It was not too long ago that the inability to refrigerate food meant that consumers bought just what they needed for that day. And for pretty much the same reason, food vendors only kept a limited supply of their wares. Some of the more unscrupulous might have tried to pass off old stock on to the unwary. A way of guarding against that was to ask the vendor for a sample. The nursery rhyme, Simple Simon, which was first published in 1764, plays out what must have been a common place scenario. “Simple Simon met a pieman/ Going to the fair:/ Says Simple Simon to the pieman,/ Let me taste your ware./ Says the pieman to Simple Simon/ Show me first your penny/ Says Simple Simon to the pieman/ Indeed I have not any”. The twist, of course, is that Simon is impecunious and the pieman was right to be wary because the sample was Simon’s only hope of some victuals.
It is highly likely that this rhyme predates this publication not least because a character called Simple Simon appears in a ballad published around 1685 which recounted our alliterative hero’s misfortunes and his wife’s, Margery, cruelty. Those who are desperate to find allusions to real events in children’s rhymes suggest that Simon was an old beggar called Simon Edy who was portrayed by artists such as John Seago and Thomas Rowlandson. Edy was contemporaneous with the publication of the Simple Simon rhyme but clearly could not have been the subject of the earlier ballad.
If anyone waxes lyrical to me about the quality of music in the 1960s, I respond 1910 Fruitgum Company. Their affront to musical sensibility was their 1967 ditty, Simon Says which reached number two in the charts that year – so much for flower power! Simon Says is a game that was popular with children, requiring a minimum of three players. One, who takes the role of Simon issues a set of instructions which the others have to follow, only if the instruction is preceded with the phrase Simple Simon says. So you would be out if followed the instruction “jump in the air” or if you did not respond to the instruction “Simon says jump in the air”. The winner is Simon if all the other players are eliminated or the player who is still standing when Simon loses the will to live. It is a game of monumental tedium and is probably a major reason why children now stand around the playground sending texts to each other.
Astonishingly, there are variants of this game to be found around the world, although Simon is replaced by the likes of teacher, leader, O’Grady, Johnny, the Captain or the King. A variant, chidiya ud in Hindi, is played in India where the person taking the Simon role shouts out a creature and by gestures the others have to indicate whether it can fly or not. Another variant, common in Sweden, called , Gör si, gör så, the leader commands the others to do this or that while performing the actions themselves.
Is this Simon the same as Simple Simon? Maybe, but unlikely and the name may have chosen for alliterative reasons. Again there is a desperate attempt to associate this Simon with a real character, Simon de Montfort who upon capturing Henry III at the battle of Lewes in 1264 took over the reins of state so that anything he said, went.
I am even less convinced by this argument.