English nursery rhymes abound with images of food, from Jack Sprat’s eating habits to ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. Memorised and recited without a second thought, these instantly recognisable lines and verses seem to hail from a hazy time long gone, where pigs went to market and dishes absconded with spoons. Many, however, are not as old or mysterious as is often assumed.

Folklorists Iona and Peter Opie write in their authoritative Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes that most can be traced back to the seventeenth century, with the term ‘nursery rhyme’ growing in use following the 1806 publication, Rhymes for the Nursery. While earlier printings made references to individual pieces, the first true collection to appear was Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book of 1744, featuring ‘Bah, Bah, a black sheep’, ‘Hickere, Dickere, Dock’, and several other songs which are now indisputable classics.

Four_and_Twenty_BlackbirdsAn illustration for ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, from the 1833 edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies. In the United States, ‘nursery rhymes’ are also known as ‘Mother Goose Rhymes’. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

The Opies state that the concept of ‘childhood’ as recognized in the present day has developed relatively recently; in past centuries, well into the 1700s, society viewed children as small adults. Few nursery rhymes were originally aimed at children, developing instead from ballads, drinking songs, riddles, and proverbs. Their ‘nursery’ status comes from their having been repeated to children over time by grown-ups, and this spoken heritage has led to widespread myths about the origins of different verses. As one source puts it, they have ‘suffered the indignity of having more nonsense written about them than any other folklore genre’. Cutting past this ‘game of spotting hidden meanings’ to focus on facts allows for a clearer understanding of the colourful range of figures and subjects in each, and what they might stand for – if at all.

Humpty DumptyA classic image of Humpty Dumpty. Uploaded by Flickr user tiffany terry.

Where food is concerned, this can be especially revealing. Take ‘Humpty Dumpty’, for instance:

‘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.’

Imagining a humanized egg is now instinctive, but the rhyme gives no description of this. It was possibly once a riddle, with the answer being ‘an egg’. That function has since died out, due to the solution being such a well-known image; contributing to its spread were illustrations of Humpty as an egg, such as that in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1872).

Humpty_Dumpty_TennielJohn Tenniel’s illustration of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1872). Located via Wikimedia Commons.

The word puzzle likely played on the meaning of ‘humpty-dumpty’ which was current during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: ‘a short, dumpy, hump-shouldered person’. Going back further brings up one more gastronomical connection, in that it was also the name of a drink consisting of ‘ale boiled with brandy’:

‘He answer’d me that he had a thousand such sort of Liquors, as Humtie Dumtie, Three Threads.’

In William King, A Journey to London (1698).

A popular theory put forward by multiple books and ‘did you know’ websites argues that Humpty Dumpty was not an egg, but a siege engine employed in the English Civil War by the forces of King Charles I – ‘all the King’s men’ – which was toppled from its position. As the Opies point out, this was proposed by one Professor David Daube in 1956 and was ‘one of a series of spoof nursery-rhyme histories for The Oxford Magazine– don’t ‘fall’ for it!

Jack SpratJack Sprat and his wife, as depicted in an 1864 edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies. The whole work may be read online.

Another expression for a small person, dating from 1500 to 1700, was ‘Jack Sprat’ (an older form of which was ‘Jack Prat’):

‘Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean:
And so, between them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.’

This rhyme, or some variety of it, seems to have been present in the Tudor period. It is referred to in The Marriage of Witte and Science, a play from around 1570. The personified characters Instruction and Wit fight against Tediousness, declaring the following:

INSTRUCTION: […] But what, no force ye are but Jack Sprot to mee.

WITTE: Haue houlde heare is a morsel for thee to eate […]

[INSTRUCTION: No matter, you are just a little person to me.

WIT: Take this – here is a morsel for you to eat! [Strikes TEDIOUSNESS.]]

The Marriage of Witte and Science, Act 5, Scene 5 (c. 1570).

Perhaps ‘Jack Sprat’ came to signify a little person in allusion to the ‘sprat’, a small-sized fish. This was also known as a ‘sprot’, ultimately from the Old English sprott, a small herring’.

SpratAn image of the sprat from the 1877 French publication Les Poissons (‘Fish’). Located via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Little Jack Horner’ has also been linked to the Tudor era:

‘Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie.
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!”’

It is claimed that this speaks of Tom Horner, steward to Abbot Richard Whiting of Glastonbury. In a bid to please King Henry VIII, Whiting sent Horner with the gift of a pie, in which were concealed several property deeds, including that of the Manor of Mells. The steward opened it up and took Mells for himself. While there was a historical Thomas Horner who came to possess this manor at the time, he is known to have bought the property. No written mention of this tale has been found before the nineteenth century; the rhyme was first printed in 1725.

Little Jack Horner DenslowWilliam Wallace Denslow’s picture of Little Jack Horner in his 1901 collection, Denslow’s Mother Goose. Located via the Library of Congress.

Incidentally, the notion of ‘having a finger in the pie’ – ‘to be part of something in an interfering or suspicious manner’ – does date to a similar point. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a line from Act 1, Scene 3 of the 1553 dramatic piece Respublica: ‘Bring me in credyte that my hande be in the pye.’ Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s 1623 play Henry VIII has the dialogue:

‘The diuill speed him: No mans Pye is freed
From his Ambitious finger.’

[‘The devil speed him: no man’s pie is freed
From his ambitious finger.’]

William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, Henry VIII (1623).

Apple Pie FeaturedPictures from Mark’s History of an Apple Pie, which gives one version of the ‘A was an apple pie’ rhyme. The whole work can be read online.

Pies turn up so frequently in English nursery rhymes that it would be impossible not to encounter at least one! There is ‘A was an apple pie’, ‘Dame, get up and bake your pies’, and ‘Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie’. There is the old woman who ‘sold puddings and pies’ and there is the Scottish ‘Aiken Drum’ with his waistcoat made of pie crust. One version of ‘The Derby Ram’ has the creature end up in a pie, while one of ‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross’ suggests that it will be possible to buy ‘a two-penny apple-pie’ at the destination.

Yes – pies are everywhere in nursery rhymes. A thesis on the subject may well exist. According to John Ayto in The Diner’s Dictionary, the earliest occurrences of the word ‘pie’ were in the 1300s; the Yorkshire Lay Subsidy mentions one ‘Rogero Pyman’ selling his wares in 1301. Simple Simon’s ‘pieman’ was part of a longstanding profession, though the rhyme itself belongs to a lengthier fictional piece published in 1764. On the topic of baked goods, the role of ‘The Muffin Man’ was more nineteenth-century, while ‘Hot Cross Buns’ pays homage to the cries of street sellers in the 1700s.

Song of Sixpence‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ in the 1864 edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies.

What about ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’? ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ was first printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book. There are various theories for what the birds might symbolize – everything from the twenty four hours of the day to hidden property deeds, as in ‘Little Jack Horner’. None are particularly strong. As for putting live birds in pies, the Opies draw attention to the 1549 Italian cooking guide Epulario, in which there are instructions to, in the words of the 1598 English translation, ‘make pies so that the birds may be alive in them and flie out when it is cut up’. The English chef Robert May included a recipe for the same purpose in his monumental 1660 work, The Accomplisht Cook.

Accomplisht CookThe title page of a 1678 copy of Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook. From the Wellcome Library, London.

Looking at English nursery rhymes from a factual perspective takes the explorer well beyond the world of children into one of drama, publications, and wordplay. Looking at their depictions of food in the same way highlights historical changes in gastronomical practices and language, whether selling pies or drinking humpty-dumpty.