Eric Shackle Writes: The Little Miss Muffet Mystery
Journalist Eric Shackle delves into the mystery of the identity of Little Miss Muffet, the world-famed character in a children's poem.
Dr. Thomas Muffet, who lived in Brookmans Park in the 16th century, would have been delighted to see a news item featured on this website of his old hometown. Under the headline Rare hornet found in Brookmans Park, it says "A hornet seldom seen in England has been captured in Brookmans Park. A resident living in Woodlands spotted the large insect flying around his kitchen." http://www.brookmans.com/environment/insects/insectgallery.shtml
The website also shows a page of colour photographs of local insects, most of which he would have recognised, for he was a famous entomologist, who wrote The Theatre of Insects, the first scientific catalogue of British native species.
Many Brookmans Park residents believe the good doctor, who lived from 1553 to 1604, was the father of Little Miss Muffet, and that he had composed the cute little nursery rhyme which millions of children around the world have recited since his day:
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.
One theory suggests that his daughter Patience was Little Miss Muffet, but as the oldest printed version of the rhyme is dated 1805, that seems unlikely. Muffet had no children of his own; and the two stepdaughters from his second marriage to a widow named Catherine Brown would probably have been Little Miss Browns.
In that case, the doctor would have written Little Miss Brown / Went to Town...
A second theory was that Little Miss Muffet referred to Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), who was said to have been frightened by John Knox (1505-1572), Scottish religious reformer. The rhyme might then have been Along came John Knox / That wily old fox.. The 1812 edition of Songs for the Nursery has a rhyme telling us that Little Mary Ester sat upon a tester. Thirty years later, Halliwell's 1842 collection included Little Miss Mopsey sat in a shopsey.
Curds and whey, the dish Little Miss Muffet enjoyed was none other than junket, a custard-like food made of sweetened milk, which is better-known in Britain than in America. It got its name because it was taken to market in little reed baskets called jonquettes (from Latin joncus, reed.) Jonquil has a similar derivation.
These days, junket describes a politician's luxury trip charged to the taxpayers. That use of the word dates back to 1814, when a picnic basket was known as a junket basket. The politicians were having a picnic at public expense. Curds and whey was also an old name for cottage cheese, the curds being lumpy and the whey milky.
There's doubt too, as to what sort of tuffet Little Miss Muffet sat on. It could have been either a low three-legged stool or a small mound of grass-covered earth. You can buy the former kind today from dozens of furniture suppliers advertising them on the internet.
The Little Miss Muffet mystery was revived in June, 2001, in the London Times, in an article headed Riddle of Dr Moufet's vanishing mole kricket. Mark Henderson, the newspaper's science correspondent, and Mia Jarlov wrote:
"The mole cricket (Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa) was named in 1634 by the entomologist Thomas Moufet (from whom Little Miss Muffet got her name) in The Theatre of Insects, the first scientific catalogue of British native species. The name comes from the spade-like front legs with which it makes underground burrows similar to miniature molehills.
"Dr Moufet wrote: 'If we make names, we may call it Gryllotalpa; a Mole kricket, a Kricket because it makes the same shrill noyse which a Kricket doth towards night; a Mole, because it digs the earth continually. It is an insect ugly to sight and monstrous.'"
Researchers from the Natural History Museum, English Nature and London Zoo have asked the public to help compile a national census of mole crickets, known in Britain since the 16th century but sighted only four times in the last 25 years.
Dr Muffet didn't spend all his time studying insects. In 1595 he wrote in Health's Improvement: "[Sweet potatoes] nourish mightily...engendering much flesh, blood, and seed, but withal encreasing wind and lust."
You can't believe everything you read on the internet, but one website tells us that in those days, doctors in England used spiders as medicine. "To treat a fever, a doctor would roll a spider in bread crumbs and feed it to the patient," it asserts. "Dr. Thomas Muffet admired spiders so much, he kept them as pets and let them have the run of his house. His daughter, Patience Muffet, did not share her father's love of spiders.
Another site says "Miss Muffet was a really little girl. Her father, Dr. Thomas Muffet, was a medical doctor and an expert on spiders. He believed that eating mashed spiders was a cure for the common cold. It was said that Miss Muffet ate her share of mashed spiders."
Yet another site says "Miss Muffet was a 16th century little girl whose name was Patience. Her father, Dr. Thomas Muffet (possibly Moffett or Moufet), an entomologist who died in 1604, wrote The Silkworms and their flies 'lively described in verse.' Patience did not share her father's love of bugs. One morning while eating breakfast, one of her father's bugs appeared. She leapt up spilling the curds and whey and ran out of the house."
The U.S. website Planet Proctor tells an even better story. "This once-famous 16th century naturalist got the notion that spiders were not only beautiful but therapeutic," it claims. "He turned a bunch of them loose in his house and when his little daughter got sick, he emptied a sackful of them on her head and body, thinking they would make her well. They didn't. She was terrified. The father was Thomas Muffet, the daughter the real-life Little Miss Muffet."
Planet Proctor promotes famous U.S. film and TV personality Phil Proctor, who supplies a voice for such animated series as Rugrats and The Tick and is featured in the Rugrats movie. He won praise in the summer of 1998 for his voice work as the drunken monkey in the Eddie Murphy movie Dr. Dolittle. By a happy coincidence, Phil and David Ossman also lend their voices to the Disney/Pixar animated movie A Bug's Life.
Back to Little Miss Muffet: In 1893, American poet Guy Wetmore Carryl (1873-1904) composed an engaging poem, which deserves to be reprinted here. It's full of clever rhymes reminiscent of W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, who wrote, in the Lord Chancellor's song from Iolanthe, When you're lying awake, with a dismal headache"
The Embarrassing Episode of Little Miss Muffet
By Guy Wetmore Carryl
Little Miss Muffet discovered a tuffet,
(Which never occurred to the rest of us)
And, as 'twas a June day, and just about noonday,
She wanted to eat - like the rest of us:
Her diet was whey, and I hasten to say
It is wholesome and people grow fat on it.
The spot being lonely, the lady not only
Discovered the tuffet, but sat on it.
A rivulet gabbled beside her and babbled,
As rivulets always are thought to do,
And dragon flies sported around and cavorted,
As poets say dragon flies ought to do;
When, glancing aside for a moment, she spied
A horrible sight that brought fear to her,
A hideous spider was sitting beside her,
And most unavoidably near to her!
Albeit unsightly, this creature politely, said:
"Madam, I earnestly vow to you,
I'm penitent that I did not bring my hat.
I should otherwise certainly bow to you."
Thought anxious to please, he was so ill at ease
That he lost all his sense of propriety,
And grew so inept that he clumsily stept
In her plate - which is barred in Society.
This curious error completed her terror;
She shuddered, and growing much paler, not
Only left tuffet, but dealt him a buffet
Which doubled him up in a sailor knot.
It should be explained that at this he was pained:
He cried: "I have vexed you, no doubt of it!
Your fists's like a truncheon." "You're still in my luncheon,"
Was all that she answered. "Get out of it!"
And the Moral is this: Be it madam or miss
To whom you have something to say,
You are only absurd when you get in the curd
But you're rude when you get in the whey.
Footnote: There's an enchanting painting of Little Miss Muffet by Scott Gustafson on the Internet. The caption reads, "There are so many light and interesting touches in this beautifully colored and bordered work. She sits in a formal garden of the 18th century, next to her faithful King Charles Spaniel. A suave little spider has come to 'sit down beside her' but perhaps this Miss Muffet will not be frightened away. Scott says: 'The sheet music at her feet is a Tarantella, a popular dance of the period that, according to folklore, when danced wards off the effects of the venomous bite of a tarantula. Whether or not that's true I don't know, but it was a nice musical tie-in to the spidery theme I was painting.'"