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Notorious Nursery Rhymes: Jack and Jill

John loves to read, especially crime, fantasy, psychological thriller, and sci-fi novels. He also writes poetry and short fiction.

Sailko [CC BY 3.0 (]

Sailko [CC BY 3.0 (]

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 or early 19th century. Many countries have their own unique nursery rhymes and 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 fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after

Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after

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.

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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 appear 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: “Jack and the Beanstalk”, "Little Jack Horner", "Jack Sprat", "Jack Be Nimble", etc.

Another Theory

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.

Alternative Version

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.

Rick Crowley / Jack & Jill Plaque

Rick Crowley / Jack & Jill Plaque

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.


John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on June 15, 2019:

Asad, I tried to find the nursery rhymes with the most interesting histories. Jack and Jill was one of those. Thanks for reading.

Asad Dillz Khan from United Kingdom on June 15, 2019:

Hi John!

You always know how to find that silver lining.Very informative and very interesting history! Fantabulous Job!

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 22, 2019:

Hi Dana, well maybe Humpty Dumpty will be one of the next nursery rhymes I look at. Thanks for reading.

Dana Tate from LOS ANGELES on April 22, 2019:

I remember loving nursery rhymes as all kids do. My favorite is humpty dumpty.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 20, 2019:

Audrey the history of these nursery rhymes is even more fun to research than the rhymes themselves. Glad you had fun with my version. Bless you.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on April 20, 2019:

What fun this has read the history of nursery rhymes only makes me appreciate them more. I got a kick out of the alternative version of Jack and Jill. :)

Thanks, John.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 17, 2019:

I am glad you found this interesting Nithya. The background behind most nursery rhymes are very interesting and surprising.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on April 17, 2019:

I always wondered about Jack and Jill and how this rhyme came into existence. Interesting reading about its history, thank you for sharing.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 14, 2019:

Hi Venkat, yes once you start delving into the history of things your whole idea changes that these nursery rhymes are not as innocent as they appear.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 14, 2019:

Thank you Dianna. Yes, most of us just thought it an innocent rhyme, nothing more. But things aren’t always what they seem.

Dianna Mendez on April 14, 2019:

I remember saying this poem as a child. I thought it was just a fun nursery rhyme. It's interesting to read of the history behind it.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on April 14, 2019:

Very interesting facts ( Jack and Jill tales) shared by you. I was simply assuming that it is a nursery story of 2 naughty boys Jack and Jill. But, now I am seeing it as a very different tale of something very unpleasant and of serious concern. Thanks, John, for sharing your deep researched backgrounds of these rhymes.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 14, 2019:

I am glad to hear that you are enjoying this series, Genna. I am enjoying researching it. Some of the real meanings certainly aren't suitable for children.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on April 14, 2019:

I never knew that nursery rhymes we sang as kids had such interesting histories -- some not so pleasant or playful -- and were "disguised as children's entertainment." I'm enjoying this series, John.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 13, 2019:

Thank you Kamkar. Have a great day.

Kamkar sanjukta on April 13, 2019:

Another great article. Your research work is great indeed.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 13, 2019:

I had no idea of the background either Chitrangada until I started researching. So glad you enjoyed this.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on April 13, 2019:

This is a great, enlightening series, which you have started.

We must have heard or recited, ‘Jack and Jill’, many times. I never realised that it has some history, behind it.

A thoroughly enjoyable read. Thanks for sharing!

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 12, 2019:

Thank you PoetikalyAnointed. Yes,they aren’t so sugary sweet after all when you delve into the real meanings. Blessings.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 12, 2019:

Hello Ruby, yes I am intrigued as I research these origins and meanings so I thought my readers would be too. People always manage to find a way of protesting and not being suppressed. Thanks for liking my version too.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 12, 2019:

Hey Pamela, thank you for supporting my work and the great comment. I am glad you are enjoying this series and hopefully learning something new. I find it fun to add my own take on some of the rhymes lol.

PoetikalyAnointed on April 12, 2019:

Another awesome, insightful and entertaining Hub with this Series. These rhymes are very clever and mysteries. I wouldn't put it past the original authors to underline real events with these seemingly sugary sweet Childhood Rhymes.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on April 12, 2019:

How would we know that the nursery rhymes were written as a way to protest or hide the real meaning? Your history of the origin of these rhymes is very educational. I like your version of Jack and Jill better.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 12, 2019:

Again today you have written the better poem, and it makes perfect sense. I actually do not remember that second verse, but I have heard the poem countless times. The nursery rhymes are a great topic for your articles as the underlying meanings are so interesting. What a great sense of humor you have John.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 12, 2019:

Childhood innocence is a wonderful thing, Shauna. It is fine to learn of these darker backgrounds as adults, but best to just enjoy the catchy words as children.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 12, 2019:

John, I love your version of Jack and Jill! As I kid I thought this nursery rhyme was about exactly what the words say. Why would I have thought anything else? I didn't know about sex or beheadings or anything of the sort. Live and learn, right?

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 12, 2019:

Thanks, Kaili. Yes, the woodcut is great. And your comment is much appreciated.

Kaili Bisson from Canada on April 12, 2019:

This is wonderful! I love the woodcut showing Jack and Gill, or "Jacques et Gilles" as the case may be...great work John!

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 12, 2019:

No problem Eric. Just sit back and relax. Thanks for reading.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 12, 2019:

These are special to me. Cool stuff. I like to go all thinking too much. Thanks for letting me relax and let you do the thinking.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 12, 2019:

Elijah, thank you very much for that interesting interpretation. If we do look at it from a Biblical viewpoint it could very well be right too. The hill could represent "enlightenment" and falling down the hill could be the fall from God's grace or into sin.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 12, 2019:

Thank you Flourish. Your comment made my day :)

Elijah A Alexander Jr from Washington DC on April 12, 2019:

Quite interesting, John, and thanks for the enlightenment. I had never heard anything other than the first stanza and once I began to understand symbols I devised another interpretation of it.

The hill represent the "mountain of enlightenment".

The water, "the knowledge leading to enlightenment".

Jack, "the masculine attribute of man," the flesh.

Jill, "the feminine attribute of man," the spirit.

The Crown, "wisdom."

Thereby I devised the following meaning.

Man-en-mass (the Bible's Creation story used man for both genders) climb the mountain of enlightenment but because of "judging" the knowledge rather than "questioning" it the flesh fell under the weight of it so the spirit refused to stand there alone and "fell" to the level of the flesh's understanding and there we remain until we morphs by what Christians call "born again."

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 12, 2019:

What a hoot your alternate version is! Love it! And I truly love this series.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 12, 2019:

Hi Mary. Yes, free speech was suppressed so using nursery rhymes was one way of having a say against the Government, the Church, Royalty etc. Thank you for reading.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on April 12, 2019:

When I first knew of this use of nursery rhymes, I did not know what to think but more and more I understand why people then had to do it. I enjoyed your version. Sense of humour enlivens is.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 12, 2019:

It is fascinating researching these nursery rhymes, Liz. I am glad you are finding it the same to read.

Liz Westwood from UK on April 12, 2019:

I am fascinated by the alternative back stories you have dug up behind Jack and Jill. Even in childhood seemingly innocent rhymes are not so.

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