Some nursery rhymes stick with us from generation to generation and from century to century. The ones that stick usually have simple, direct rhymes, like Humpty Dumpty or Ding Dong Bell. Rhymes are a form of mnemonics (from the Greek word for memory), tools that help us remember things. It is no surprise that bits of history are captured in rhyme, with political satirists simplifying and disguising details enough so that they don't lose their heads (literally). Rhymes help us remember. When political events or life lessons are captured in rhyme they become easily transmittable. Their stories, their messages and their language are preserved through rhyme, phrases becoming cultural artifacts that cross borders, traveling from person to person, family to family, generation to generation, changing along the way. What is fascinating sociologically is that these rhymes become poems for children and are passed on in this way, their meanings lost or obscured in the mists of time.
Most people know that many nursery rhymes have their origins in political events, though these origin stories are often murky and open to argument. Humpty Dumpty first appeared in print in a children's book called Juvenile Amusement, published in 1797. Humpty's appearance as a large egg dates only from the 1871 publication of Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll. Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson to his parents and friends) illustrated Humpty as an egg, and the image has become part of popular culture.
One Humpty origin story, backed up by several military historians, has Humpty Dumpty as a large cannon, stationed on the walls of the city of Colchester during the English Civil War which raged from 1642-1649. The wall was finally destroyed from below and the great cannon fell and could not be repaired.
The most pervasive of the Humpty origin stories, though, goes back to King Richard III, who died at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the last decisive battle in the War of the Roses. In this version Richard fell off his horse, which was named "Wall." The "humpty" part came from the king's misshapen spine. The injuries sustained in his fall were so severe that his men could not save him. Richard (the Duke of Gloucester before he became king) was a famously nasty king, imprisoning and likely murdering his young nephews, one of whom was heir to the throne, in the Tower of London, in order to usurp the throne. In Shakespeare's play Richard III, first performed in 1633, Shakespeare (one of the great masters of the insult) called the king a "lump of foul deformity" and "a poisonous hump-backed toad." Richard's skeleton was discovered underneath a Leister parking lot in 2012, and it was seen that he suffered from scoliosis, which caused one shoulder to be higher than the other. The skeleton, identity confirmed through extensive DNA testing of relatives, carbon dating and other means, showed severe injuries to the skull, such as might be suffered from a terrible fall. RIP, Humpty.
No political origins have been identified for Ding Dong Bell, the oldest nursery rhyme in the English language. It was first recorded in 1580 by John Lange, the organist of Winchester Cathedral. There are various versions of it, in which the pussy thrown into the well either drowns or is saved. The poem appears from its outset to have been a morality lesson for children, teaching against cruelty to animals.
The term "ding dong bell" itself is a small cultural artifact, and it is found in several of Shakespeare's plays. Ariel's song about her father, who she believes was shipwrecked and drowned, in The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! now I hear them, Ding-dong, bell.
And in The Merchant of Venice:
Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
It is engender’d in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and fancy dies
In the cradle, where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy’s knell;
I’ll begin it – Ding, dong, bell.
Language is a river, flowing through history and culture, through years and lives and centuries, gathering the silt and pebbles and sticks that it will carry as it rushes or meanders downstream into the future, discarding some bits along the way, continuing to carry others, and shaping these, smoothing them or molding them to other pieces and changing them so that it is not quite clear where they began. Words and phrases are collected, changed and discarded as the culture changes, and they in turn change the culture. Poets and playwrights both coin and capture words and phrases. Perhaps the reason that nursery rhymes are carried so far down the river is because of their rhymes. Rhymes lodge in the memory, they are taught by parents and chanted by children, who repeat them to their own children. Their historical genesis becomes largely irrelevant as they join the cultural lexicon.