Who is Nanny Button-cap?
Time for another examination of an obscure fairy legend! Who is the character "Nanny Button-cap"? Is there a real tradition to be found here?
The name "Nanny Button-cap" first appeared in Sidney Oldall Addy's Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Sheffield, published in 1888 for the English Dialect Society. Addy says only that “Nanny Button-cap” is “the name of a fairy” and that “The following lines are repeated by children”:
The moon shines bright,
The stars give light,
And little Nanny Button-cap
Will come to-morrow night.
After this nursery rhyme, Addy includes a note on the Norse goddess Nanna, who he describes as a moon goddess. This would tie in well with a nighttime fairy associated with moon and stars, and the implication is that the goddess Nanna is the source of the fairy Nanny.
The problem is, it’s actually not clear what Nanna was the goddess of. Her role was simply being wife to the god Baldr. She is certainly credited by various sources as a moon deity, but this may have been confusion with the Mesopotamian Nanna (who is a male moon deity) as well as various other similarly-named deities like Inanna. For his information on Nanna, Addy cites Viktor Rydberg's Teutonic Mythology – specifically, a section which is mainly conjecture and hypothesis. Addy does not include any of this context, making it sound like an accepted fact.
The link from Nanna to Nanny is equally suspicious, reeking of the approach that anything with a similar sound must be the same word.
Anyway, the nursery rhyme was reprinted in various books. It appeared in phonetic dialect in "Yorkshire Dialect Poems (1673-1915) and traditional poems," by F. W. Moorman (1917), and was credited as anonymous in Tom Tiddler's Ground: A Book of Poetry for Children (1932).
At the same time, Nanny Button-cap's name began to appear in a few lists of fairies. In 1913, Elizabeth Mary Wright wrote:
“It is difficult to classify all the supernatural beings known to dialect lore, otherwise than very roughly, for even a cursory glance at the whole mass of superstitions and fancies regarding them shows that there is great confusion of idea between fairies and witches, bogies and goblins... The following may, however, rank as Fairies...”
Among various other beings, she lists Nanny Button-cap, and reprints the nursery rhyme as given by Addy.
There follows a clear trail of one person quoting another. In 1976, Katharine Briggs - citing Wright - mentioned the character in her Dictionary of Fairies as “A little West Yorkshire spirit. Not much is known about her, but she is a good fairy.”
Briggs’ only other contribution was to categorize the character under the Aarne-Thompson motif F403, which refers to helpful spirits. Other creatures Briggs listed were “brownie,” “lazy Laurence,” and “seelie court.”
Next was Carol Rose in Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia of the Little People. Rose cited Briggs, but went rogue with a totally new description:
"This is the name of a fairy or nursery spirit in the folklore of Yorkshire, England. She behaves in much the same way as Wee Willie Winkie, ensuring that all young children are safe and warm in their beds, ready to go to sleep." (p. 231)
Where on earth did this come from? It bears no resemblance to Briggs' description. The song is about moon and stars and nighttime, but why would a fairy that brings sleep be described as coming tomorrow night? Wouldn't she be there every night? (Compare Wee Willie Winkie, whose rhyme takes place in the present tense - "it's past ten o' clock.")
I am also skeptical that Wee Willie Winkie was ever a fairy. However, that at least did come from Briggs, who connected the nursery rhyme to a Lancashire sleep-personification named Billy Winker. Nonetheless, Rose's version of Nanny Button-cap is out there in the cultural consciousness now. Ah, Dictionary of Fairies, mother of a thousand misunderstandings.
Nanny Button-cap's most unique claim to fame was appearing in the 1997 film FairyTale: A True Story, played by Norma Cohen. There was also a tie-in doll line, and Nanny was part of the "Royal Collection," which came in more elaborate boxes with more accessories. The white, blonde doll was dressed in a gauzy white outfit and butterfly headdress. The box explains that "This merry little fairy skips about the glen tidying the flowers! From the sparkle in her eye to the shimmer in her wings, Nanny Buttoncap’s goodness shines through! Mirth and merriment are the gifts she shares! If you’re very lucky, you may glimpse her as she sweetly dances on the honeysuckle blossoms."
The description of her "goodness" makes me think this was also drawn from Briggs.
Going back to the beginning: there’s nothing to indicate why Addy categorized Nanny Button-cap as a fairy. All he provides are (a) a nursery rhyme with no obvious fairy connections and (b) a painfully forced connection to the Norse goddess Nanna. It’s possible he based this entry on personal knowledge or stories he had heard. Maybe it’s just one of those things people accept but that’s not necessarily explicit in the rhyme, like Humpty Dumpty being an egg. But Addy didn’t give any details, so we have nothing to work with except his say-so.
A few details about Nanny Button-cap are comparable to fairy stories. She is "little" and associated with nighttime. Fairies are often described wearing caps, and in some stories grabbing their caps can even put them in a human's power. Some fairies have hat names, like the Anglo-Scottish redcaps, Scottish thrummy-caps, or German hodekin (“little hat”).
"Button Cap's room" was a reputedly haunted room in a Northamptonshire house. 19th-century clergyman Charles Kingsley stayed there as a child, and years later, in 1864, he described the spirit Button Cap as the ghost of a dishonest and greedy man who wore "a cap with a button on it.” This Button Cap was a poltergeist who would roll barrels around in the cellar but return them all to their places by morning.
As for the Nanny Button-cap nursery rhyme itself, the couplet about the moon and stars appears in several other songs as well. There are probably many more, but here are three that stood out to me:
One old English song with many variants begins:
The Moon shines bright, and the Stars give light,
A little before it was day,
A Christmas version continues:
Our Lord, our God, he called on us,
And bid us awake and pray.
Alternately, a version associated with Maying runs:
So God bless you all, both great and small
And send you a joyful May.
There's also a song titled "The Mermaid," about a group of sailors who encounter a mermaid and are lost in a storm -
Oh, the moon shines bright, and the stars give light;
Oh, my mother'll be looking for me;
She may look, she may weep, she may look to the deep,
She may look to the bottom of the sea. (Hayes 15)
Finally there's an esoteric 1831 novel, Raphael's Witch!!! Or the Oracle of the Future, which features a "Fairy Song."
When the moon shines bright,
When the stars give light,
When the meadows are green,
When the glow-worm is seen...
The chorus runs:
Then we fairies appear,
And roam far and near,
Till the day-star is near!
Unfortunately, this doesn't tell us much. The moon/stars couplet does seem to be old, but it's also an obvious rhyme.
So, is Nanny Button-cap a survival of an ancient Norse moon goddess? Absolutely not.
Is Nanny Button-cap a personification of sleep? No.
Is Nanny Button-cap a fairy from the folklore of Yorkshire? . . . Maybe? Lacking any other information from Addy, we're kind of stuck. Personally, I'm skeptical. If you have any information, comment below!
Text copyright © Writing in Margins, All Rights Reserved
12/7/2021 06:00:10 am
We've had 6 nannies in our family over the last 7+ years, grown with them, loved them, left with them, and started the process all over again. While our families' well-being was crucial to us as parents, we quickly realized how important our nanny's happiness and development were as well. As a result, being a good nanny household has meant supporting our nannies' aims and dreams just as much as they support our children's. Our household hums with harmony when we attain that equilibrium.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.