Three Blind Mice

One day when my middle daughter and I were sitting and waiting in her pediatrician’s office, she noticed a painting on the wall of a children’s nursery rhyme. And we wondered who had written it, what it might be about, and when might it have been composed. So I did a bit of research by way of Google and Wikipedia. The children’s song Three Blind Mice was first published four hundred years ago this year, in 1609. The song appeared in Deuteromelia or The Seconde part of Musicks Melodie. The words in 1609 were not exactly the same as those in the current version of the song:

Three Blinde Mice, three Blinde Mice,
Dame Iulian, Dame Iulian,
The Miller and his merry olde Wife,
she scrapte her tripe; licke thou the knife.
Three Blinde Mice, three Blinde Mice.

“Dame Iulian” is the Dame Julian also known as Julian of Norwich who lived from 1342 to 1416. She is best known for her book, Revelations of Divine Love (or Showings). She lived in times of turmoil and rejected the prevailing notion that suffering was a punishment from God. Instead, she believed that God loved people and wanted to save everyone. One of her best known quotations is the phrase, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as an answer to the question some have about what God will do with those who have never heard of Jesus or the Gospel.

As to why she appears in this song? No one knows.

Why is her name spelled “Iulian” rather than “Julian” in the song? For that we do have an answer. It’s because the letter “J” was the last letter to be added to the alphabet. “J” was originally simply an alternative version of “I.” The first English-language book to make a clear distinction between “I” and “J” was published in 1634. Since the lyrics “Dame Iulian” appear in a book of 1609, obviously “J” had not, as yet, come into common use.

The word “scrapte” is equivalent to modern English “scraped.” “Tripe” means the “entrails” or “belly” and given the context in the song, most likely means “belly” there. Metaphorically it was sometimes used contemptuously of a person. “Licke” is simply an older spelling of “lick.” Thou, of course, is equivalent to “you.”

The modern lyrics of the tune are different, of course:

Three blind mice. Three blind mice
See how they run. See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a sight in your life,
As three blind mice?

The book that first had the tune in it, Deuteromelia, was one of three collections of folk music edited by one Thomas Ravescroft. He was an English composer and editor most well known for compiling collections of British folk tunes. Pammelia, the first volume, was also published in 1609. The third volume, Melismata didn’t come out until 1611. Some have suggested that Ravenscroft was the author of the original lyrics for Three Blind Mice which is certainly possible since he was a composer of music himself, though his own original works are mostly forgotten today. His known, but rarely performed, compositions include eleven anthems, three motets for five voices and four fantasias for viols.

The time of Ravenscroft’s birth is uncertain. Sources put it at either 1582 or 1592. Given that the later date would make him a teenager when Deuteromelia was published, I believe it is more likely that his real birth year is closer to 1582. He also wrote a treatise on music theory, A Briefe Discourse of the True (but Neglected) Use of Charact’ring the Degrees, published in London in 1614.

As for the best-known piece of music that Ravenscroft is associated with, Three Blind Mice, there has been a lot of speculation regarding the possible hidden meanings in the song. Some have suggested that the “farmer’s wife” is a veiled reference to Queen Mary I of England. She supposedly blinded and executed three Protestant bishops. Unfortunately for the theory, the three bishops, Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer were not, in fact, blinded. Instead they were burned at the stake. Beyond that, there’s the simple fact that the lyrics are dated a few years after Mary had died, so it’s hard to see why a song would have been made up about her at such a late date. Others have suggested that the song somehow references the beliefs of Julian of Norwich, since she is mentioned in the original lyrics.

The tune from the song Three Blind Mice has been adapted and reused by later composers. For instance, Joseph Haydn used the theme in the fourth movement of his Symphony 83 (La Poule) around 1785 or 86. More recently, Three Blind Mice was used as the theme song for The Three Stooges.

In both hockey and basketball, since there are three referees, the phrase “Three Blind Mice” is used sometimes as an insult against bad refs. At high school games, bands have occasionally been known to play the song whenever the referees make a call that is unpopular. Playing the song in such circumstances, of course, is frowned upon and considered unsportsmanlike behavior.

It used to be that there were only three umpires in baseball, instead of the four used today. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Brooklyn Dodgers had a band called the Ebbets Field “Sym-phony” led by Jack “Shorty” Laurice. It started playing “Three Blind Mice” whenever the umpires would walk out onto the field. Eventually, however, the baseball league ordered the team to stop doing that since it annoyed the umpires.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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