I apologize for the blogging hiatus. I’ve had me a nice holiday, seeing family and recharging my batteries.
Whilst away, I read a great book called Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes by Albert Jack.
I think the subtitle pretty much explains what the book is about. It’s well worth a read, so I’ll just pick a couple of examples and leave it to you to read the rest.
Firstly, Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, which, as I’m sure you’ll know, goes thusly:
Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane
Except in one earlier version the last line is actually, ‘And none for the little boy who cries in the lane’ .
The meaning behind the rhyme, on this book’s interpretation, is that it is an anti-tax song. In the Middle Ages, England’s main industry was wool*, which it exported to the Continent. Naturally, this led to King Edward I imposing a hefty tax on wool exports. Hence the King (the master) and the monasteries (the dame), which were home to wealthy wool merchants, received most of the money from the wool, leaving very little to the poor shepherd (the little boy).
Secondly and finally, Humpty Dumpty:
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.
Humpty Dumpty has always been portrayed as an anthropomorphic egg, for which you can blame John Tenniel‘s illustration in Lewis Carroll‘s Through The Looking Glass. But this book suggests it was the name of a cannon used by the Royalist forces (the Cavaliers) in the English Civil War to defend Colchester from the besieging Parliamentarians (the Roundheads).
Manned by One-Eyed Thompson, who made up in the cool-name department for what he lost in the ocular-organ one, the cannon successfully kept the Roundhead army, led by Thomas Fairfax , out of the town for eleven whole weeks – until the church tower the cannon was placed upon was blown up from under it, sending Humpty Dumpty crashing to the ground. Obviously an attempt was made to retrieve the cannon from the rubble and repair it, but, ‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men/ Couldn’t put Humpty together again’. The Roundheads took the town, and the rest is history.
The Colchester church tower which saw these sad scenes was that of St Mary-at-the-Walls, which I visited only this last week:
You can see that the top of the tower is made from different, newer bricks than the rest. Maybe I was standing on poor Humpty’s resting place when I took this picture.
*The Lord Speaker in the House of Lords (successor to the Lord Chancellor, a role which possibly goes back before the Norman Conquest of 1066) sits on a Woolsack – a reminder to Parliament of what England’s prosperity is based on. It’s a bit out of date, they should probably sit on a chair stuffed with bankers bonuses and One Direction concert tickets these days.