A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tales From The Nursery – Part Thirty Three

st ives

As I was going to St Ives

Some nursery rhymes take the form of a riddle and a classic example of this format is the rhyme which goes as follows, “As I was going to St Ives/ I met a man with seven wives/ each wife had seven sacks/ each sack had seven cats/ each cat had seven kits./Kits, cats, sacks and wives/ how many were going to St Ives”?  The earliest written version of the rhyme appeared in a manuscript dating around 1730 where the man encountered on the road to St Ives had nine rather than seven wives. By the time the rhyme first appeared in print in 1825 he was reduced to just seven.

Raold Dahl parodied the rhyme in his 1989 book, Rhyme Stew, “as I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives/ he said, “I think it is much more fun/ than getting stuck with only one””. Far be it for me to comment on that particular point but I don’t think we can assume that rhyme indicates that polygamy was a big issue in Britain, even allowing for the fact that the laws surrounding matrimony and the perception of the status of women were looser than they are today.

The charm of the riddle lies in its ambiguity. When the rhyme was told on the playground, there would be lots of scratching of heads, requests for salient phrases to be repeated and desperate attempts to remember that most fiendish of multiplication tables, the seven times.

Of course, in the cold light of day and away from the competitive pressures of the playground, the answer is fairly clear. The only person definitively going to St Ives is the narrator. It is by no means certain that he caught up with the man with seven wives. They could, after all, have been going the other way, away from St Ives. If the question is assumed to refer solely to the kittens, cats, sacks, wives and husband then the answer is none as they were going away from St Ives.

Seven has a long history of importance as a number. There were seven deadly sins, seven visible planets known as the luminaires, seven hills of Rome, seven ages of man (at least according to Shakespeare), seven Archangels, seven circuits of the Kaaba, seven days of the week and seven pure notes in the diatonic scale – and I can add more to the list. The sort of riddle that the rhyme illustrates has an equally long history. Problem 79 in the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus which is thought to date from around 1650 BCE has a problem where the student has to calculate the cumulative number derived from seven houses with seven cats with seven mice with seven varying units of grain. There is no trick involved in that problem – jut the fag of multiplying increasingly large numbers by seven.

The rhyme we have before us is a mischievous variant of what was an ancient mathematical puzzle.

The final question to clear up is which St Ives? There are a number of places named St Ives in the United Kingdom but the most likely destination of the narrator of our rhyme is the now over-commercialised town to the north of Penzance in Cornwall. It was a major fishing port in its prime and would have had a large cat population to keep down the rats and mice who might otherwise feast on the fishing gear. You can’t help thinking that the cats and kittens in the sacks were surplus to requirements but that might be another story.


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