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Book review

Rhyme and Reason by Susan Ackroyd
ISBN 978-1-3984629-8-4
Published by Austin Macauley|
Illustrations by Wendy Anne Hawkes. 

We all grew up with nursery rhymes, those cheerful little ditties that our mothers said or sang to us to get us to go to sleep. But what do these short poems mean and where did they come from?

This book, subtitled "English history through nursery rhymes", answers some of those questions. It's the result of a lot of research into the last few hundred years of English history and produces a few surprises that suggest that hidden meanings could require some sensitive explanation if the young recipients start asking too many questions. The verses were a way of making political and other commentary in a way that didn't necessarily attract the attention of the authorities, because such attention could have very bad consequences. As they were a method of spreading news between villages in the days before regular newspapers they were recorded and remembered.

The rhymes are presented according to the time when they first appeared.

  • Rhymes in The Thirteenth Century
    • Doctor Foster
    • Baa Baa Black Sheep
    • Little Bo-Peep
  • Rhymes in the Fourteenth Century
    • Turn Again Whittington
    • Ring a Ring o'Roses
  • Rhymes in the Sixteenth Century
    • I Had a Little Nut Tree
    • Little Jack Horner
    • Little Boy Blue
    • Three Blind Mice
    • Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
    • Hey Diddle Diddle
  • Rhymes in the Seventeenth Century
    • Little Miss Muffet
    • The Lion and the Unicorn
    • Georgie Porgie
    • Jack Spratt
    • Humpty Dumpty
    • Rock a Bye Baby
  • Rhymes in the Eighteenth Century
    • See Saw Marjory Daw
    • Bobby Shaftoe
    • The Grand Old Duke of York

Not all of these will be remembered by everyone, but nobody won't know any of them. In some cases the origins are well known, such as "Ring a Ring o'Roses" where everyone knows it applied to people "falling down" with the plague which had caused their cheeks to get a bit of colour, but some of the others are a bit more subtle.

The black sheep in Baa Baa Black Sheep produced three bags of wool. This was a metaphor for the way that farm produce was claimed and distributed - the "Master" (aristocrat or landowner) got a share as did the "Dame" (the church) with the farmer getting the third "bag full". There was never any suggestion that all shares were equal and you can guess who got the leftovers after the first two "bags" were filled. As the farmers were also tenants, complaining about the farmer's share could lead to dispossession and poverty.

"Three Blind Mice" might sound like a little bit of ill treatment of animals until you find that the "farmer's wife" was Queen Mary, first daughter of Henry VIII, and the "mice" in question were Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer and Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, all of whom were burned at the stake..

Illustration by Wendy Anne Hawkes.

All of course were subject to various forms of torture before being burned, so maybe to avoid nightmares the children don't need to know the full story.

The illustration in the book is actually historically inaccurate. Ridley and Latimer were killed on October 16, 1555, and Cranmer was forced to watch as part of getting him to change his mind. He didn't do that to the satisfaction of his critics, and he was burned on March 21, 1556. The small error in the illustration doesn't detract from the message of the book, however, and the rhyme shows how a story could be told carefully in a time when retribution for almost the slightest criticism of the monarch of the church could be vary nasty.

The execution of Latimer and Ridley, from John Foxe's "Book of Martyrs"

If you want to find out the story behind all the other nursery rhymes in the list you will just have get a copy of the book. Your favourite library can get a copy to lend to you or you should be able to get a copy from the publishers, Austin Macauley, or from the author herself.

Highly recommended, even if you haven't read a history book since school.

About the author

Susan Ackroyd

Susan lives in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, with her husband. They share their land with many kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, birds, and lizards. She loves history, political satire, entertaining and knitting. As both Susan and her husband were born in England, they love visiting their families, travelling on their narrowboat for multiple months each year. "Rhyme and Reason" includes knowledge gained on these journeys.

Susan's web site can be found here.

A version of this review was published on the Oberon Matters web site on May 23, 2024.

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