Notorious Nursery Rhymes: Jack and Jill
What is a Nursery Rhyme?
A nursery rhyme is a traditional poem or song for children. The term seems to have been first used in the late 18th/early 19th century. Many countries have their own unique nursery rhymes but there are a few that have gained worldwide popularity, though the wording may be changed slightly to be relevant to a different demographic.
Thomas Carnan, was the first to use the term Mother Goose for nursery rhymes when he published a compilation of English rhymes, Mother Goose's Melody, or, Sonnets for the Cradle (London, 1780) and "Mother Goose Rhymes" soon became almost interchangeable with the term "Nursery Rhymes."
Many nursery rhymes have been argued to have hidden meanings and origins.
Historical Parody or Macabre Sense of Humour?
In more repressed times, it was often unlawful for people to express themselves freely, and doing so could lead to persecution. Gossiping, criticizing the government or even talking about current events were often punishable by death. So, in order to communicate at will, clever rhymes were constructed and passed around to parody public figures and events.
Disguised as children’s entertainment, many rhymes that were encoded with secret messages throughout history have endured the test of time and are still with us today.
Other nursery rhymes don’t seem to carry a particular message at all but convey a macabre sense of humour. They have been so ingrained in us since childhood that we hardly notice that babies are falling from trees, people are being tortured, women are held captive or live animals are being cooked. It’s only when you stop and absorb the actual words of these catchy, sing-song rhymes that the darkness and morbidity are realized.
Although they seem in the minority, some rhymes don't even reference historical events at all, but instead, seem to convey warnings or common sense wisdom. Maybe this is only because no one has come up with a viable connection yet to a historical event or person.
Jack and Jill (1765)
Jack and Jill went up the hill,
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down,
And broke his crown;
And Jill came tumbling after.
Up Jack got and home did trot
As fast as he could caper.
He went to bed
And mended his head
With vinegar and brown paper.
History and Meaning
Although this is one of the most popular of all nursery rhymes, the most widely proposed roots of this poem are so dark that they should not be mentioned in the vicinity of a small child. Jack and Jill are said to be France’s King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, both convicted of treason during the French Revolution (the Reign of Terror), and beheaded. Jack or Louis XVI, lost his “crown,” i.e. his throne and his head. And Jill or Marie Antoinette's head soon came tumbling after.
The only problem is that those events occurred nearly 30 years after “Jack and Jill” was first written. The more likely possibility is that it’s an account of King Charles I’s attempt to reform the tax on liquid measures. When Parliament rejected his suggestion, he instead ensured the volume was reduced on half, and quarter-pints, known as jacks and gills, respectively.
The second stanza of the verse never seems to appears when the former of these theories is discussed. The "went to bed and mended his head with vinegar and brown paper" may refer to Charles I not having his reform passed, but after consideration, finding alternative measures to rectify the situation.
Other verses were added later to the rhyme, and some changed over time – a 19th-century chapbook has 15 stanzas. The second verse originally referred to Jack going to “old Dame Dob” to get his head bound with vinegar and brown paper, while a later version (as above) has him going to bed and treating himself.
We do know that Jack and Jill were often used as generic names for a boy and girl in stories. examples being “Jack And The Beanstalk”, "Little Jack Horner", "Jack Sprat", "Jack Be Nimble" etc.
Another popular story is that an unmarried couple courted at the hill in 1697, love took its typical course leaving Jill pregnant, but Jack was killed by a falling rock.
The hill reputed to be where Jack and Jill tumbled can be found in the village of Kilmersdon near Frome in Somerset. It’s not as steep as the rhyme suggests, but there is a well at the top of the hill by a primary school.
Kilmersdon has actually marked its association with Jack and Jill. On the side of the school, a slate tells the story of the unlucky couple.
Once again, I have written my own version which I think suits this theory where Jill found herself pregnant (I take no responsibility for the disparity with contraceptive methods of the 17th Century.)
Jack and Jill went up the hill,
To do what they oughtn'er.
Jill forgot to take the pill,
And now they have a daughter.
Political or Religious Propaganda
One of the first people to believe links existed between rhymes and historical persons, or events, was Katherine Elwes in her book The Real Personages of Mother Goose (1930), wherein she linked famous nursery-rhyme characters with real people. She assumed that children's songs were a peculiar form of coded historical narrative, political or religious propaganda or covert protest and doubted they could have been written simply for childhood entertainment.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.