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A portrait of an anthropomorphic egg from the front and the back
A detail from the Humpty Dumpty page of the 1907 book Twelve Magic Changelings by M.A. Glen, Find the archival scan at the link.

Humpty Dumpty: Metafolklore, Riddles, and Yolks

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As spring settles in, many of us begin thinking about eggs–not just as food, but as cultural symbols. Here at Folklife Today, we’ve discussed the art of coloring eggs as an ancient practice, the fascinating history of the Easter Bunny and its connections to eggs, and even stories of a Germanic goddess of Spring changing a bird into an egg-laying hare. But there’s another famous egg in folklore that we haven’t talked about yet: Humpty Dumpty.

Humpty Dumpty, of course, is a character in an English nursery rhyme. The most common version runs:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.

As you’ll see throughout this post, in most well known illustrations of Humpty Dumpty he is represented as an anthropomorphic egg. Some people, however, object to this interpretation, pointing out that he’s not said to be an egg in the rhyme itself. Some claim that it was Lewis Carroll, in his classic book Through the Looking Glass, that first portrayed the character as an egg, though as we’ll see this is not the case. Some, like Thomas Foster, add the objection that an egg seems implausible because the other details of the rhyme don’t relate to eggs:

“Even the infantile mind rejects the common explanation of Humpty Dumpty, inquiring why an egg should be set on a wall of all places in the world, and what interest a king could possibly have in employing men and horses to mend a broken egg.”

While Foster argues in the article I’ve just linked to that Humpty-Dumpty is a remnant of a solar myth, other people have proposed specific historical details which they claim inspired it instead. Some suggest the real Humpty Dumpty is Richard III of England, while others suggest the rhyme describes a siege engine or cannon from the English Civil War.

So, is any of these stories true? Scholars don’t think so. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts about “Ring Around the Rosie” and “She Sells Sea Shells,” people often make up fanciful stories to explain their favorite nursery rhymes. These stories enter the oral tradition themselves, circulating as traditional tales about traditional rhymes. They are folklore about folklore…or, what some of us folklorists call “metafolklore.” Many of them seem on the surface like they could be true; after all, most people are smart enough to detect things that are obviously implausible. But in every case I’ve seen, there just isn’t any evidence for stories tying Humpty Dumpty to historical events or people.

In assessing historical stories, we don’t say a story is true just because it’s plausible; there generally has to be some concrete evidence for them. In my blog about “She sells seashells” and Mary Anning, I describe what we mean by primary and secondary source evidence, as well as direct and circumstantial evidence, and discuss the oral tradition as evidence. I conclude that direct primary-source evidence is generally the only thing that conclusively demonstrates a story is true, but that certain kinds of secondary-source evidence, circumstantial evidence, and oral testimony can be valuable as well.

Three images of Humpty Dumpty. In two, the egg sits on a wall, while in one he is dancing on top of the wall.
Three images of Humpty Dumpty. The first is the cover of Denslow’s Humpty Dumpty (archival scan here). The second is from the Humpty Dumpty Songster in AFC’s Gordon Songsters Collection (archival scan here). The third is from a piece of sheet music published in 1914. All are in the public domain.

Before looking at the metafolklore around this popular rhyme, let’s set the stage by looking at the early history of the name Humpty Dumpty and the rhyme “Humpty Dumpty,” which affects the background and meaning of the rhyme. As a name or nickname for a chubby, clumsy person or a person with a curved spine (especially the condition commonly called a “hump,”) the phrase “Humpty Dumpty” has a long history. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, tells us “humpty dumpty” was a term for “a short, dumpy, hump-shouldered person.”

The OED suggests an origin of about 1785 for this term, but it is in fact older. We see it, for example, in an anonymous 1701 satirical poem A Rod for Tunbridge Beaus, Bundl’d Up at the Request of the Tunbridge Ladies. In this satire on the prominent people of Tunbridge Wells, one character is described thus:

“Beau Humpty-dumpty next appears,
A merry Lump well grown in Years,
With Back and Breast like Punchanello,
But for his parts has not his fellow;
This is a Crumpling of some Title,
A Barronet, and thing of Mettle;
But only does himself degrade,
When Honour’s Tax is to be paid”

The first clue to Humpty-dumpty’s appearance here is the comparison to Punchanello, a character from Italian theater who was becoming very popular at that time in English puppet shows–he would soon be known simply as “Punch.” Pulcinella, as he was known in Italian, was typically portrayed with a potbelly and a humped back, which explains the “back and breast” described for Humpty-dumpty. The second clue is the character’s description as a “crumpling,” which the OED tells us meant “a crooked or deformed person.” The first known version of the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty” was printed in 1797, so this meaning of the phrase “humpty-dumpty” was quite well established by the time the rhyme emerged.

An engraving of a man dressed in a costume featuring a humped back.
Detail of Pulcinella, as illustrated by Nicolas Bonnart in about 1680. Note the character has a humped back and a potbelly. Find the full archival scan here.

The 1797 version of “Humpty Dumpty” (the first known version) was printed as sheet music in Samuel Arnold’s Juvenile Amusements. This is an exceedingly rare book, and most extant copies are fragmentary. I confess I have never seen the page featuring “Humpty Dumpty,” but secondary sources such as the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes tell me this first version of the rhyme was as follows:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
Four-score Men and Four-score more,
Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.

The 1810 edition of Gammer Gurton’s Garland had a similar version:

Humpty Dumpty sate on a wall,
Humpti Dumpti had a great fall;
Threescore men and threescore more,
Cannot place Humpty dumpty as he was before.

Given these earliest versions, you may be wondering where the king’s horses are. The answer is, they’re not far behind. The first version of the rhyme I’ve found with a verifiable date that features the king’s horses and men is from an 1813 debate about Britain’s policy in India. Interestingly, the rhyme was reported differently by two independent reporters. A court reporter gave the version spoken in the debate as follows:

Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall;
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men,
Could never put Humpty Dumpty together again

On the other hand, the Naval Chronicle reporter quoted it this way:

Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall;
All the King’s horses, and all the King’s men,
Could not place Humpty-Dumpty, on his legs again.

An interesting variation shows up in 1835, in which the king’s horses are replaced by his money:

Humpty Dumpty on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
Not all the King’s money nor all the King’s men
Could put Humpty Dumpty up again

A broken egg which has fallen off a wall weeps as a king stoops look at it closely.
Illustration from Frank Denslow’s Humpty Dumpty. Find the archival scan here.

In the 1842 first edition of The Nursery Rhymes of England, James Orchard Halliwell reprinted the text from Gammer Gurton’s Garland, including the second line’s spelling of “Humpti dumpti.” But in the 1843 second edition, he standardized the spelling, as follows:

Humpty dumpty sate on a wall,
Humpty dumpty had a great fall;
Three score men and three score more,
Cannot place Humpty dumpty as he was before.

Halliwell also added the following footnote:

“Sometimes the last two lines run as follows :—
‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,
Could not set Humpty Dumpty up again.'”

In the 1846 fourth edition of the same book, Halliwell added yet another version of the rhyme:

HUMPTY Dumpty lay in a beck,
With all his sinews round his neck;
Forty doctors and forty wrights
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty to rights!

It shouldn’t surprise us that a common nursery rhyme should exist in more than one variant. But as we’ll soon see, this does have consequences for some of the metafolklore about Humpty Dumpty.

My Kingdom For a Horse: Humpty Dumpty and Richard III

Colored engraving shows a group of soldiers on a medieval battlefield. One of them wears the Plantagenet coat of arms and a crown on his helmet.
Illustration of the Battle of Bosworth Field by James Doyle. This image was published in 1864, and is in the public domain.

One of the most common tales about “Humpty-Dumpty” is that it tells the story of Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.  Here’s a version of that story, as recounted by History Daily.

“History paints Richard III as a villainous figure with a fearsome appearance, disfigured and hunchbacked, who raped Edward VI’s widowed daughter-in-law, had her killed after she became queen, and locked his two young nephews in the Tower of London to prevent them from claiming the throne. Regardless of whether any of this is actually true, it’s theorized that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ describes Richard’s defeat at Bosworth Field in 1485, having fallen from his horse (called ‘Wall’), and how his vast armies failed to save him or repair his reign.”

It’s not only true that Richard III had a reputation for having a spinal deformity, it’s even true that at least one 1868 play refers to him as a “humpty-dumpty man,” employing the adjectival form of the phrase “humpty-dumpty.” Still, as far as I can tell, the idea that the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty” refers to Richard III goes back only to Katherine Elwes Thomas’s 1930 book The Real Personages of Mother Goose. In the book, Thomas takes most of her cues from the previous scholar Henry Bett, and her introduction quotes him extensively (misspelling his name throughout as “Betts”). One of the quotations from Bett is as follows:

“There can be no doubt at all that our nursery rhymes and tales contain historic elements, and absolutely conclusive evidence as to the historicity of some of them may be given.”

Thomas then professes that in her book:

“The nursery rhymes, jingles, and ditties, connected with the name of Mother Goose, are…for the first time presented in their correct historical sequence.”

The idea of the book, then, was to chronologically recount stories from English and Scottish history that she believed gave rise to nursery rhymes. In the running text, she passes lightly over Richard III and “Humpty Dumpty,” giving the following as justification for a connection between the king and the rhyme:

“Howard, in his volume, Wolsey the Cardinal, states :

‘It was in this year (1483) that Edward IV died ‘ leaving this world ’ for Richard ‘ to bustle in ’ ; the murder of the royal brothers, and the usurpation of the crook-backed tyrant all taking place within the same year.’

Not all the King’s horses,
Not all the King’s men

could of a truth prevail to “put Humpty Dumpty together again,” for when those lines were directed at the Usurper, he lay slain upon Bosworth Field. Forever silent were the lips that so brief space before had cried in frantic, unavailing tragedy:

‘A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!'”

The reasoning seems to be that Richard was “crook-backed,” he was a king who had horses and men present, and he was irrevocably killed, all of which she interprets to parallel the rhyme.

Head and shoulders portrait of a late medieval king
Detail from a late 16th-century portrait of Richard III. Oil on Panel. National Portrait Gallery, UK. The image is in the public domain. See the full portrait here.

This story has many of the same weaknesses folklorists have detected in the story that “Ring Around the Rosie” is based on the plague, which I discussed in a previous post. Most importantly, apart from vague textual parallels, Thomas presents no evidence whatsoever for a connection between the “Humpty Dumpty” rhyme and Richard III. It’s unclear why she even had the idea that they were related, apart from the fact that she needed to fill a book-length study with claims that nursery rhymes contained references to history, and remembered that Richard was said to have a hump. Later writers, reporting on her idea, have even had to embellish it–in particular with the story that Richard’s horse was named “Wall”–in order to make the parallels seem more impressive.

There are, on the other hand, many things that weigh against this story. For one , there are more than three hundred years between the death of Richard III and the first emergence of the nursery rhyme. It’s not impossible that the rhyme was created in 1485 and survived for 300 years in oral tradition without being recorded, and it’s not impossible that it was written in 1797 about King Richard III, but both scenarios seem unlikely.

Even worse, the story of Richard III and the rhyme of “Humpty Dumpty” had co-existed for about 150 years by Thomas’s time, yet no one had ever mentioned a connection between them. This makes the story unlikely on two counts. First, if the connection were real, we would expect someone else to have perceived it. Second, if Thomas had any evidence of the connection in 1930, such as references in previous scholarship or primary-source documents, we would expect to be able to find that evidence today.

Another serious weakness is that the parallels between the story of Richard III and the rhyme appear only if you choose the version of the rhyme best known in modern times. Remember that the oldest known version of “Humpty Dumpty” doesn’t mention kings or horses, which provide most of the apparent parallels to Richard’s story. If we believe the rhyme was written to comment on the Richard III story, we would expect the oldest version, not one that happened to become popular later, to have the most in common with that story.

Similarly, Richard was not said to be deformed in his own time; although he had scoliosis, he did not have have what would conventionally be called a hunched back, and no one who met him in life described him in those terms. Those ideas about Richard were advanced by Tudor chroniclers after his death, and made common knowledge by Shakespeare. Thomas even evokes Shakespeare’s line “My kingdom for a horse,” suggesting that she thought that line was from history rather than fiction, and that Richard died thinking about being saved by his horses. This bolsters the idea that someone was thinking about the king’s horses being able to put him together again, but it does appear to be fiction. More contemporary accounts suggest the opposite: knowing that fleeing would result in capture and death, Richard refused swift horses that were offered him and walked resolutely onto the field wearing his crown. It seems Thomas based her parallels on the rhyme and the story of Richard III that were best known in her own era, rather than the versions which might have been known to historical audiences.

Another concern might be Thomas’s goals and methodology. She says of her book:

“It had its inception in a never-to-be-forgotten incident of my childhood, when, standing beside my mother as she sang “Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross,” she smilingly remarked, “The old woman on the white horse was Queen Elizabeth.” This comment, made with the certainty of one who repeats a well-known fact, convinced me that somewhere in England and the Colonies there must have existed a traditionary knowledge of the original import of all these delightful rhymes.”

As we have seen, she also quoted Henry Bett as saying there was “no doubt at all” that nursery rhymes contained allusions to history. In other words, she doesn’t seem to be asking the question whether “Humpty-Dumpty” might contain a reference to political history; she seems to have assumed based on her mother’s stray comment and Henry Bett’s authority that nursery rhymes generally have some such “original import,” and to have simply been concerned with figuring out which specific historical event went with which rhyme. This makes her logic largely circular…she claims to be showing that the rhymes make reference to history when in fact that was her premise in the first place.

The Tortoise and the Gun: Humpty Dumpty and the English Civil War

This watercolor depicts a mounted soldier of the English Civil War, ca. 1645, surprising four other men as they drink outside a tavern.
“Troopers of the English Civil War,” watercolor by William Barns Wollen, 1900. Depicts a mounted soldier of the English Civil War, ca. 1645, surprising four other men as they drink outside a tavern. National Army Museum, U.K.. NAM. 1967-05-57-1. The image is in the public domain. Find more information here.

The other commonly told historical story about the origin of “Humpty Dumpty” is that the rhyme was created to commemorate a piece of military hardware destroyed during a siege in the English Civil War. This tale has two main variants. One is that the original “Humpty Dumpty” was a cannon used by royalists at the 1648 Siege of Colchester, which was finally brought down by Parliamentarian fire. The other that it was the type of siege engine known as a tortoise, that is, a mobile shelter to protect men from projectiles, used at the siege of Gloucester in 1643.

The Gloucester story seems to be the earlier tale; still, it is not very old, having been proposed in 1956 by David Daube, a specialist in Roman law. Daube set forth the idea not in a scholarly journal but in The Oxford Magazine. Daube was German-born and was not a native speaker of English, so he did not hear “Humpty Dumpty” growing up. He heard it from his British-born children in the 1950s, and was immediately intrigued. He later recounted the genesis of his idea and his methodology:

“In the early fifties, at Aberdeen, one afternoon my two younger sons, then about seven and five years of age, were going off to a children’s party where they were to take part in the acting of such rhymes. I enquired which rhyme they would perform. It was Humpty Dumpty and they recited it to me. I may have heard it then for the first time; certainly it was not very familiar to me. I asked: ‘Who or what is Humpty Dumpty?’ They said: ‘Oh, don’t you know? It is an egg.’ And they showed me Lear’s drawing of an egg with a face sitting on a wall. I demurred. ‘It can’t be an egg, Humpty Dumpty is too heavy for an egg. Jiggly Wriggly could be an egg, not Humpty Dumpty.’ So they asked: ‘What is it then?’ And I replied: ‘Humpty Dumpty must be a giant tortoise.’ […] I was sure of my case, simply from the sound.”

Daube continued, explaining how he thought of the idea of a siege engine:

“First, Humpty Dumpty is somebody or something the king cherishes: his horses and men are eager to repair it. So presumably his enemies dislike it, maybe are even responsible for the mishap. Secondly, it is probably somebody or something dear to the king qua king since no name like Georgie or Jamie is mentioned. If so, its enemies are the republicans, the Cromwellians. Thirdly, it must be somebody or something military. If one dispenses with the somewhat artificial children’s intonation, the line ‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men’ definitely indicates the presence of cavalry and infantry. What I had to do, then, was to find a giant tortoise fitting into this picture.”

Daube later searched in chronicles of the siege of Gloucester, where, he wrote, “I found all I wanted and
more.” He continued:

“The events took place in 1643. Gloucester, Rushworth records, was defended by a stone wall and a wet moat; and though the former was rather defective, the resistance put up was greater than had been expected. In the king’s camp there was an antiquarian, Dr. Chillingworth, anxious to prove that his lore was of practical use. He introduced siege engines of the ancient Roman type, in particular, tortoises. ‘They ran upon cart wheels,’ to quote Rushworth, ‘with a blind of planks and holes for four musketeers to play out of, placed upon the axle tree to defend the musketeers and those that thrust it forwards, and carrying a bridge before it. The wheels were to fall into the ditch and the end of the bridge to rest upon the town’s breastworks, so making several complete bridges into the city.’ However, the inhabitants of Gloucester noticed the design and widened and deepened their moat. As a result, the bridge would fall to short of the wall, and the whole apparatus fall into the moat. Thus the tortoise was defeated. […] The moment I hit on this story, I knew my interpretation was confirmed.”

Daube added one more triumphant note, showing that a second version of the rhyme also fit with his interpretation:

Then I looked up other old versions of the rhyme. Here is one which has not survived in the nursery but furnishes surprising corroboration: ‘Humpty Dumpty lay in a beck, with all his sinews round his neck; forty doctors and forty wrights couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty to rights.’ Neither a person nor an egg, however mutilated, lies with the ‘sinews round the neck.’ But it is an excellent picture of a tortoise shattered and entangled in its ropes and coverings beneath the city walls. The beck, in German Bach, means the wet moat. And even my Dr. Chillingworth appears in this variant, while the mention of the wrights proves that the patient is an engine.

Daube summed up by pointing out again that his interpretation made sense of three elements of the rhyme:

“the ponderous name Humpty Dumpty, the king with his cavalry and infantry and also the location of the object. An egg might be placed on a table, on a plate. It would never be placed on a wall: that, ordinarily, is just too outlandish a place for an egg.”

This interpretation is, of course, of just the same sort as Katherine Elwes Thomas’s. Like her, Daube presents no evidence of a connection between the rhyme and the historical event beyond vague parallels. Like her, he became convinced of the historicity of the rhyme after a stray remark from his family. The intuition with which Daube begins is similar to Thomas’s, but (we might say) weirdly specific: since Humpty-Dumpty was too heavy a name for an egg, he concluded that it must be specifically a tortoise. Daube then used an element of the same reasoning Thomas did: the king’s horses and men meant the story must pertain to war. Finally, like Thomas, he went fishing in English history for a wartime situation that seemed to parallel the rhyme.

A group of soldiers on the battlefield led by an officer on horseback.
Postcard showing the siege of Gloucester in 1643. Collection of the author. We believe the image is in the public domain.

Not surprisingly, Daube’s interpretation suffers from the same weaknesses as Thomas’s. It relies heavily on the king’s horses and men, but the earliest version of the rhyme doesn’t mention them, and you would expect the earliest version to be the closest to any historical details. The long time between the battle and the emergence of the rhyme, and the complete lack of either direct or circumstantial evidence of a connection between the rhyme and Gloucester, make it very unlikely to be true. And like Thomas’s, Daube’s reasoning is circular, in that the tortoise and the military setting were the premises on which his exercise was based, but he presents them as though they were conclusions that he has somehow proven.

In at least one way, Daube’s interpretation is worse than Thomas’s: it’s internally inconsistent. He claims the rhyme can’t be about an egg partly because it’s strange for an egg to be on a wall, and claims it must be about the military because it mentions king’s horses and men. In other words, he does not allow for the possibility that the wall or the king’s horses and men are metaphorical. But when it helps the details fit his story, metaphor is suddenly allowed: a siege engine may have “sinews” (ropes), and a moat may be a “beck.” In this way, he manipulates the terms of the argument so that his interpretation is always right, and his children’s always wrong. Similarly, he claims the rhyme cannot be about an egg because an egg wouldn’t be sitting on a wall, but he also claims it IS about a siege tortoise…even though a siege tortoise ALSO wouldn’t be sitting on a wall. The tortoise, remember, rolled on the ground, in an attempt to deliver a bridge to a moat so that an army could reach a wall. But it fell in the moat and never did reach the wall, let alone sit on it. In fact, it would never have sat on the wall even if it had been successful; it would have remained covering the bridge over the moat.

A plaque claiming the rhyme "Humpty Dumpty" is based on events at the siege of Gloucester.
The story of Humpty Dumpty is told on a plaque in Gloucester. This image was shared by the Gloucester City Council.

If by now we think Daube’s argument may be a tad unserious, we are not the first to suspect this. Iona and Peter Opie, in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, suggested that his article was a spoof. But it was also very influential; in addition to the plaque above, you’ll see the Gloucester story told on many websites about “Humpty Dumpty.

More than that, the Gloucester story seems to have spawned an even more popular variant, set five years later at the siege of Colchester. In the words of author Dorinda Balchin:

The general consensus amongst historians is that this nursery rhyme originated during the English Civil War. By 1648 King Charles I had been captured by the Parliamentarians and was being held prisoner. […] The Royalist forces in the east of England were attacked by Lord-General Fairfax and retreated behind the walls of Colchester. Fairfax surrounded the city and a siege began.

The siege lasted from 12th June to 28th August 1648. In defence of the city several artillery pieces were set up on the walls. The biggest gun was placed on the walls of St Mary’s Church. This gun was one of the largest at the time and so called Humpty Dumpty, which was a common nick-name for an overly large (or over weight) person.

On the night of 14th July 1648 Fairfax ordered an attack on the Royalists in Colchester; one focus of the attack was the guns on the walls, particularly Humpty Dumpty. By the end of the night the wall beneath the gun had crumbled, sending it crashing to the ground below. The Parliamentarian forces failed to take Colchester that night, but folklore has it that the failed attack was commemorated in a nursery rhyme about the big gun which was destroyed.

Balchin is wrong about consensus among historians. In fact, historians generally do not accept the story, which has obscure origins. As with the Richard III story and the Gloucester story, there is no evidence that it is true: no contemporary accounts mention a cannon called “Humpty Dumpty,” the rhyme itself is not recorded until 150 years later, and no one ever claimed the rhyme related to Colchester for another 200 years after that…the earliest reference to the tale that I have found is from the 1980s.

The story has, however, had some support. According to Wikipedia, the Colchester Tourist Board promoted the story in the 1990s, but it had stopped doing so by the mid-2000s. Then in 2008, author Albert Jack claimed the story was true, and that he had smoking-gun evidence:

“And that’s when I found, in an old dusty library, an even older book with the complete version of Humpty Dumpty:

In sixteen hundred and forty-eight,
When England suffered the pains of state,
The Roundheads laid siege to Colchester town
Where the king’s men still fought for the crown.

There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall,
A gunner of deadliest aim of all.
From St. Mary’s Tower his cannon he fired,
Humpty Dumpty was its name.

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

This story, of course, is unconvincing. As we have seen again and again, horses don’t figure in the earliest versions of the rhyme, so why does this “very old book” preserve the later language about horses? Similarly, the habit of leaving out the word “Dumpty” in the last line of the rhyme dates to about the turn of the 20th century, and wouldn’t be found in a very old book. The rest of the language sounds suspiciously modern for a rhyme that’s supposed to go back to the 17th century. Albert Jack has never revealed the book, or even said which Library it came from, and until he does we’ll have to conclude he’s spinning a fanciful story.

The publicity for Albert Jack’s book revived the cannon tale, until history-minded citizens of Colchester got fed up. In June 2017, a municipal interpretive panel was installed to tell the true story while debunking the tale of the cannon called Humpty Dumpty!

These metafolkloric stories seem unconvincing in the aggregate for a number of reasons. For one, whether an element of the rhyme seems somehow similar to an event from history is essentially a matter of subjective interpretation. We could seek and find many more historical events that might seem similar to the Humpty Dumpty rhyme, but why should we? Finding more stories only demonstrates that no one story is convincing. Like alternative identities for Shakespeare or Jack the Ripper, each may seem convincing if you only look at the evidence concerning that one, but the fact that others are also convincing is a serious problem for each theory on its own, since only one of them could even theoretically represent the origin of the rhyme.

Humpty Dumpty, Riddles and Yolks

A large egg with a face sits atop a wall.
Detail from John Tenniel’s illustration of Humpty Dumpty from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The image was published in 1872 and is in the Public Domain.

Now that we’ve discussed some of the metafolklore, we can return to the objections people often express to the idea that Humpty Dumpty is an egg. First off, they point out, the rhyme doesn’t actually say he’s an egg. Second, why would an egg be on a wall in the first place? Third, why would horses and men be involved in trying to fix him?

The answer to all these questions is that “Humpty Dumpty” is not just a rhyme, it’s a riddle. Moreover, the answer to the riddle is “an egg.”

So, what evidence is there the rhyme is a riddle? Many early sources tell us. I’ll give three examples. In 1813, in the debates about India I mentioned earlier, the rhyme was described as “a riddle sometimes offered to children for their amusement.” In 1823, in Innes Hoole’s novel Hearts vs. Heads, a standard text of “Humpty Dumpty” is “the riddle that came the readiest to [Rosalie’s] recollection.” And in 1840, The Jurist observed of the damages paid to someone for libel:

“Parliament can no more get them back, than as in the old nurse riddle, ‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men could lift Humpty Dumpty up again.'”

Next, what evidence do we have that the solution was “egg?” This too, appears in many records, though not quite as early as the information that the text is a riddle. The first allusion I have located is from 1832 in the form of a pantomime called “Humpty-Bumpty, or, the Enchanted Egg.” Next, a complete version of the rhyme with the solution was published in 1835, along with an interesting interpretation of the riddle, in the footnotes to the poem Childe Capone’s Nonage:

“‘Humpty-dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty-dumpty had a great fall
Not all the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Could set Humpty dumpty-right agen’

This nursery rhyme upon an egg, which every body remembers, represents, under a beautiful allegory, the easy lapse of a child from his early position of virtue, and the vast difficulty of reclaiming him at school and college, even though these may have been founded and endowed by kings.”

In his editions of nursery rhymes beginning in 1842, James Orchard Halliwell included the solutions to the rhymes that were riddles, so that his version of “Humpty-Dumpty” was always printed thus:

“[AN EGG.]
Humpty dumpty sate on a wall
Humpty dumpty had a great fall ;
Three score men and three score more,
Cannot place Humpty dumpty as he was before.”

The fact that “Humpty Dumpty” was a riddle explains some of the details that bothered people like David Daube and made them seek other solutions. Most obviously, the reason Humpty Dumpty is not explicitly stated to be an egg becomes obvious: that’s not how riddles work, because it would give away the solution.

Two pictures of Humpty Dumpty. In one, the egg is dressed in fancy clothes and plays the banjo for an older man listening through an ear-trumpet. In the other, the egg speaks with a chicken who is wearing spectacles.
Two incidents from Denslow’s Humpty Dumpty, illustrated by Frank Denslow. One of the illustrations has been reversed to aid the composition. Find the archival scan here.

The reason an egg would be in an unusual place on top of a wall is also explained by the text being a riddle; in poetic riddles, an entire scene is often described in a metaphorical way. For example, here’s a riddle collected by the folklorist Archer Taylor:

“They took me from my mother’s side
Where I was bravely bred
And when to age I did become
They did cut off my head
They gave to me some diet drink
That often made me mad
But it made peace between two kings
And made two lovers glad”

The answer is “a quill pen.” Its “mother” is the goose it came from. Its “head” is the tip of the quill, which is trimmed off. The “diet drink” is ink. The ink, through the writing of a treaty, made peace between two kings, and through a love letter, made two lovers glad. Note also that this riddle contains tricky elements–if you think of people taken from their mothers, or people who were decapitated, or if you try to figure out which two kings were reconciled, you’ll miss the point and fail to guess the answer.

Once we see “Humpty Dumpty” through this lens, we can see the rest of the riddle as both metaphorical and tricky, just like the quill riddle. The “wall” is a shelf or windowsill, the typical locations where households kept eggs in the days before refrigeration. (Lewis Carroll, of course, understood this too. When Alice first sees Humpty Dumpty, before her dream transforms him into an egg-shaped person, he is an ordinary egg on a shelf.)

Three Mini golf holes designed to feature Humpty Dumpty.
Humpty Dumpty is a popular subject for miniature golf holes. John Margolies photographed these in the 1980s. Find the archival scans of these plus other Margolies photos at the link.

As for the king’s horses and men, the riddle cleverly doesn’t even say they’re actually there, or that they try to put the egg back together; it just tells us that they couldn’t. If I say “Albert Einstein couldn’t figure out this equation,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that Einstein is with me, or that he tried to figure it out and failed. Rather, it’s most likely a figure of speech indicating that the task is difficult or impossible–exactly like the horses and men in “Humpty Dumpty.”

Accepting that “Humpty Dumpty” is a riddle probably also means abandoning the search for an “origin” in military history. Looking for such an origin because of the horses and men makes as much sense as scouring history for famous treaties or love letters (or decapitated people) to determine the “original historical meaning” of the riddle about the the quill. There’s no evidence either riddle has any such original historical meaning, and it’s far more likely that each riddle is what it appears to be: a tricky, poetic description of an everyday object, composed without reference to specific historical events, and intended as part of guessing game.

What about the variant about Humpty Dumpty lying in a beck with all his sinews around his neck? Remember, that was also published by Halliwell, in 1846, with the solution identified as “an egg.” The “beck” or stream could indicate that the egg has fallen into a sink or washbasin. But I like to imagine it’s describing a poached egg: immersed in water, with the whites surrounding the yolk, complete with “sinews”–those stringy bits of egg white that often appear in the water. Poach some eggs yourself and see if you can avoid these “superfluous adherings!”

For more articles about nursery rhymes and stories about them, visit this link!

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