Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ba Ba Black Sheep and his master: the King of England

This article is not about Indian royalty but as interesting. We all grew up on nursery rhymes. But I don’t think any one of us actually thought of what they actually mean or how they originated. For us, they are just innocent children’s rhymes. It may come as a surprise but most the nursery rhymes are a parody of events which happened in medieval England. The common folk created these rhymes to lampoon the socio-economic setup of those times. An Indian parallel would be jingles and rhymes chanted by village children or even something like “Gali gali mey shor har...........” etc. Let us look at some real and fascinating stories behind these nursery rhymes.

The real story of Ba Ba Black Sheep:
King Edward I for England , “the master” of Ba Ba Black Sheep who imposed custom duty on wool on 1272.

You couldn’t imagine Ba Ba Black sheep was actually an parody on the Tax system in the 13th century England ! In those times wool trade was a very big and important business also the chief source of income for small peasants. Anyone, who had land from the nobles to small farmers, raised sheep. However, after returning from Crusades in 1272, King Edward I of England imposed heavy taxes on wool. As a result, the peasants lost a big chunk of their income.
As a result of these new tax laws, 1/3rd of the produce went to the king (The master) and other 1/3rd to the nobility and church (The dame). The last stanza originally was “and just one for the little boy who cries down the lane”, which meant that the poor farmers who toiled and worked hard looking after the sheep got just 1/3rd after the payments to king and nobles and so were unhappy. Hence the term “cries down the lane”. This was changed to “lives down the lane” to make it more palatable to children.

Baa Baa Black Sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master, ( 1/3rd share for the king as tax)
One for the dame, ( 1/3rd share for the nobility & church as tax)
And one for the little boy
Who cries down the lane (Poor farmers got only remaining 1/3rd share after taxes and hence were unhappy)

The real story of Humpty Dumpty:

Who was Humpty Dumpty who sat on a wall? A common misconception is that Humpty Dumpty was an egg. This imagery was popularised by Lewis Carrol, the author of Alice in Wonderland, in his book “Through the looking glass” in 1872. This is how everyone started to assume that Humpty Dumpty was an egg.
Humpty Dumpty as popularized by Lewis Carrol in his book “Through the looking glass” in 1872.

The truth is that Humpty Dumpty was a large cannon belonging to the Royalist army in the English Civil War and deployed in the city of Colchester. The city was strongly fortified by the Royalists and was laid to siege by the Parliamentarians (Roundheads). In 1648 the town of Colchester was a walled town with a castle and several churches and was protected by the city wall. Standing immediately adjacent the city wall, was St Mary's Church. A huge cannon, colloquially called Humpty Dumpty, was strategically placed on the wall next to St Mary's Church. The historical events detailing the siege of Colchester are well documented - references to the cannon (Humpty Dumpty) are as follows:

  • June 15th 1648 - St Mary's Church is fortified and a large cannon is placed on the roof which was fired by ‘One-Eyed Jack Thompson' 

  • July 14th / July 15th 1648 - The Royalist fort within the walls at St Mary's church is blown to pieces and their main cannon battery (Humpty Dumpty) is destroyed.

The church of St Mary located on walls of the city of Colchester, on top of which a big cannon called Humpty Dumpty “sat on a wall” and “had a great fall” in a battle in July 1648.

A shot from Parliamentary cannon succeeded in damaging the wall beneath Humpty Dumpty which caused the cannon to tumble to the ground. The Royalists, or Cavaliers, 'all the King's men' attempted to raise Humpty Dumpty on to another part of the wall. However, because the cannon , or Humpty Dumpty, was so heavy ' All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty together again!' This had a drastic consequence for the Royalists as the strategically important town of Colchester fell to the Parliamentarians after a siege lasting eleven weeks.

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, ( The cannon called Humpty Dumpty was placed on the wall)
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; ( The cannon fell down in the battle of Colchester)
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again (Royalist army tried to repair the cannon but failed)

The real story of Ring-a-Ring of Roses:
The Great Plague - Black Death of Europe (and we all fall down)
Now we come to the most ominous and macabre of all nursery rhymes. The much liked “Ring-a-ring of roses” actually belongs in a B-grade Hollywood or Bollywood movie. I was quiet shocked to learn what the words actually meant and it has completely changed my perspectives of this song.

This tune has its origins in the bubonic plague of 1665 or Black Death which swept through Europe. One of the first symptoms of the plague were rashes or rings of rose colour which appeared on the skin. In those days, sweet smelling herbs (Posies) were considered to be a cure for the disease. Then came the symptoms of sneezing and coughing (Aitshoo). Also, the mortality rate in plague was very high around 60%. This rhyme was a sad parody laughing at their own misery.

Ring-a-Ring o'Rosies     (The symptoms – rings of plague appear)
A Pocket full of Posies (We take posies as medicine)
"A-tishoo! A-tishoo!"   (We start coughing and sneezing)
We all fall Down!         (We all die of plague)

Queen Marie Antoinette of France, is she the Jill whose head "came tumbling after"?
So now you know where these popular rhymes originate. There is even a suggestion that “Jack and Jill” in the rhyme could have been King Louis XVI of France, who was beheaded in the French Revolution (“Lost his crown”). Soon after, his wife Marie Antoinette was too beheaded by the revolutionaries (“Jill came tumbling after”). But this remains unconfirmed. I wonder if Indian nursery rhymes too have such fascinating origins. Unfortunately I don’t know any Indian rhymes except “Machli Jal ki Rani hai.............” Where could that have come from? Any idea?

By Akshay Chavan


  1. Akshy,
    Hats off to your real effort to unearth such a nice story. In fact I never knew such interesting fact about these rhymes. I always appriciate your story telling style. Keep it up.

  2. really nice :) I knew about ring-a-ring a rosies and Humpty-Dumpty...really weird origins for the nursery rhymes..

    Interesting read akshay..

  3. Grim...but interesting. Its similar with all fairy tales. They weren't as fair-like as we know them.

  4. Hi akshay great research,Mind Boggling!
    Raja Madhukakar de Mysore

  5. really are very interesting:))! Great work this...wonder how many people ever give a though to what any of the popular rhymes mean.Thanks......gr8 work! Actually all the pieces you put up are very interesting!

  6. Hello Akshay, headsoff to you and for your effort.
    Samar Mishra

  7. superb i admire ur efforts u do have a nose for the unusual

  8. Thanks Akshay for your research and sharing your findings. We now know the real meaning of our childhood rhymes.

  9. First time on your blog, you have got a nice space. Following you.

  10. Have received several posts of yours in the Indian Royalty Subscription. This one, shared by one of my friend on Facebook is something just awesome. Some may call it redundant in today's world of globalization. But, I found it extremely interesting. Thanks and Regards,

    Kunwar Sanidhya Bali
    Daryabad 11th Day of June, Year 2012

  11. Good one, wonderful