Posts filed under ‘THE CAT AND THE QUEEN’
THE ROLE OF CATS IN NURSERY RHYMES
by Sarah Hartwell
Pussy-cat, Pussy-cat where have you been?
I’ve been to London to look at the Queen.
Pussy-cat, Pussy-cat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under a [her] chair.
One explanation of the origins of this rhyme goes back to 16th century England. One of the staff of Queen Elizabeth I (Good Queen Bess) was said to have had an old cat which tended to roam throughout one of the royal residences. On one occasion the cat apparently went underneath the throne (the “chair”) and its tail brushed against the Queen’s foot, startling her. Luckily Queen Elizabeth was amused and declared that the cat could wander through the throne room as long as it kept it free of mice!
Another suggested meaning of this relates to the poor hygiene of a different queen and is perhaps a cautionary tale about hygiene in general. Undergarments were uncommon among poorer women before the nineteenth century and dust, ash and general grime accumulated on the genitalia just as it did elsewhere on the body. Bathing was uncommon (indeed it was considered positively unhealthy) and while the hands and face would be washed, other parts were often overlooked for weeks or months, particularly those parts that would incite lustful thoughts if touched. One result of this was the accumulation of grime, cellular debris, menstrual discharge and natural secretions in the vaginal cleft. Quite substantial amounts could accumulate until their size and weight caused them to fall out while the lady was walking or when she rose from her chair. These accumulations were called sootikins and resembled small mice in colour and shape.
Accounts written by Pepys and Boswell, mention men employed in London churches to sweep up sootikins after services. There is a scurrilous anonymous account of a sootikin being allegedly found under Queen Anne’s chair in St Paul’s Cathedral in London during the Thanksgiving Service for the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. The nursery rhyme contains all of these ingredients – London, a queen, a chair and a “mouse” underneath the chair. In addition, the word “pussy” is both an affectionate term for a cat and a slang term for female genitalia. In addition to the “pussy” and “mouse” meanings, “queen” is a term for a female cat and female cats are notoriously promiscuous. This has led to alternative suggestions that the rhyme may alludes to promiscuity or prostitution.
A Scottish dialect version has the cat catching a mouse on the stair and putting it in his lunch sack to eat later on. Those who hold to the Elizabethan meaning of the English version, might feel that the Scots version refers to the problems between Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. Perhaps the Scottish puss was Mary and the fat mouse was Elizabeth. Until her execution, Mary remained a focal point for Catholic conspiracies against the Protestant Elizabeth.
Poussie, poussie, baudrons, where hae ye been?
I’ve been to London, seeing the Queen.
Poussie, poussie, baudrons, what got ye there?
I got a guid fat mousikie, rinning up a stair.
Poussie, poussie, baudrons, what did ye do wi’t?
I put it in my meal-poke, to eat it to my bread.
“Pussycat pussycat, where have you been?”
“I’ve been up to London to visit the Queen.”
“Pussycat pussycat, what did you dare?”
“I frightened a little mouse under her chair”
The origins of the nursery rhyme “Pussycat pussycat”!
The origins of the “Pussycat pussycat” rhyme dates back to the history of 16th century Tudor England. One of the waiting ladies of Queen Elizabeth Ist had an old cat which roamed throughout Windsor castle. On one particular occasion the cat ran beneath the throne where its tail brushed against the Queen’s foot, startling her. Luckily ‘Good Queen Bess’ had a sense of humour and decreed that the cat could wander about the throne room, on condition it kept it free of mice!