All About Mary

Nursery Rhymes and Mary

Q: Does the nursery rhyme, "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" refer to the Blessed Virgin Mary?

A:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells,
and pretty maids all in a row.

This nursery rhyme of anonymous author and without proof that it existed before the eighteenth century allows for at least four interpretations.

A frequent interpretation sees in these verses a religious connotation, a "word-picture of Our Lady's convent," with church bells, badges of the pilgrims (cockleshells = St. James' shells = attribute of St. James = badge of pilgrims) and ranks of nuns praying the office. For some, this rhyme is a lament of Catholics for the persecution of the Catholic Church in England and of Protestants at the reinstatement of the Catholic Church. However, according to widespread popular tradition the original Mary was Mary, Queen of Scots, the pretty maids her ladies-in-waiting (the renowned "four Marys"), the cockleshells decorating one of Mary's dresses given to her by the Dauphin. But all of this remains intelligent guesswork.

[See: I. and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, 1952, 301.]

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