Headmaster’s Thoughts – May 2018

Three Blind Mice.
Three Blind Mice.
See how they run!
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 a sight in your life?
As Three Blind Mice.

I tend to be skeptical about reading too much into nursery rhymes. It reminds me of the rule of life in my Oxford tutorials. My first tutorial with my very intimidating don (the name for a professor assigned as mentor for the entire college experience) consisted of reading to him my prepared essay on a subject in law. I gave a really comprehensive account of the current and past thoughts. My don, Peter Carter, looked up at the end and said “Boring!”

I was, needless to say, concerned. I had put a lot of time into this first week’s assignment.

“What precisely do you mean, Sir?” I asked.

“It is boring. There is nothing new. You have merely given me a comprehensive account of other people’s thoughts. I want more!”

“Even if it is somewhat original and maybe just a projection?”

“Original is exactly what I want. Project, and be prepared to defend. But don’t give me the same old stuff. I have to hear this essay several times from your peers this week. Please try and keep me awake!”

So every week, I worked hard to come up with a new, and sometimes far-fetched, answer to the question of the essay. And Peter Carter became more interested, and we would argue about what I had written. He invariably (understatement!) won, but when you have to defend a “novel” thesis, you need to know the facts, and so preparing to be original resulted in an in-depth understanding of what the established thought was on the subject. Sometimes we argued for three hours in what was supposed to be an hour long tutorial. I loved them.

My point is that in academics you are pushed to find new and original theories. If you look up the background to THREE BLIND MICE, you will see that the “common thought” is that it refers to the three “Oxford Martyrs”, Bishops Radley, Cranmer and Latimer, who were burned at the stake by “Bloody” Mary, the Catholic Queen and daughter of Henry the Eighth. And, quite possibly, you would accept that theory.

But, and here is why I told you about my tutorials, someone is getting desperate (and, trust me, I have known the feeling) to come up with an original idea about this common nursery rhyme. I really doubt if “Bloody” Mary had anything to do with it at all.

For a start, she was not so “Bloody”. It is true that she re-imposed Catholicism on England after her father, Henry VIII, in his breach with the Pope over his marriage to Anne Boleyn, brutally forced England to convert to Anglicanism and imposed himself as the Head of the English Church. Mary burnt exactly 283 clerics who refused to accept Catholicism. I accept that being burnt alive is not pleasant, but 283 seems tame when compared to the modern mass murderers who killed millions. We do not prefix Stalin or Hitler or Pol Pot’s names with the word “bloody”; we just give their name. But Mary has gone down in history as “Bloody” Mary, and to me that sounds remarkably similar to a Trumpism like “little” Marco or “lying” Hilary. Give the girl (Mary) a break…it was less than 300 killed, England was primarily a Catholic country, she was a popular monarch, her father had over 30,000 people executed, and she was known to agonize over each burning (I may be getting carried away here because agonizing over someone else being burnt alive does seem ironic), and she reprieved the condemned at the last minute if she thought they had genuinely seen that they were deep down Catholics all along. And, I repeat, that the majority of the English were, indeed, Catholic and resented (at least at her time) the forcible transition to Protestantism.

So Mary was not called “Bloody” until England was well and truly Protestant about fifty years after her death. A triumph of public relations. Maybe Mr. Trump used the same firm.

But I digress. Back to the nursery rhyme. It was not published until 1609, long after Mary’s death, and the original version had nothing to do with cutting off their heads, but referred to the Miller’s wife “licking” her knife (no mention of actual death of aforesaid mice, although “licking” does have implications for the future ). The current version (the cutting off the tails) came out in 1852. About three hundred years after “Bloody” Mary. And any cursory analysis would question why cutting off the three mice’s tails, related to burning three bishops to death. They did not have their heads cut off. And why should children, in a Catholic society, have been so upset that they repeated endlessly this calumny?

No, this is a case of some candidate for a doctoral thesis coming up with a novel idea so that he (or maybe she) could get the degree and the funny cap that Doctors of Philosophy get to wear. Whoever it was, surely stuck it to Queen Mary. We are naturally curious as to why some rhymes are deeply embedded in our culture so that we repeat them to our children, and this is one answer to the question of where did THREE BLIND MICE come from.

I think that young children love gore. Three blind mice! Already, that seems a depressing idea. They are running around blind, and because the rhyme is often sung as a round, the first line is repeated. We sing this to our babies. They happily repeat it. We tell them about Humpty Dumpty who was irretrievably smashed so “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” could not put him back together again. We happily tell of Jack, hiking friend of Jill, who fell down and broke his head (I assume that means he died) and Jill follows shortly, and the baby who we rocked gets killed when the bough breaks. These gruesome tales for very young children penetrate all cultures. My parents used to tell me in German about two naughty boys, Max and Moritz, who finish up as baked cookies. It is one of the most popular stories told to very young children in Germany. Baked children!

I am willing to bet that there are literally hundreds of dissertations (from many psychologists) as to why this all takes place. Personally, I have no idea. But when I see a too “neat” story about how this gory triplet of mice tale came to happen, I remember that I was pushed to think “creatively”, and I suspect that the author might similarly have been.

But do not let this interfere with the enjoyment of your next Bloody Mary cocktail!

Ronald P. Stewart
Headmaster
York Preparatory School