Tales From The Nursery – Part Thirty Two
February 5, 2016
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Little Bo Peep
This favourite rhyme goes as follows, “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep/ and doesn’t know where to find them/ leave them alone and they’ll come home/ wagging their tails behind them”. There are some variants in existence – one has the second line as “and can’t tell where to find them” and others have the sheep in the fourth line bringing their tails or dragging their tails behind them. There are four other verses which complete the rhyme, although the first written version which dates to 1805 only contains the familiar first and the melody accompanying the rhyme was added later in 1870 by James William Elliott.
So what does it all mean? In more pastoral times there were many people employed as shepherds and shepherdesses and I’m sure the job had many attractions – fresh air, time to yourself etc. But the shepherd’s worst nightmare was to lose their flock and this is may be what has happened to poor Bo Peep. But all may not be lost if she trusts to the sheep’s homing instincts. They will come back of their own accord. But the later verses take a more sinister turn because although she dreams of hearing the sheep return it was just an illusion and when finally she does find them, they are minus their tails which are hanging on a tree to dry. Her final task is to try to round the sheep up and reunite them with their tails.
Sheep are not particularly noted for their homing instincts. Their principal instinct is to flock and follow wherever the dominant member of the herd decides to go, even if this is not a smart choice. Ewes teach their offspring to follow the older members of the flock from birth. Sheep are also prey animals and when they are faced with danger, their natural and first instinct is to flee and then regroup. Of course, there may be a stronger homing instinct among sheep born and raised in their current location but there is nothing specific about a sheep’s general behaviour to give any confidence to the narrator of our rhyme’s opening optimism.
Although the rhyme is relatively modern, there are references to children playing a game of bo-peep from as early as the 16th century. Shakespeare in King Lear (Act 1 Scene 4) has the Fool saying to the King, “that such a king should play bo-peep and go the fools among”. Earlier references to playing bo-peep link it with the punishment of standing in the pillory – the wooden contraption into which the malefactor’s head and hands were secured. In 1364 a landlady was convicted for serving short measures and she had to “play bo-peep thorowe a pillory”. In fulminating against the practice of bakers to add foreign substances to their bread, Andrew Boorde in 1542 wrote, “I would they myghte play bo pepe throwe a pyllery”.
Today Bo-peep is a game played where a child hides its face, then suddenly reveals it with a shout of boo! Although it is tempting to link our shepherdess’ name with the mediaeval game of bo-peep, I think it is a little far-fetched. But there is a connotation of foolishness in Shakepeare’s usage and part of the punishment of being put in a pillory is the public ignominy. In losing her sheep – the worst thing a shepherd could do – Bo Peep was foolish. Perhaps that is the link. Who knows?