Hark, hark, the dogs do bark
This rhyme, in its shortened form, goes, “Hark! hark! The dogs do bark/ Beggars are coming to town/ Some in jags and some in rags/ And one in a velvet gown”. Although it did not appear in print in this form until 1784 it appears to have a long history, and as a consequence, there are various theories as to its origins.
But first things first. The sense of the rhyme is very clear. Strangers in the form of beggars are coming to town and their arrival has set the dogs off. In close insular communities where travel was difficult, even if there was a desire to explore beyond your immediate surroundings, strangers were often seen as a source of potential danger or trouble. At its simplest level, the rhyme is nothing more than a warning to the little ones to beware of strangers. A jag was a purposeful slit in a garment which allowed material of a different colour to be seen and was a particularly fashionable accessory in Tudor times.
The first theory as to the rhyme’s hidden meaning is that it refers to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when William of Orange and his Dutch adherents saved the English crown from the papists. Advocates of this theory hone in on the reference to a velvet gown, clearly, they surmise, a sign of wealth and status. The beggars are the Dutch and the dogs howl as the train makes its stately progress to seize the crown.
There are considerable difficulties in accepting this theory. Whilst not universally popular, William’s ascendancy to the throne did find favour with many of the Protestants in the land. And the reference to a velvet gown is a pretty feeble hook upon which to base a fanciful theory. Perhaps the most telling argument against it, after the dating of jags, is the fact that Shakespeare references the rhyme in the Tempest. Ariel in luring the shipwrecked Ferdinand to Prospero and Miranda’s dwelling, says, ”Hark. Hark/ The watch-dogs bark/ Bow-wow, bow-wow”. We are always in danger of attributing to the bard’s audience an encyclopaedic knowledge of references and folk lore but it is hard to conclude that he was making a reference to a rhyme which his audience would know well.
The next theory is that it refers to the Reformation. Henry VIII’s henchmen turned out thousands of monks as they appropriated their lands and treasures on the king’s behalf. As a consequence many of the monks were reduced to real penury and had to make their way in the world by becoming itinerant beggars. Their arrival would set off the community’s natural alarm system, the dogs. At least you could imagine that one of this motley crew might have got away with some of their erstwhile finery, hence the velvet gown.
Whilst the Reformation is earlier than Shakespeare’s reference, this interpretation still seems a little fanciful, particularly as there is some suggestion that the rhyme’s roots predate this convulsive event by a couple of centuries. Wandering beggars and troubadours were a feature of mediaeval town life. Often strangers were seen as trouble makers or spreaders of dissent. Our rhyme surely is just a reflection of advice that parents have handed down to their children for centuries – just beware of strangers, not matter how they are dressed. As simple as that!