Little Miss Muffet
This rather charming rhyme deals with arachnophobia, the irrational fear of spiders, not something I suffer from. The most common version goes, “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet/ eating her curds and whey/ along came a spider, who sat down beside her/ and frightened Miss Muffet away.”
This rhyme is of interest to the etymologist as well as the entomologist, principally because of what Miss Muffet was sitting on. I had always assumed that the noun described some kind of stool, a footstool or a pouffe or something of that nature. The Oxford English Dictionary rather pours cold water on this idea, preferring to attribute its origin to the French word, tufe, which meant a small grassy hillock or clump of grass. It states that the later association of the word with an item of furniture was down to a misinterpretation of the Miss Muffet rhyme, a mistake we dare not repeat.
Then there is the small matter of what she was eating. Curds and whey are what we would now know as cottage cheese, milk to which the natural enzyme found in a cow’s gut, rennin, has been added. The enzyme separates some of the proteins in the milk to form clumps, the curd, and some remain in a liquid form, the whey. The dish was also called junket, so named because it was conveyed to market in little reed baskets called jonquettes. Today, a junket is a pejorative description for a trip which to the observer seems to be all play and no work, it assuming this meaning in 1814.
And now who was Miss Muffet? There was a Doctor Thomas Muffet (1553 – 1604) who was an early entomologist and his legacy was the book, Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum, which was the first scientific catalogue of British insects. The suggestion is that the good Doctor’s daughter is the subject of our rhyme. After all, you would imagine their household would be overrun by various types of insect, although you would hope most would be dead, rather than being in a state to give the poor girl a fright. The problem with this theory is that the good doctor does not appear to have had a daughter. He had a couple of step-daughters, who he inherited after his marriage to Catherine Brown and they would almost certainly have assumed their natural father’s moniker.
Another candidate, inevitably, is Mary Queen of Scots who spent plenty of time incarcerated in gloomy, dank cells which would have been a natural habitat for spiders. There is no record of her being an arachnophobe – she would have had weightier matters to cause her concern. The spider may be a metaphor for the Scottish religious reformer, John Knox, who caused the staunchly Catholic queen a lot of grief but beguiling as these theories are, there is no hard evidence to think that they might be true.
Our rhyme first appeared in print in 1805, a couple of centuries or more after the time when Dr Muffet and Mary Queen of Scots were around. Of course, it may have lived long in oral tradition before being committed to print but I have my doubts. Not least because in 1812 in an edition of Songs for the Nursery there is a variant featuring a Little Miss Ester who sat on a tester and in 1842 James Halliwell’s Nursery Rhymes of England features a Little Miss Mopsey who sat in a shopsey.
I cannot help conclude that Miss Muffet was chosen because her name rhymed with what she sat on rather than because she was the daughter of a famous entomologist who died a couple of centuries earlier. But I may be wrong.