Archive for October, 2008

Putting the “dump” in Humpty Dumpty

October 11, 2008

Making up fairy stories about Humpty

Humpty Dumpty was NOT a Civil War cannon in Colchester.

In fact, the rhyme doesn’t even have such a specific historical basis. In all likelihood, none of them do. All those cute little origin stories for nursery rhymes? Like “Ring-a-ring-a-roses” being about the Black Death? BS. Made up. They’re attempts to understand, satirise, play with words, or even just plain pull the wool over the eyes of the reader. But they aren’t history. And like backronyms and urban myths, these damn things have a tendency, once staked by the debunker, to rise from the proverbial grave.

Humpty Dumpty is first recorded in 1797 and transformed 70 years later by Lewis Carroll into an anthropomorphic egg. It’s often ascribed some speculative historical significance or other (often a king, for obvious reasons) and a popular origin story at the moment, thanks to this new book called “Pop Goes the Weasel – The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes”. The story (reproduced here in detail) goes like this. In 1648, during the English Civil War, Colchester found itself occupied by Royalist forces and under siege from the Parliamentarian army. A lone gunner and his big cannon (“Humpty Dumpty”) mounted on top of a church tower on a Roman wall (“sat on the wall”), caused so much trouble for the attackers that they concentrated fire on his position, blowing the top of the tower clean off (“had a great fall”). The cavalry (“all the King’s Men”) tried to right the cannon, but “couldn’t put Humpty together again”.

This story is being used heavily to promote the book, because it sounds so damn plausible, and specific, just as statements made by a bogus psychic can. The author evens claims to have discovered a lost verse;

In Sixteen Hundred and Forty-Eight
When England suffered the pains of state
The Roundheads lay siege to Colchester town
Where the King’s men still fought for the crown
There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall
A gunner of deadliest aim of all
From St. Mary’s Tower his cannon he fired
Humpty-Dumpty was its name
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall…

Needless to say, the local press loved it. But as you’ve probably guessed, and as this journalist reports, this story, this part of the book, and perhaps even ALL origin stories for nursery rhymes, are BS. But let’s focus on Humpty and Colchester. First off, this is NOT a new discovery. The siege origin has been online for some time (1996 in fact, more on that below). There are also serious problems with the language and structure used in the expanded rhyme. The language used is not 17th century English, in my opinion. It’s also far more detailed than any nursery rhyme, and is in fact a fully-fledged poem. Even if period, it would make sense only as an historical piece based upon an existing rhyme, not, as advertised, the other way around.

As far as I can tell, this interpretation of the story originally concerned Gloucester, NOT Colchester. That town got in on the act some time later (I’ll touch on this later on). It’s also completely fictional. To quote the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes;

“Professor David Daube, in one of a series of spoof nursery-rhyme histories for The Oxford Magazine (1956), put forward the ingenious idea that Humpty Dumpty was a siege engine in the Civil War.”

Yes – a spoof. No doubt a relatively subtle one for this day and age, but a spoof nonetheless. This 1880s review gives a flavour of its remit. Even if taken literally, the leaps of logic the involved make Daube’s a nonsense hypothesis. Iona Opie put it best when she said of this and other made-up origins that;

“This is ingenuity for ingenuity’s sake; but the inventor must also feel some satisfaction if, as with the current craze for horrific “urban legends”, he can watch his story spreading to a public gullible enough to repeat it in earnest”.

It’s not just the public though, several academics have cited this invention as plausible or even definitive. Daube’s inspiration was a genuine piece of history; a paragraph in Rushworth’s “Historical Collections” about the English Civil War. It describes a plan to overcome the besieged town’s defensive wall and ditch using siege engines – covered mobile bridges. Unfortunately these were never used, because Gloucester’s defenders simply widened the ditch. Daube imagines that one machine could have been called “Humpty Dumpty” because of the sound it would have made, and decided that the “great fall” was the failure to bridge the gap. You see the problem with taking this interpretation literally!

How did Colchester get sucked into this mess? Uncertain. Certainly it’s not the only UK town to have got in on the act, perhaps independently of the Daube article, but the dates of the available evidence suggest otherwise. An opera based on Daube’s article (“All The King’s Men – believed by this school at least“) was staged in 1968, stating that the combatants actually referred to the war machine as “Humpty Dumpty”. Between these two pieces of fiction, one or more Colchester natives (consciously or otherwise) seem to have appropriated the origin story for their town by co-opting another piece of genuine Civil War history – the aforementioned Siege of Colchester. Instead of the attackers using a “Humpty Dumpty” weapon, this time it’s the defenders. Instead of a siege engine, it’s an artillery piece (manned by “One-Eyed Thompson“). Instead of town walls, we have a hastily fortified church. And instead of a failure to span a gap, the “great fall” is the cannon being blasted from the walls by concentrated fire from the Parliamentarian besiegers.

On the face of it, it’s actually more plausible than the Gloucester version! Until you realise that the “Humpty Dumpty” in question would have been a saker – a medium sized cannon at best. In fact, the standard size and type of gun used by both sides during the Civil War. No Mons Meg. Not something that is likely to have been called “Humpty Dumpty”. Getting a saker into the tower of St Marys Church would have been fairly straightforward using block and tackle – a “large” cannon, not so much.

I’ve already mentioned the additional “undiscovered” verse of the Colchester myth, as touted by this new book. To really bury this one, I’d need to establish where the hell that came from. No written source could I find (the author of the new book gives none). The comprehensive “History and Description” of 1826 AND an earlier book from 1803 both mention the saker and its one-eyed gunner deployed at the church (the 1803 source even describing the saker as being “broken in pieces“), but do not refer to any local tradition of a rhyme. That line would have been evocative to anyone reading the source with a mind to concocting a myth, whether they knew of Daube’s Gloucester one or no. And it’s the same story with all the online versions of the poem – only one is sourced. Tracy Lightfoot of Griffith University in Australia gave as her source way back in ’96, the East Anglia Tourist Board (now the East of England Tourist Board)! Clearly some form of promotional material of the time featured the poem – where that came from, who knows? If anyone has seen a leaflet or even signboard at the church itself, referencing this myth, please let me know! I can then go to the council and/or tourist board and attempt to find their source.

As with all nursery rhymes, Humpty Dumpty, if it ever had a cogent origin rooted in historical events, has lost it forever. More than likely, these rhymes were conceived from the start as entertaining nonsense – like schoolchildren inventing rhymes in the playground to keep time with a skipping rope. Any meaning attached to them has been added later on – making for fun bits of folklore, but nothing more insightful into historical events than that.

If you do take a liking to a particular story – check it with the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, as well as Snopes and the Straight Dope websites.