Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Politics and Nursery Rhymes

What do politics have to do with children and writing? A great deal, if Mother Goose had anything to say about it.

“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.”

This nursery rhyme with its reference to "all the King's horses, and all the King's men" could easily be a political statement. Father Peter Walker, Rector of the Parish Church of St. James the Great in Colchester, England, wrote*: “Humpty Dumpty was not an egg, as we might have believed but rather a gun. It was a great and impressive gun mounted on the Roman wall, near the parish church of St. Mary, Colchester. During the siege of Colchester that part of the town came under attack from the Roundhead forces and suffered greatly. The top of the Tower of St.Mary's church was blown off and destroyed. The gun, mounted near by, ‘suffered a great fall and all the King's horses and all the King's men, couldn't put Humpty together again’.”

According to other sources, Humpty Dumpty had been mounted to protect the Parliamentarian stronghold of Colchester during the English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 to 1649. However, this city to the east of London, had fallen under the control of the Royalists. The cannon was felled after a siege lasting eleven weeks, and then Colchester returned to the hands of the Parliamentarians. Soon thereafter King Charles I and his forces were defeated throughout England.

Much of the cause of the English Civil War lay in King Charles’ efforts to force change in the way people worshipped and to close down any but the Church of England. Those who supported him were called Royalists. The other side, for whom Oliver Cromwell eventually became the leader, were known as the Parliamentarians. They believed that the monarchy must share power with the Parliament. They were also known as Roundheads because of the men's Puritan hairstyle, a short haircut that looked like a bowl, as opposed to the long flowing locks and wigs of King Charles' and his courtiers.

Another famous nursery rhyme alludes to the English struggle between politics and religion:

“Mary, Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.”

This Mary quite probably refers to Mary Tudor, the first Queen Elizabeth’s elder sister. When Mary became queen, she demanded that England return to Roman Catholicism. Iona and Peter Mason Opie theorized that the garden in the rhyme is an allusion to graveyards that were increasing in size with the bodies of those who wouldn’t comply; the silver bells and cockle shells were slang for instruments of torture; and the maids were an apparatus similar to a guillotine.

Children do not remain immune to the affects of politics. But, the nature of politics can be difficult to explain and, in certain circumstances, even dangerous. With home-schooling parents often under threat from social workers and local governments, and when students are punished or humiliated for carrying Bibles, the value of a nursery rhyme as a code becomes apparent. The greater the chasm between ruling parties and under-represented ones, the more valuable the nursery rhyme can be for teaching the truth.

* http://www.footefamily.org/colchester.htm

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