a riddle, though we are so used to the idea that Humpty Dumpty is an egg (thanks to Lewis Carroll) that it doesn't seem like one. It first appeared in print in 1803. However, very similar rhymes, all of them riddles to which the answer is an egg, appear all over Europe in different languages, which suggests that it is very old indeed, and is unlikely to refer to any specific incident in English history.


I've never seen the fourth verse of 'I had a little nut tree' before. It doesn't look at all like the others - I suspect it was added recently. The Opies don't mention it. With all respect to Squirls's dad, his theory doesn't seem to me to fit very well. If Katherine of Aragon was the nut tree, she was the King of Spain's daughter - she wouldn't be visiting herself! Also, silver and gold are precious things, and the nut tree is so special that a princess comes to visit it.


Most of the explanations given (without any evidence) for the origins of nursery rhymes suggest that they are cryptic references to some event in English history, or even have occult significance. Haven't these people heard of nonsense? I would love to give them a poem by Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll, tell them it's a traditional rhyme and see what they come up with!


Hey diddle diddle,

The cat and the fiddle,

The cow jumped over the moon;

The little dog laughed

To see such sport,

And the dish ran away with the spoon.


The Opies list 8 far-fetched proposed explanations for this and dismiss the lot of them, concluding with the words: 'The sanest observation on this rhyme seems to have been made by Sir Henry Reid, "I prefer to think", he says, "that it commemorates the athletic lunacy to which the strange conspiracy of the cat and the fiddle incited the cow."'

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  • 3 years later...

Wow never thought that the apparently senseless nursery rhymes could be so deeply entrenched in history. I was similarly surprised when I read that Alice in Wonderland had many mathematical computations well illustrated in Writing Style and themes on wikipedia http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice's_Adventures_in_Wonderland


Though I wish somethings would remain conspicuous and unexplained fantasy.

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Some nursery rhymes are very old, but most of them are not based on historical events, though people enjoy imagining they might be.  They are not so much entrenched in history as in childhood, and they remain unexplained fantasy.


Alice in Wonderland is another matter.  Lewis Carroll was a mathematician, after all.

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