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Wikipedia indicates that the classic riddle "As I was Going to St Ives" was written at some point in the 1700s or 1800s.

As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives

Bigamy, however has been illegal in the UK since at least the 1600s and prior to that, a breach of ecclesiastical law.

Why is this man's bigamy not noted upon by the author? Is there any indication why (or how) he even had seven wives in the first place?


As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives
He was promptly arrested
For a breach of the Bigamy Act 1603
And subsequently executed.

  • 13
    This is a childrens nursery rhyme. Its nonsense. It's like thinking 'the owl and the pussycat' was real and asking why the boat didn't sink or something – Beastly Gerbil Apr 8 '17 at 13:29
  • I doubt that bigamy was a capital crime. – Peter Taylor Apr 8 '17 at 19:28
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    @PeterTaylor - It was made a "Capital Felony" in 1603. It would be unlikely that a single offence would get you hung, but seven counts? That would be a trip to the gallows. – Valorum Apr 8 '17 at 19:32
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    I always assumed the man was from a country and/or religion which does legally allow polygamy. I mean, he wouldn't have to divorce them or his marriages wouldn't be annulled just because he crossed a border, right? – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Apr 9 '17 at 0:25
  • It is a riddle and the seven wives is a red herring, unrelated to the actual answer to the riddle. A plausible explanation within the strictly established laws of riddles (see The Hobbit further details) is that the man has been widowed at least six times. – mikado Apr 9 '17 at 11:31
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Back when the rhyme was first created wife also commonly meant woman.

A woman considered without reference to marital status, and related senses.

— "wife, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 8 April 2017. [link]

The OED says that that meaning is still in use in Scotland. This meaning survives in "standard" English in words like housewife and midwife.

So a man with seven (or nine) wives was a man accompanied by that many women.

They could be maids or other servants, or relatives, or just women travelling with him. No need to worry about bigamy.

  • I would say that housewife has something of the marital relationship in the word. I do agree with you about midwife, though. – Loren Pechtel Apr 9 '17 at 4:23
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    Side note: "femme" in French is both "wife" and "woman". – OldBunny2800 Apr 9 '17 at 14:14
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    I've asked the specialists on ELU:SE; Were the “wives” in the classic nursery rhyme actually the man's spouses? – Valorum Apr 9 '17 at 14:17
  • In both Scots and Australian English, "wife" and "wifey/wifie" can be used to refer to ladies of your acquaintance, whether actually married or in relationships of romance or mere friendship. – flith Apr 9 '17 at 19:49
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    Also consider that they may not have been his wives. He may have just been travelling with his (single) wife and the wives of six other men... – Pat Dobson Apr 10 '17 at 7:21
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Because the poem was never intended to be realistic.

It's a simple nursery rhyme, designed to amuse children and to have an unexpected answer. It's not a complex piece of literature with much thought put into worldbuilding, consistency, and realism.

OK, so why do "wives" appear in the poem at all? Wouldn't it have worked equally well with, say, a man accompanied by seven servants, each carrying seven sacks, and so on? Well, not quite as well. "Wives" is a nice simple word - again, remember that the song is meant for children - and it also rhymes with St. Ives. "Servants" is a longer word, with more syllables (thus wouldn't scan as well), and I can't think of any place names that rhyme with it. For a child learning this rhyme, it's easy to imagine a man, women, sacks, cats, and kittens - why complicate it by saying they were his servants or his mistresses or his aunties or anything less familiar to a child than wives?


Alternatively, going with the lateral-thinking theme of this riddle, it never says they were all his wives. Perhaps he was walking together with seven wives, his own and those of six other men!

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It doesn't say that they are his wives. Just that he is with them.

With can mean either:

1. accompanied by (another person or thing). "a nice steak with a bottle of red wine" synonyms: accompanied by, in the company of, escorted by "she's gone out with her boyfriend"

2. having or possessing (something). "a flower-sprigged blouse with a white collar"

So, in this case, he is merely accompanied by them, and not having or possessing them.

  • Where are these definitions from? – Mithical Apr 10 '17 at 9:12
  • Are you sure he's merely accompanying them? How do you know this? – Valorum Apr 10 '17 at 9:12
  • Well, there are two options for "A man with seven wives" either, he is married to seven women (definition 2) or he is accompanied by them (definition 1). Since we've ruled definition 2 (due to OP's insistence over bigamy laws) then we're left with Definition 1. – DX101 Apr 10 '17 at 14:38
  • the definitions are from googling "Definition With" but other dictionary sites will give very similar definitions. (there are actually 10 different uses of the word "with" listed, but these are the top two, and probably the only ones we're interested in here. – DX101 Apr 10 '17 at 14:43

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