Dark Origins – Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

I am very excited about my new series over at Writing to be Read called Dark Origins – Nursery Rhymes and Fairytales. My first post looks at the dark origins of the nursery rhyme, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. There are three theories and they are all fascinating. Thank you for hosting me, Kaye Lynne Booth.

Writing to be Read

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary is an English nursery rhyme which is believed to have religious and historical significance.

Picture from Origins – What Does History Say?

The most common modern version of this nursery rhyme is as follows:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells, and cockle shells,

And pretty maids all in a row.

The oldest known version was first published in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744 and the lyrics were a little different.

Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With Silver Bells, And Cockle Shells,

And so my garden grows.

The origins of this nursery rhyme are disputed and these are the three most popular theories.

Religous origin

One theory is that this nursery rhyme is a religious allegory of Catholicism as follows:

Mary is Mary, the mother of Jesus,

The bells are the sanctus or altar bells…

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17 thoughts on “Dark Origins – Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

      1. One of my literature professors, back in the 80s went into the nursery rhymes. The Brothers Grimm (and all the rest) are certainly grim to say the very least. It’s no wonder retellings of fairytales capture the imagination. Hugs.

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      2. Hi Teagan, you are quite right about most fairy tales being very grim. I have listened to an audio book series of all of the Grimm Brothers stories and there were a few I never knew. Blue Beard is one that scared me a great deal and was my inspiration for my short story Glass Mountain in Spellbound horror anthology.

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  1. Yeah, Bluebeard was an intense story, wasn’t it? So was The Juniper Tree. A lot of them were meant as warnings–I suspect that Little Red Riding Hood was a caution about sexual abuse. I’ve read all the Grimm tales, although not all of them have the clear narrative structure of the most popular tales.

    OTOH, there were a lot of religious allegories that most people haven’t read, either.

    I liked your research on Mary. I’d always heard it applied to Mary, Queen of Scots, who had such a tragic story. But it fits Bloody Mary very well, too. Interesting that both women struggled with their relationship to Elizabeth I. Great stuff. : )

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    1. Yes, that is probably a factor in their both being possible origins of this nursery rhyme as it came into being around that time. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Cathleen. I think you and I share a love of fairy tale style stories.

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  2. The history of nursery rhymes is fascinating. Of course as children we learn easy rhymes without knowing the backstory. And in modern times some are even changed to take away that past reference. Like Ring Around the Rosie… “A rosy rash, they allege, was a symptom of the plague, and posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease. Sneezing or coughing was a final fatal symptom, and “all fall down” was exactly what happened.” Now sometimes the end rhyme goes as such; “Some versions replace Ashes! Ashes! with Red Bird Blue Bird, or with Green Grass-Yellow Grass.” or ” Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush!// We’ve all tumbled down.”

    However ‘Snopes’ claims: ““Ring Around the Rosie” is simply a nursery rhyme of indefinite origin and no specific meaning, and someone, long after the fact, concocted an inventive “explanation” for its creation.
    https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/ring-around-rosie/ There are more interesting ‘facts’ at the link.

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    1. Hi Jules thanks for joining in the conversation. I have always been fascinated by nursery rhymes and fairy tales. I have heard the same thing about ring a ring a rosies i.e. that it is not about the plague but originated from a children’s game. Thanks for the link and the interesting comment.

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