Over on my Puddles Of Ink website I run this series called 'Illustrated Facts', in which I put my History degree to good use and illustrate some interesting nuggets of information I've happened upon. I decided I wanted to do a feature on some well known nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and the more I looked into it, the more I realised there was to uncover and investigate. For my first post here, I decided to feature the first three nursery tales I stumbled upon, with my own accompanying illustrations. I tried to pick ones that seem to have an obvious meaning, making the stories behind them all the more intriguing.
Old Mother Goose
Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander
Would fly through the air
On a very fine gander.
Mother Goose had a house;
It stood in the wood
Where an owl at the door
As sentinel stood.
There are innumerable nursery rhyme collections with the stamp of approval from the ominous 'Mother Goose', but ironically the doddery old woman often shown in the pictures is actually inspired by the witch hunts of the seventeenth century. A lot of stories and rhymes originating from the 1600s feature themes, elements and sometimes characters that have their roots in these troubling times, mainly because of how widespread the witch craze actually was. There weren't many parts of Europe that weren't affected by the fear and confusion of the hunts, and this nursery rhyme is a strong example of how events can trickle down into popular culture. Children at the time would have been able to see the parallels between the words in the rhyme and other tales of witches and witchcraft they would have heard.
The old woman here can fly, just as a witch can, however her vehicle of transportation happens to be a goose as opposed to a broom - far less magical, but also less threatening as an image...unless you have a fear of geese! A lot of women thought to be witches were older and reclusive; often they lived alone and interacted infrequently with other members of the community. Her house in the wood here is a direct reference to this. These women often had familiars, or animal companions, that they were thought to feed off of and use in magical rituals, and between the goose she rides on and the owl at the end, it is hard to not see the clear indications of who Old Mother Goose is supposed to be.
Rain Rain Go Away
Rain rain go away,
Come again another day.
Little Johnny wants to play;
Rain, rain, go to Spain,
Never show your face again!
Growing up in London, it's not surprising that this was one of the earliest nursery rhymes I can remember learning, but aside from the obvious meaning, this one actually links to the reign of Elizabeth I and the ongoing conflict between England and Spain. The Spanish Armada was launched in 1588 with the purpose of invading England, and greatly outnumbered the English fleet, with over 130 ships to their 34 small navy ships and 163 armed merchant vessels. The English won, partly due to the swift nature of the English ships and partly due to the stormy weather that scattered the Spanish vessels; two things that are make up the bulk of this rhyme!
Jack Be Nimble
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack jump over the candlestick.
One of the shortest rhymes in existence, Jack Be Nimble is a little tricky to place, but it was first published in 1798. However, it is generally agreed that it comes from a connection to Black Jack; the old English pirate. In the 16th century, Black Jack was notorious for continuously escaping from the authorities; hence the use of the word 'nimble'. However, the second line is thought to be in relation to the old traditional sport of candle leaping. When jumping over fire was deemed too dangerous a practice, candle leaping was created as a safer alternative. It's weirdly random, and there is an ongoing debate over whether there were originally more verses to further explain the point of the rhyme, but it is unlikely that we will ever know for sure.
I hope you've enjoyed learning a little bit more about some well-known nursery rhymes. Which was your favourite? Did any surprise you? There are so many different interpretations and variations of these rhymes, so if you know of any other interesting origin stories leave them in the comments below, and I'll feature them in a follow-up post!
Sources: The bulk of my information comes from 'The Secret History Of Nursery Rhymes', by Linda Alchin (2013) - she also has a lot of the information on her accompanying website:  http://www.rhymes.org.uk/nursery-rhyme.htm I also used some of my old university essays in relation to the points on witchcraft and the Spanish Armada, but if you want to conduct your own research I would definitely recommend 'Witchcraft In Early Modern Europe: Studies In Culture And Belief', by Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester & Gareth Roberts (1996); and 'The Spanish Armada: Revised Edition', by Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker (1999).

Published by Avni Bhagwan