January 13, 2021
Freedom of speech. It’s a basic right in our nation and one so implicit in who we are as a people that we can easily take it for granted. Freedom of speech is embedded in our culture. But in other times and cultures this wasn’t always the case and in some cultures it’s not true even today. When it’s dangerous to critique and criticize those in power, people don’t stop commenting. They just shape their commentary differently. In early England they often chose a simple poetic meter as in this Mother Goose nursery rhyme.
Mistress Mary refers to Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII. Also known as Mad Mary, this Catholic queen gained a reputation for executing Protestant loyalists. The garden in this rhyme refers to an ever expanding graveyard of the queen’s victims. Silver bells and cockleshells are euphemisms for instruments of torture. Maids refers to a beheading instrument called The Maiden that came into common use before the guillotine and was apparently a favorite of Mary’s.
It turns out many nursery rhymes have a similar back story of being the way people, without the ability to read or write, relied on an oral tradition to share and comment on the actions of those in power. And when necessary, for fear of losing one’s head, this oral tradition was cloaked in camouflage.
Those in power have always had the power of the pen to shape the stories of history. I’ve written much about this dynamic in Irish history when Catholic monks recorded and in the process rewrote much of Ireland’s chronological and mythological history. Yes. Those easily accessible stories are important but it’s equally important to remember that those are not the only stories and not the whole story. For the whole story can come to us through something as seemingly innocuous as a children’s rhyme. These are the people’s stories. These are the stories, the threads of truth, that enrich the tapestry and our understanding of what has gone before.
Judith – firstname.lastname@example.org