Why are so many nursery rhymes so sadistic?

My wife is home on maternity leave, and she is teaching our boy nursery rhymes. I came home from work today to find her horrified, as she has now been exposed to the story of “3 blind Mice”, which she discovered was about treason, and “Mary, Mary, quite contrary”, an ode to the murderous legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots. I’m also familiar with the fact that “Ring around the Rosie” refers to the plague.

And then there’s the Brothers Grimm.

Why are so many kids’ songs and stories so sadistic?

Well, in many cases I understand it’s because they are very old and from a more savage time. And in fact are toned down from how brutal they used to be.

And of course, perhaps the most popular nursery rhyme that ends with, “…Down will come cradle, baby and all”

Very creepy.

I have no idea how to explain it.

That one, too! It was the only song I could think of the last time I was trying to serenade my crying son at 2 am. As I sang, I realized that putting my baby into a tree, so he could fall, was horrific.

Fun Cracked article on topic: The Disturbing Origins of 5 Common Nursery Rhymes | Cracked.com

If you scare the crap out of the kiddies, they’re less likely to misbehave.

2 points:

  1. You seem to have conflated Mary, Queen of Scots, and Mary I of England. While both of their (overlapping*) reigns were marked with violence, only Mary Tudor’s was remarkably so, or had a significant portion actively directed by her scary highness herself.
  2. There’s no good evidence that Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary was about either of them. (The fact that there’s zero evidence of the rhyme existing until ~200 years after both Maries had met their untimely ends argues against it.)
  • Mary Stuart’s reign coincided with the end of Henry VIII, all of Edward VI and Mary I, and the beginning of Elizabeth I.

Ivory, did you choose to link to page 2 because it had a Slug Signorino illustration at the top?

I’m reminded of a quote I read from an old children’s book that talked about bad little children in Hell glowing red hot with heat. And how while it sounds like they are screaming, that’s actually just the noise from them letting off steam like a teakettle as their insides boil.

I believe all of these are folk etymologies. I’d say urban legends, but I don’t know how recent they all are.

“Ring Around the Rosie” is very old, and like many old things, has changed over the decades and centuries. Most of the “evidence” that it’s about the plague comes from recent changes to it.

Not that Mother Goose is PC. I’ll grant you, it’s not.

And I’m familiar with the widespread fiction that it refers to the plague.

I’m willing to have ignorance fought, and I’m not wed to the premise.

And, Kamino Neko, I apologize if I confused my Mary’s.

But it still begs the question: why are these stories associated with such macabre topics?

Because the idea of children as little innocent dears to be coddled and sheltered is fairly modern. Not that people in the past didn’t love their children. It’s just that life was a lot closer to the brutal reality then.

Maybe they weren’t originally meant for children.

Snopes article on Ring around the rosie.

I agree with this. Consider-

Even today Hansel and Gretel’s parents abandon them in the woods to die.

In the original Sleeping Beauty, the prince doesn’t wake the princess with a kiss. He rapes her in her sleep. She gets pregnant, has fairy assisted labor, and an infant sucks the sewing wheel splinter out of her finger and wakes her.

When given a pig’s heart by the huntsman, the Evil Queen looks at it a bit, concludes that it is indeed the hear of Snow White, and then eats it raw.

I’ll point out the nursery rhymes’ macabre topics are not just exclusive of English. Just off the top of my head, three of my favorite nursery rhymes in Spanish all deal with adult topics (wars and slavery). And then there’s that song in French about plucking/dismembering a bird (translated to the less macabre Frere Jaques?)

Nah, Fere Jaques is AFAIK about a monk needing to wake up for morning prayers.

You’re thinking of Allouette (spelling), which is AFAIK aout plucking and dismembering a bird.

Alouette is about plucking an alouette (lark) for eating. (The traditional lyrics don’t talk about the other stages of preparing it to be cooked - ‘je te plumerai’ (‘I will pluck you’) is in every verse.) I’ve only ever heard it sung in the French, although a fairly good ‘singable’ translation can be found in the Wikipedia entry for the song.

Frere Jacques (lit. Brother James) is about a monk who’s overslept and has to rush to ring the bells for morning prayer. The English translation, Brother John, changes it up, slightly, in that John, unlike Jacques, wasn’t the monk in charge of ringing the bells, he’s just slept through them and is missing prayer time.

The two songs are sung to totally different tunes.

My bad, in my mind I confused both tunes. At least I didn’t confuse the ones in Spanish, Mambrú se fue a la guerra, Naranja dulce, and Duerme Negrito, the last one sung even by Mercedes Sosa.