Curious Origins of Nursery Rhymes: Jack and Jill
Jack and Jill
A mainstay of children's rhyme the world over is the silly little ditty of Jack and Jill, who went up a hill to fetch a pail of water. Now if you are being a scientific pedant, you will know that water is usually found along the syncline of geological rock formations - that is down the hill rather than the anticline i.e., up the hill. tch. tch. But let's not quibble on matters of teaching kids bad geology.
As we learnt from the canon of Mother Goose's melody, the enduring nature of these nursery rhymes come from the simplicity, the ease with which they can be memorised and their bouncy melodies.
No one quite knows how or when Jack and Jill actually came to be. There are many who are happy to speculate and mythologise. Let us separate some facts from the resultant fiction.
Jack and Jill - the first three stanzas
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after
Up Jack got, and home did trot,
As fast as he could caper;
To old Dame Dob, who patched his nob
With vinegar and brown paper
(And went to bed and bound his head
With vinegar and brown paper)- later versions
Then Jill came in,and she did grin,
To see Jack's paper plaster;
Her mother whipt her, across her knee,
For laughing at Jack's disaster.
(Mother vexed did whip her next
For causing Jack's disaster)- later versions
The first verse is the most popular and familiar one. However, there are versions of the Jack and Jill poem that have 15 stanzas dating back to the 19th century. As someone clearly felt the need to tell 'Jack and Jill : the full untold story.'
The 19th century chapbook versions have the three stanzas (shown on the right) as the beginning of the Jack and Jill melody. There are mild variations to the second and third stanzas in 20th century versions - given in brackets.
Did you know that the very early woodcuts pictured Jack and 'Gill' - two boys. Somewhere along the line 'Gil' the boy became 'Jill' the girl, to add some frisson on the climb up to the hill, presumably.
The name Jack is an archetypal everyman used in many stories ( Jack and the beanstalk, Jack the lad) and the name 'Jill' was used to represent 'a girl next door' or a sweet heart.
The rhyme itself is a quatrain using the rhyming form 'abcb' with a rising and falling rhythmic melody.
The use of vinegar and brown paper to bind cuts and bruises was a common practice in middle ages. No one could actually account for the meaning behind the story and in all likelihood it was a nonsense rhyme that has endured because of its simplicity.
There are many speculations as to the origin of the 'Jack and Jill' story and its metaphorical excursions.
Hjuki and Bil
There is an Old Norse myth that tells us the story of the Moon, Mâni, who stole two children from earth, Hjuki and Bil, as they were collecting water from the well, Byrgir, in their bucket, Sœgr, suspended from their pole, Simul. The Moon as an archetypal kidnapper of children sounds eerily ominous and was perhaps told to keep children from wandering about at night.
Hjuki in Norse is pronounced Juki which could've eventually become Jack. Jill may have replaced Bil for the sake of alliteration. It was suggested by S Baring Gould (in his book about myths and legends) that this story may have eventually birthed the rhyme of Jack and Jill. It still doesn't account for the tumbling down and the broken crown.
There is a further twist to the tale. Hjuki actually comes from the Norse verb Jakka which means to pile up or increase. Bil comes from Bila which is to fade, dissolve or fall apart. Is it likely that the old tale is actually about the cyclical waxing and waning of the moon? The fetching of water may have been a direct link to the Moon's influence on the tides...
Katherine Elwes Thomas, wrote a book called the 'Real Personages of Mother Goose'. She points out that the original woodcut illustration in 'Mother Goose's Melody' represent Jack and Gill as two boys and the most rhymes were secret insults to popular figures or royal personages of the day.
She believes that Jack and Gill dates back to Tudor times and is a secret insult to Cardinal Wolsey ( Jack) and Bishop Tarbes ( Gill). The two famously went on a trip to France ( went up the Hill) to secure the marriage of Mary Tudor, then 18 years of age and was the young, beautiful sister of Henry VIII. This was to the aging 53 year old King of France, Louis XII. This plan was hatched by Cardinal Wolsey to secure peace with France and to appease Henry VIII who saw his sister as a useful tool in his European alliances.
The wedding went ahead and Wolsey and Tarbes were initially successful in their mission. Sadly, the ailing Louis XII - who had produced no heirs until that time- died within 3 months of the marriage ( apparently due to his exertions in the bedchamber!) leaving the young Mary a widow. Mary had already fallen in love with Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. Despite Henry VIII's desire to use his sister as a further negotiating tool for another alliance, Mary and Brandon were married in secret. The enraged Henry wanted to execute Brandon for treason. However, Wolsey intervened and secured a pardon for the man.
Until then Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was the most powerful man in the British Kingdom, as Henry VIII's trusted aide and Lord Chancellor. Perhaps the intervention to secure Brandon's pardon and the subsequent fallout with the King is hinted as 'Jack fell down and broke his crown' as he fell out favour with the tempestuous monarch.
There are those who believe that Jack and Jill refer to King Louis XVI, beheaded in 1793 ( fell down and broke his crown) followed by his queen Marie Antoinette who came tumbling after. However, the printing of the rhyme predates these events and lays doubts to the claim.
How a Half Pint broke its crown
Desperate for more money in his coffers, King Charles I suggested a reform to raise taxes on liquid measures. His proposal to raise the tax on the half pint measures ( then called a 'Jack') were blocked by parliament. King Charles I pondered on his failure and quickly ordered the nation to reduce the volume of the half pint. In those days (and even now) the half pint line is indicated as an imperial measure with the 'crown' symbol. By knocking this crown down a notch, Charles managed to get more taxes without ever having to raise them!
Thus the half -pint Jack, broke its 'crown'. The quarter pint measure was called the 'Gill'. Subsequent to the volume reduction of half a pint or 'Jack' the 'Gill' was also reduced ( came tumbling after).
Perhaps the rhyme was coined by the angry drinkers of ale, who were getting less of a pint for their buck.
Kilmersdon, 'home' of Jack and Jill Hill.
A quaint Somerset village, Kimersdon, has staked his claim to being the home of ' Jack and Jill' Hill. According to local legend dating back to 1697, the rhyme is about a local spinster who got pregnant by her mysterious lover. The man, Jack, apparently died of a rockfall when climbing a local hill and the poor maid died of childbirth soon after.
The village proudly claims to be the 'home of Jack and Jill Hill' and even celebrates its status all over town. No one is quite sure of the veracity of this tale but are happy to go along.
A local hill has been identified as the 'Jack and Jill Hill' and milestones have been placed to outline the tale of Jack and Jill's ascent and unceremonious descent.
Jack and Jill in Shakespeare
"...Our wooing doth not end like an old play; Jack hath not Jill"
Love's Labours Lost, Act V: Scene II
"...In your waking shall be shown. Jack shall have Jill. Nought shall go ill.The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.'
A Midsummer Nights Dream, Act III: Scene II
The Immortal Jack and Jill
Thus concludes our tale of Jack and Jill. They have endured time and much transition. who would've thought that the title ' Jack and Jill' that was used in an Elizabethan court comedy in 1567 would continue through time ( If anyone mentions the Adam Sandler abomination from 2011, I will personally come and find you).
The enduring nature of the names and the rhyme is something that is hard to quantify and predict. When James William Elliott composed the melody in 1870 and compiled it under his 'National Nursery rhymes and Nursery songs' he definitely wouldn't have thought about the multitude of you tube versions.
There are many rude variations of the Jack and Jill rhyme, but in the interest of innocent children who may come to this page as a way of research, I shall not stoop to mentioning them here.
Hope you enjoyed the curious origins of Jack and Jill. Come back soon for another rhyme and its associated tales.
© 2014 Mohan Kumar
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