Mary Mary Quite Contrary

The first time I started looking up nursery rhymes was a few years ago, after Baby #1 was born. Not having grown up with Mother Goose, I did not have many associations with the different rhymes. I just liked them for what they were. And because some of them did not make that much sense, I also started looking up their meaning. What a great surprise to learn about the more or less gory origins of many of them: plague, executions, terrible monarchs, battles of long time ago. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I like these things, but it was very interesting to see how the popular culture dealt with these negative events and characters and turned them into them into children’s rhymes: harmless play and history lesson to be remembered, at once.

As I decided to illustrate some of the rhymes, I kept the childish, light-tone that makes them great for kids. But, I also went back to the original meaning and researched it a little more. Not all of them have hidden connotations, and of those who do, it is not certain how much was added much later. Regardless, they do make for intriguing bits of historical trivia and over the next few weeks I will share with you some of my findings.

Here is the first one:

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

Mary, Mary quite contrary

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockleshells

And pretty Maids all in a row.

The first theory on this rhyme involves Mary I of Scotland. The first line how does your garden grow possibly refers to the length of her reign (25 years, during which she lived mostly in France). Silver bells would be a reference to the church bells of the catholic cathedrals. Cockleshells could be an underlying statement that her husband was unfaithful and pretty maids would be a line about the death of her babies.

Another of these theories is about Mary I of England, also known as “Bloody Mary”. Mary Tudor was well known for her obsessive mission to return England to its Catholic religion. The most popular theory about Mary, Mary quite contrary is the one that describes the how does your garden grow as the growing size of the graveyards. The graveyards were growing so rapidly because there were Protestants who were executed because they were unwilling to give up their faith and practice as Catholic. Silver Bells and Cockleshells refer to torture devices. Silver Bells were thumbscrews, which caused the thumb to be smashed between two flat surfaces by a screw being tightened up. Cockleshells were a device for torturing that was placed on the genitals. Then of course the pretty maids would refer to the guillotine type machine called “the maiden.” Beheadings and being burned at the stake were very popular during the reign of Mary Tudor.

As I was saying, executions and mean queens, the stuff of children songs… More to come.

Talk soon,

Adina