Plague, medieval taxes, religious persecution, prostitution: these are not exactly the topics that you expect to be immersed in as a new parent. But probably right at this moment, mothers of small children around the world are mindlessly singing along to seemingly innocuous nursery rhymes that, if you dig a little deeper, reveal shockingly sinister backstories. Babies falling from trees? Heads being chopped off in central London? Animals being cooked alive? Since when were these topics deemed appropriate to peddle to toddlers?
Since the 14th Century, actually. That's when the earliest nursery rhymes seem to date from, although the 'golden age' came later, in the 18th Century, when the canon of classics that we still hear today emerged and flourished. The first nursery rhyme collection to be printed was Tommy Thumb's Song Book, around 1744; a century later Edward Rimbault published a nursery rhymes collection, which was the first one printed to include notated music -although a minor-key version of Three Blind Mice can be found in Thomas Ravenscroft's folk-song compilation Deuteromelia, dating from 1609.
The roots probably go back even further. There is no human culture that has not invented some form of rhyming ditties for its children. The distinctive sing-song metre, tonality and rhythm that characterises 'motherese' has a proven evolutionary value and is reflected in the very nature of nursery rhymes. According to child development experts Sue Palmer and Ros Bayley, nursery rhymes with music significantly aid a child's mental development and spatial reasoning. Seth Lerer, dean of arts and humanities at the University California - San Diego, has also emphasised the ability of nursery rhymes to foster emotional connections and cultivate language.
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