Once upon a time, there was a deliciously intriguing set of fairy tales and nursery rhymes based on actual events regarding the times from which they came; they are now exposed. The Dark Ages, the period of time between the 11th and 13th centuries, was a time of great trial and unrest among the European nations and as its name indicates, an age of great darkness.
Although there are varying opinions as to how the Dark Ages truly escalated, there was a common theme among the people in the five centuries following the demise of the Roman Empire. The lack of structure felt from the absence of Roman domination left society crippled due to their inability to acclimate in an environment outside of their accustomed dictatorial rule.
While freedom from Roman occupation was the initial desire of the people, the Empire’s bloody reign had created undeniable dependency. The widespread disarray and cultural lack of structure proved to be a hotbed of social unrest. The environment was volatile at best. Less than appropriate living conditions for villagers was the largest contributor to the insurgence of the Bubonic Plague. There was no cultural middle ground. Folks were either peasants or extravagantly wealthy. Those with great wealth usurped authority over the people and had little to no interest in the welfare of the villagers.
The average lifespan of those living in this dreary era was around 32 years, if they were lucky. Insufficient waste management, lack of hygiene, and poor nutrition were results of their ignorance and inability to adapt. From these grim times, arose many stories and verses related to their plight. Many believe that hard lessons learned were transposed to children in methods to which they would easily relate.
This is where fairy tales got their start. However, the homespun tales envisioned by well-intentioned adults carried a subtle, yet sinister undercurrent. The popular Ring Around The Rosies was a sugar-coating of the tragic reality of rampant death and disease by which the people’s lives were characterized. Sufferers of the Bubonic Plague were marred with rosy splotches on their skin. In that day it was customary to sprinkle the bodies of the deceased with flower petals as a sign of mourning.
Other stories, such as Snow White taught children not to be too trusting of strangers. With so many people falling fatally ill from the consumption of spoiled food or the commonly non-potable water, children were not afforded the same type of carefree existence as is characterized by the experience of children today. Also, the original version of Snow White bore little resemblance to the Disney film; in fact, Snow White, having eaten the poisoned apple, fell to her death and her body was taken as property of the king before she had awakened from the spell.
Several hundred years later, in the 1800’s, The Brother’s Grimm compiled these stories in joint efforts to preserve them and to make a living. Hans Christian Andersen, a writer of equal caliber during the time of climax in the increasingly popular story telling era, also wrote his version of many of these folk tales, though his versions followed the works of the Brothers Grimm by nearly 20 years. Though sometimes frighteningly true to life in their accounts of death and scandal, the books were composed of the every day truths of a darker and more treacherous time.
The nursery rhyme, Little Jack Horner, about the little boy who stuck his thumb in a pie and pulled out a plum was a true life account of a man, Jack Whiting, who was sent on a less than honorable errand by the Bishop of Glastonbury to secret the King’s property deeds away. During that time, a method employed to ward off thieves was to place treasured belongings into a hollow pie. Somehow, this act allowed people to transport items of interest uninterrupted.
Jack knew that this mission was risky at best and decided to con the con in charge. Taking matters quite literally into his own hands, he returned all of the deeds with the exception of one. He retained the deed to the Manor of Mells, and got away with it. The property was said to have been the choicest of real estate owned by the king, hence the reference to the “plum” in the pie. The Horner family continued to live there until the 19th century.
These fairy tales and legends have been interwoven into European and American culture alike. While seemingly whimsical, they are actually firmly based in the unfortunate reality from which they were formed. However, exposing the true meaning behind these tales and the messages they hold, can be used as a key to unlock places and times in which modern society would be hard pressed to experience first-hand. The time honored tradition of the telling of tales, primarily fairy tales, is still an intriguing way to preserve history.
By: J.A. Johnson