We all know the rhyme about Old Mother Hubbard, who went to her cupboard to get her dog a bone, but the cabinets were bare when she got there, so the puppy had to do without.
This seems a lot cleaner than many of the other rhymes in our article that talk about things that get cut off or other types of violence. After all, the woman can just go to the store and get her dog another bone, right? But some say that Old Mother Hubbard isn’t actually a woman at all. So, then what does it all mean?
Unlike some of the other nursery rhymes, the words of this one have pretty much remained the same through the ages: “Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool? Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags full; One for the master, and one for the dame, and one for the little boy who lives down the lane.”
It all sounds innocent enough, if we're talking about sheep, right? However, there are many who believe that this rhyme has dark origins, rooted in racism. If you look at it that way, it certainly becomes problematic.
As with most nursery rhymes, there's no corroborative evidence behind any of the theories of origin, just plenty of speculation. Some say that the rhyme is much more cut-and-dry, and others see a deeper meaning behind it and believe that it's not just about wool.
More specifically, they think it's about the very harsh (and high) taxation of wool in 13th century medieval England by King Edward I. Under the imposed tax, a third of the cost of just one sack of wool went to the king, while another went to the church, and finally, just one to the farmers themselves.
The Heirless King
There are many who believe that Old Mother Hubbard is actually supposed to represent Lord Chancellor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who served under King Henry VIII.
Wolsey was attempting to get special permission to help the king, who, after 15 years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon, was still upset he had no heir to his throne. The king sought a divorce so that he could try with someone else. But unfortunately for them, the church was having none of it, and Wolsey failed, ended up losing all of his power, and dying in prison because of it all.
The Lengthier Version
The theory about the rhyme alluding to the king’s loss of his petition for divorce may make sense when dissecting the shortened version. However, there is a much lengthier version of the rhyme which could make one think twice.
In it, Old Mother Hubbard really does go to the store to get her dog something to eat, but when she returns, the dog is dead. But then, she goes to get him a coffin and comes back to find him laughing and alive. It is still very possible that the cupboard in the shortened version represents the Catholic Church, and the doggie, King Henry VIII.