Nursery Rhymes Harrowing History – Part 1

As my youngest son gets older, his likes and dislikes are, of course, changing. My wife is great at changing things out. He has new books that he loves to read, new favorite snacks to eat, and new toys to play with; but one new thing that keeps his attention and makes him laugh is a show where they sing nursery rhymes and ‘simple songs.’ As you do with kids, sometimes the repetition of these things gets to you after a while. Sometimes you start to think about how silly it would be to see Grandma Shark swimming around with her family, what kind of farmer that Old MacDonald was, or why in the world Jack and Jill kept falling down the hill just because they wanted some water. It makes me wonder about the deeper meanings behind a lot of these older nursery rhymes. So I decided to do a little digging, as I always do, and figure out where in the world some of these nursery rhymes came from and are their origins as kid-friendly as they seem.

I found some dark origins in my digging. The history surrounding the short, four-line nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie” is quite shocking. The nursery rhyme: “Ring around the rosie/A pocketful of posies/Ashes, ashes/We all fall down!” is one of the most prolific in its deeper meaning. The ‘Rosie’ references the rash that covered the bodies of those who caught the last outbreak of the bubonic plague. Over 18 months between 1665 and 1666, The Great Plague of London killed an estimated 100,000 people (which equated to almost a quarter of London’s population at the time). Victims of the plague (caused by bacteria usually passed through the bite of a human flea or lice) suffered from rashes and sores (sometimes even gangrene) that created a rotten stench. The sufferers attempted to cover up the smell with a ‘pocket full of posies.’ The ashes, a reference to the estimated 100,000 cremated dead bodies, are an even more disturbing image.

Sadly, London was plagued (sorry, I had to) with the Bubonic Plague long before The Great Plague of London. Around 300 years before the Great Plague of London in the Late Middle Ages, The Black Death hit Europe in 1347. Decades before The Black Death wiped out one-third of London’s population, England experienced many positives. Historians contribute many positives to Edward Longshanks (such as restoring royal authority after the reign of Henry III, establishing a permanent Parliament, and reforming law through the initiation of statutes). During a historically good reign, Edward I (known as Edward Longshanks for being temperamental and being an extremely tall man for that period) also created unfavorable tax increases. His functional system for raising taxes included an extremely harsh wool tax. King Edward’s wool tax was detrimental to farmers because it asked for one-third of the wool to the King, one-third to go to the church, and one-third for the farmers. That scenario might sound vaguely familiar because King Edward I’s wool tax inspired the nursery rhyme “Baa baa Black Sheep.”

The nursery rhyme goes:

“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.”

The Master is a reference to the King, the Dame is a reference to the Church of England, and the little boy is a reference to the farmers. Older versions of this nursery rhyme end with “But none for the little boy/Who cries down the lane.” show the devastating hit that this tax caused the farmers who worked for the wool.

I will think twice before singing or reciting these two seemingly innocent nursery rhymes showcase the horrors of poverty in the 13th century and give an analogous description of the bubonic plague.


Children playing “Ring Around the Rosie” at the Model Playground of the 1904 World’s Fair by Jessie Tarbox Beals – Missouri History MuseumURL:, Public Domain,

Page 1 of Nursery Rhymes by Edward Coggerderivative work: Theornamentalist (talk) – This file was derived from: Nursery Rhymes.djvu:, Public Domain,

Stereo card by y William H. Rau (photographer) showing children playing Ring Around the Rosie as part of a Christmas celebration, circa 1897 – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c12632. This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain,

The Great Plague of London in 1665. The Last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in England image by unknown –, Public Domain,

Black Death aka Peste nera in una minitura del XV secolo by Unknown author –×360.jpg, Public Domain,

Photograph edit of King Edward’s statue on the King’s Screen in York Minster by Richard Croft, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Baa, Baa, Black Sheep 1 – WW Denslow – Project Gutenberg extext 18546, Public Domain,

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