“Midsummer Madness”, the Month of July

A field of Sunflowers in Ukraine

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun?
-Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
(William Blake, 1794)

In the British Isles counting rhymes are the remnants of ancient pagan rituals or Druidic rites often associated with human sacrifice or trial by contest and ordeal that were usually chosen by lot, eg; “Eeny, meeny, miney, mo” and “Ten Green Bottles”. Other counting rhymes emerged from pastoral traditions for the purpose of counting flocks of sheep usually in lots of twenty and other agricultural commodities. The same principles of rhyme and number as found in say “Baa, baa black sheep” would no doubt have been employed as a mnemonic device and for accounting of other goods such as fish, bags of flour, etc and as a mental aid in the monotonous activity of weaving, knotting and knitting by old ladies. Remnants of the Celtic, Brythonic and Gaelic tongues can be found among the many regional variants for example in Cornwall the counting rhyme began; “Hanna, manna, mona, mike, or N. Yorkshire; Yan, tan, tithera, mithera”, and from High Furness; “Aina, peina, para, peddera” etc. One other such example is “Hickory, dickory dock” whose phonetic digits have evolved from the Westmoreland dialect and probably used to educate children at school.


The three main cycles of celebration and festivity reach their hiatus in the month of July, so-called by Brutus after the death or rather assassination of the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar who was born on the 12th of July. It was originally named Quintilis being the 5th month in the Roman calendar and is also the seasonal setting of Shakespeare’s well-known play “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Direct or indirect reference to some of these early nursery rhymes was often made by William Shakespeare and other dramatists in their own plays and performances. For example the line “Fee, fie, foh, fumme, I smell the blood of an Englishman” is quoted in the play “King Lear”, and “The Man in the Moon” theme occurs in a cameo production of Pyramus & Thisbe by the so-called “mechanicals” in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Although some nursery rhymes date back to before medieval times, the term “nursery rhymes” itself does not appear until the third decade of the 19th century. Previously they were known as ballads, lullabies, ditties or songs and later as Tom Thumb Songs/Rhymes or Mother Goose rhymes. The British nursery rhyme Old King Cole dates back to the reign of Prince Cole (3rd century AD) a benevolent monarch of the ancient Brytonnes. Others date back to the pagans of Greek and Roman times and some even from certain biblical sources. Not all of those uncovered by compilers are simply doggerel or badly-hacked verse, indeed some are equal in quality to that of the nation’s sublime and superlative verse although clearly intended to be educational, surreal, linguistically childish or satirical. The ability to be instructive, prophetic, entertaining, funny, tragic or romantic puts nursery rhymes in a unique genre in terms of their poetic and narrative qualities. The onomatopoeic and mnemonic property of rhymes intended for both children and adults as well as other factors such as the weaving of subtle allusions imbued with topicality, historical significance, fabulous themes or dream symbolism, and then embroidered with rhyme, consonance and assonance suggests a complex poetic form unequalled in other literary forms, especially when their originality and longevity in literature are taken into account. In actual fact some nursery rhymes originated from adult collections of bawdy jokes, limericks and drinking songs, others derived from extracts of Mummer’s Plays, while others derive from the repertoires of Revels (unruly dramas) or those antics or pageants performed at festivals or fetes by railers, ranters, jesters and tumblers. Despite the absence of any written versions for many years there are virtually identical rhymes even within a great variety of languages and cultures due largely to widespread acculturation and dissemination. Scandinavia (N. Europe) and Germany seem highly significant in this regard as remarked by Jamieson (1814) and may suggest an Aryan/Teutonic origin or influence for our own nursery rhymes. The well known mnemonic calendar rhyme “Thirty days hath September” which is still in use today has its literary origins in 13th France. “London Bridge is falling down” also has its equivalence in France, Italy and Germany. The popular English rhyme “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall” found its way onto a Danish island when it was occupied by British troops during the Napoleonic Wars and then further into parts of Saxony, Switzerland and Transylvannia. Some, like the well-known:


“Monday’s Child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go
Friday’s child is loving and giving
Saturday’s child works hard for their living
And the child that was born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.”

Were intended to assist anyone wishing to form a harmonious relationship with the right type of person. Clearly some rhymes solely intended for adults eventually found their way into the nursery when amended or abridged for juvenile consumption. An early collection of European nursery rhymes can be found in “Demaundes Joyous”, thought to have been written or collated by the humanist French scholar Francois Rabelais (1483-1553). He was also responsible for works of satire and comedy – “Pantagruel”, “Gargantua”, “Tiers Livre”, and “Quart Livre” which suggests that nursery rhymes were in part a form of underground propaganda aimed at undermining the authority of the established Church, the monarchy or the political rulers of the time. Another older collection was published at Strasbourg in 1505 and an anthology “Les Adeuineaux Amoureux” in Bruges around 1478. A great number of nursery rhymes were associated specifically with children’s games/dances (eg; “Ringa-ringa-roses, a pocketful of posies”) and were used to educate and instruct on word pronunciations, and other phonetic and linguistic attributes of the local language. These later became known as tongue-twisters, the most typical being that of “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper”. However, there is usually a sinister, deeper meaning or significance to the rhyme for as in the case of “Ringa-ringa-roses”, it subtly refers to the advent of the Black Death as evidenced in the succeeding line “achoo, achoo we all fall down”. It was also common practice to put into rhyme some historical event or universally define some actual personage whose life or antics were a source of amusement, warnings or moral instructions such as the “Grand Ole Duke of York” and “Mary, Mary quite contrary”. The latter apparently referring to the historical Richard III and the latter to Mary Queen of Scots. A great number of nursery rhymes were often written in doggerel, as in the case of the limerick, and were probably work songs as in the case of “See-saw Margery Daw…” that were devised by the logger and sawyer of the woodlands. Another frequent source of rhymes emerged in the weaving and knitting sheds of the British Isles, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, these were often employed practically to help weavers keep numerical track of their textile patterns and to avoid the onset of boredom. The spread of rhymes to distant regions can also be attributed to immigrant culture and especially to seafaring folk whose sea shanties and chants eventually became universal interludes in many pantomime productions of fairy tales, folklore and legends. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries rhymes became the province of a predominantly adult audience who enjoyed theatrical performances spiced with rhyming interludes. While still many more are so elegant in their style and choice of verse indicating they were intended to be accompanied by sophisticated dance steps or sundry notes of music. One such example with many variants is “Lavenders green, diddle diddle, Lavender’s blue” written around 1672 and published under the title of “The Kind Country Lovers” it was usually performed on St. Valentine’s Day or a leap year. Somewhat reminiscent of “Roses are red, violets are blue” the lyrics became regenerated as a playful love song even in the 20th century. It is clear therefore that this type of nursery rhyme was often associated with folk dances or dramatic performances and pageants while others still formed the basis of popular songs, broadsides or ballads disseminated by minstrel poets, troubadours and travelling street performers (Fr. trouvéres) who were for the Medieval period a type of popular tabloid press. Although nursery rhymes were popular from the 12th-16th centuries they found their most ardent and widespread appeal from the 17th century onwards through to the Hanoverian and Victorian era. A well known rhyme for the midsummer sacrifice is “Who killed Cock Robin?”

“I,” said the Sparrow,
“With my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.
“Who saw him die?
“I,” said the Fly,
“With my little eye,
I saw him die.
“Who caught his blood?
“I,” said the Fish,
“With my little dish,
I caught his blood.
“Who’ll make his shroud?
“I,” said the Beetle,
“With my thread and needle,
I’ll make his shroud.
“Who’ll dig his grave?
“I,” said the Owl,
“With my spade and trowel,
I’ll dig his grave.
“Who’ll be the parson?
“I,” said the Rook,
“With my little book.
I’ll be the parson.
“Who’ll be the clerk?
“I,” said the Lark,
“I’ll say Amen in the dark;
“I’ll be the clerk.
“Who’ll be chief mourner?
“I,” said the Dove, “I mourn for my love;
I’ll be chief mourner.
“Who’ll bear the torch?
“I,” said the Linnet,
“I’ll come in a minute, I’ll bear the torch.
“Who’ll sing his dirge? “I,” said the thrush,
“As I sing in the bush I’ll sing his dirge.
“Who’ll bear the pall? “We,” said the Wren,
“Both the cock and the hen; We’ll bear the pall.
“Who’ll carry his coffin?
“I,” said the Kite, “If it be in the night, I’ll carry his coffin.
“Who’ll toll the bell? “I,” said the Bull,
“Because I can pull, I’ll toll the bell.
“All the birds of the air Fell to sighing and sobbing
When they heard the bell toll
For poor Cock Robin.

It was James Orchard Halliwell, a renowned Shakespearean scholar who published the definitive “Nursery Rhymes of England” as well as “Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales” (1849), thereby elevating the genre to an untold high with as many as fourteen different categories of verse. Unfortunately, he never listed all of his sources (written or oral) which may have been extensive and varied, for example; The Old Mother Hubbard books were intended for busy mothers with too many children. It contains notes about the origins and age of each rhyme. His compendium of 1849 (“Popular Rhymes & Nursery Tales”) laid the foundation for other academic anthologies for the children’s nursery. In the latter he made reference to some of his sources namely; Infant Institutes (1789), to “Gammer Gurton’s Garland” otherwise known as “The Nursery Parnassus” (1810), to “The Popular Rhymes of Scotland” (1824 & 1842) and the Bodleian library’s “Songs for the Nursery”. A distinct tradition of nursery rhymes evolved in the New World propagated by the Pilgrim Fathers of Boston and New England that are now known in the United States as Mother Goose rhymes. Excellent examples of these can be found in the “Tommy Thumb’s Song Book” printed in Massachusetts in 1788 and based on the earliest known anthology of nursery rhymes (c. 1744). The poet and traveller Edward Lear, the story-teller A. A. Milne and the polymath C. S. Lewis have all found a contemporary niche for the nursery rhyme tradition in their own literary works. More recently the student who is interested in the origins and age of rhymes is advised to consult “The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes”.

At this time of the year the traditional cycle is ostensibly interdependent, the beginning denotes Birth/Creation (nativity-winter solstice), the middle denotes Life/Maintenance (vernal equinox) and the final cycle Death/Sacrifice (midsummer solstice). From now on the days will become shorter and the nights longer, we embrace this inevitability and celebrate our common humanity with great feasts and festivals such as Glastonbury, sporting activity such as Wimbledon and in culture with the Last Night of the Proms and the Welsh National Eisteddfod. However, different cultures and religions marked the beginning and the end of the year at differing periods according to their secular and religious calendar. For example, the Hebrews celebrate the beginning of the year at Easter, the ancient Celts the end of the year in October. The ancient Druids traditionally made a sacrifice, usually human in this month of summer. Known as “Hay Moon” to the ancient Celts it was also the occasion for the Horse Sacrifice, this being the greatest offering a warrior could make to the Celtic Gods, next to his own life of course. The Anglo-Saxons knew it as Heymonath or Maedmonath in respect of hay-making and the flowering of meadows. Edmund Spenser in his poetic masterpiece the “Faerie Queen” mentions its significance:

Then came hot July, boiling like to fire
That all his garments he had cast away;
Upon a lion raging yet with ire
He boldly rode, and made him to obey.

However, it was said in rural proverbs of the time that if the first day of July was rainy weather that it would rain further for the next four weeks. Many regional fairs such as Honiton and Tolpuddle are held in this month, and usually it is a “Month of Fairs, Fetes and Festivals”. The Manx Parliament which use to take place in June officially opens on the 14th July (Tynwald Day). The following day was St. Swithin’s Day referred to in Shakespeare’s play, commemorating the burial of St. Swithin or Swithun, an advisor to the Bishop of Westminster who requested being buried in the churchyard so that “the sweet rain of heaven might fall upon his grave”. The monks honoured his wish on the 15th July 971 (Gregorian Calendar) but it rained for the next forty days thereby delaying the proceedings. In exploring the history of St. Swithun’s day, I discovered one man who was potentially named after the popular St. Swithun who is not only a contemporary to William Shakespeare, but would himself go on to be canonized in the 20th century by Pope Paul VI. Swithun Wells was a Roman catholic martyr during the life of Queen Elizabeth Ist. His family was known to house and shelter catholic recusants during Shakespeare’s lifetime, with Swithun Wells was executed by Elizabeth Ist for housing and hiding Catholics suffering persecution.

At this time many merchants, industrial artisans stage their annual processions or gatherings such as the Worshipful Company of Vintners, the Dyers, Gunsmiths, Apothecaries, Tailors and Weavers.

In purely wildlife or rural terms this is the height of summer and there is a lot to look out for on all fronts, the hedgerows, fields and woodlands are rich with flora and fauna, for example several varieties of purple and white flowering thistles, Field Scabious, and knapweed many of which attract a large variety of butterflies such as the Meadow Brown, Marbled White and the Gatekeeper. The yellow and black striped Cinnabar Moth caterpillar is usually feeding on Ragwort, the Privet Hawkmoth and Elephant Hawkmoth are lurking amongst the Rosebay Willowherb and on garden Fuschias. Lakes, marshes and ponds are abundant with numerous insects including Dragonflies, Banded Demoiselles, Common darters and the azure blue and common blue Damselflies. If you’re lucky you might find some newts, frogs and even grass-snakes. Amongst the reed beds and streams you will hear Sedge and Reed Warblers, and occasionally Coots and Moorhens with their chicks. Fruits, nuts and berries are beginning to form on most trees and shrubs ready for autumns rich harvest. For example Dog Rose, acorn, beech and hazelnuts most of which are favoured by squirrels and the secretive but brightly plumed Jays, a close relative of the Magpie. Where there is an abundance of insects, especially if there are suitable habitats usually there will be several varieties of bats such as the Pipestrelle, the Common Brown, the Noctule and especially the Long-eared Bat all of which usually come out of their roosts around dusk.

In the Christian calendar July 22nd is St. Mary Magdalene Day, the patron saint of penitents followed soon after by St. James’ Day on the 25th .

This is a good time to harvest wild or even cultivated soft fruits such as blackcurrant, bullace, gooseberries, strawberries and raspberries. Excellent wines or cordials can be made from these or they can be preserved as jams.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,