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Blind Mice and Licking Knives May 29, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Beachcombing is writing this post with a certain anxiety. The moment he finishes it he is going to have to clean out a small priest-hole, hidden at the back of his study, where a family of country mice have settled. The Beachcombing’s don’t have a cat – thankfully – but these mice foolishly refuse to walk into the various humane traps that Beachcombing has put down and even worse they have been eating the family’s chocolate. Things are going to get bloody then and all in a claustrophobic space where a grown man can barely fit on his hands and knees.

To celebrate the coming holocaust Beach began looking through his file on bizarre mice – one that is sadly rather slim – any other suggestions: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com – and as well as several notes about Mickey Mouse in bizarre incarnations and to singing mice he came across some scribbled notes on Three Blind Mice, the English nursery rhyme.

Three blind mice. Three blind mice.

See how they run. See how they run.

They all ran after the farmer’s wife,

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,

Did you ever see such a sight in your life,

As three blind mice?

In the last hundred years, nursery rhymes have often been sold as being cryptic references to events in history.  So Ring a Ring o’ Roses is supposed to refer to the plague. Baa Baa Black Sheep is supposed to concern the slave trade. Little Jack Horner is supposed to be about Thomas Horner who beneffited from the disolution of the monasteries. Humpty Dumpty is, it is often claimed, describes the War of the Roses. Yet, in fact, none of these explanations stand up to scrutiny – nice examples of cobblers – particularly when the earliest texts are examined, texts that typically appear in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.

Three Blind Mice follows exactly the same pattern. The well-established explanation is that the three mice in question were three nobles killed by the ‘Farmer’s Wife’ Queen Mary (obit 1558) for refusing to reject their Protestantism. In more ‘historical’ versions, the three blind mice were the three Oxfords martrys, Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer – three bishops who resisted Mary’s attempts to bring England back to the Catholic fold. These might be said to have blundered to their death: though would that justify them being referred to as blind, vile jellyless, in short?

Indeed, tracing the round back through time what is striking is just how different the earlier versions are from the ones that Beachcombing nightly sings to Little Miss B.

In the mid nineteenth century it was recorded with some variations.

Three blind mice, see how they run!

They all run after the farmer’s wife.

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife.

Did you ever see such fools in your life

Three blind mice!

Or again (1886)

Three blind mice – see how they run!

They all run up to the farmer’s wife

She cuts off their tails with a carving knife

Such is the fate of the three blind mice!

The differences between the first and second and third version are typical of small differences in a song that is printed but that suffers minor alterations as it evolves in a parallel oral tradition. If three readers of this blog were to write down the words to McCartney’s Yesterday something similar would happen.

But, turn now, instead, to the earliest version that we have in Deuteromalia (1609) by Thomas Ravenscroft who provided the round of music we still know today.

Three blind mice, three blind mice!

Dame Julian,

Dame Julian,

The miller and his merry old wife

She scrapte her tripe, take [or in some versions ‘lick’] thou the knife.

It looks very much as if between 1609 when it was first published – and written by Ravenscroft himself? – and its first appearance in collections for children in the mid nineteenth century the round mutated out of recognition: pulled along by the desire to get the mice into the story.

If the original means anything though Dame Julian, the miller and his merry old wife are the blind mice. There are no Protestant Martyrs in sight and no devilish Mary, just a pleasing round of Edward-Lear style nonsense.

It is a humbling thought: adults want to make sense of these childhood images – especially when they start sharing them with their own children. ‘I used to wonder why the mice were blind/And who was gardner to Mistress Mary/And what I don’t know still was meany by ‘quite contrary’. But, actually, the whole point is that these rhymes have no sense. The key to their success is the perfect blend of music and words: and how better to blend music and words than to have absolutely no interest in communicating anything but melody?

***

31 May 2011: First, Kate has a solution to Beach’s desperate mouse situation: ‘Sorry to hear about the mice. Have you considered writing them a letter? A fine old tradition and one that my stepfather used as recently as the 1980s. I cannot say how well it worked. The mice disappeared but we also had  four cats at the time. A parishioner in Down East Maine also swore by writing a letter (same era) so I would suspect that the practice continues here and there in rural areas.’ Beach will propose this as a solution to Mrs B and see what comes of it. Charming story! Invisible, meanwhile, gets down to brutal specifics: ‘Now on the subject of ‘Three Blind Mice’: Dame Julian of Norwich?  That Dame Julian? In connection with tripe and millers whose reputation for randiness and rapacity is exceeded only by that of smiths? You astonish me. But she probably did have a cat as the Ancrene Riwle allowed. I’ve been trying to fit ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’ to the Three Blind Mice tune, with absolutely no success whatever [!!!]. I hope you had better success with your priest-hole full of mice. Still, why the reference to tripe? Apparently there is a proverb (French? no idea of origin or date.) ‘Scrape tripe as clean as e’er you can, A tithe of filth will still remain’.  So scraping tripe would not leave a very clean knife to be licked, which may be the vaguely scatological point. If there is a point.’ Beachcombing has no idea what, if anything the tripe reference means, but he instinctively finds it very uncomfortable. Then Invisible finishes on the subject of nonsense rhymes. ‘There is a term which escapes me for nonsense lyrics meant only to convey the rhythm of the tune. Apparently ‘Tea for Two’ was written this way – as a kind of a placeholder until better lyrics came along. And supposedly Paul McCartney sang ‘Scrambled Eggs’ until he came up with ‘Yesterday’ – he had the tune, but not the words.’ About ten of you, meanwhile, wrote in with reference to a book Pop Goes the Weasel by Albert Jack that looks at the origins of nursery rhymes. Beach hasn’t read this but online descriptions suggests that AJ is recounting several legendary/cobbler accounts. However, the book is ordered and if an apology is due it will be forthcoming. Thanks Kate, Invisible (whom Beach imagines walking down the street still trying to fit ‘All will be well’ to the tune of three blind mice) and all those who sent in the AJ title!!!