Who’s the Goose?

Despite the immense popularity of many of the Mother Goose stories and nursery rhymes, few people know actually know who the author of this collection was.  For centuries, scholars have tried to unearth the true identity of Mother Goose, yet her identity remains elusive.  The search for the person behind the pen has thus become a bit of a story in itself, and, according to one account, that story begins in the United States.

 

goosemelodies_goosefamily

One collection of the classic rhymes that was published in the 1860s contains a history of the “real Mother Goose,” a Bostonian woman named Elizabeth Foster Goose.  As the story goes, Elizabeth Goose was born in 1665 and supposedly married a Boston widower in 1692.  It was one of their daughters who married a printer named Thomas Fleet.  With Elizabeth as his live-in mother-in-law, Thomas became well acquainted with the stories told by the old woman to her grandchildren, and one day decided to jot the stories down.  He then published the the compilation as Songs for the Nursery, or Mother Goose’s Melodies for Children  in 1719.

theoriginal_bostonmyth

This legend, however, has been debunked by subsequent authors and publishers of the Mother Goose stories.  Despite the legend that a 1719 version of Songs for the Nurseryexists, none has ever been found, and no further evidence has ever surfaced to confirm the existence of such a publication.

The Only True Mother Goose Melodies (Boston: G.W. Cottrell, 187?), accessed at J. Murrey Atkins Library, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

The Only True Mother Goose Melodies (Boston: G.W. Cottrell, 187?), accessed at J. Murrey Atkins Library, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

 Other myths that surfaced concerning the origins of the Mother Goose stories date back much farther and concern two Queens, both named Bertha.

The first Queen Bertha, mother of Charlemagne, was nicknamed “Queen Goose-foot” due to a deformity she suffered.  Additionally, images portraying the Queen often correspond to those of Mother Goose (see Scrimmage Over Her Image), including an elderly woman spinning thread, surrounded by children and telling stories.

The second Queen Bertha alleged to be the real Mother Goose was another French queen, this time the wife of Robert II.  This legend maintains that the close blood relationship between the two monarchs resulted in a child born with severe defects.  It is said that the child was deformed to the point of resembling a goose.

theoriginal_perrault

The Only True Mother Goose Melodies (Boston: G.W. Cottrell, 187?), accessed at J. Murrey Atkins Library, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

 Yet the most likely origin of the Mother Goose tales stems from a French publisher, Charles Perrault.   Perrault published a book titled Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passe, Avec des Moralites, or Histories and Tales of Long Ago, with Morals.  The frontspiece to this work depicted a woman telling stories to children by a fire, with a title that read Contes de ma Mere l’Oye — “Tales of My Mother Goose.”  This work included eight of the classic stories attributed to Mother Goose, but none of the rhymes. 

 Although Charles Perrault is credited with being the first person to compile a number of fairytales under the heading of Mother Goose, in all likelihood he is not the actual author of the stories or the rhymes.  Most scholars believe that the fairytales and nursery rhymes were originally oral narratives passed down for generations by peasant families in France.  Perrault was just the first person to record the tales on paper. As such, the origins of each individual rhyme and story will likely never be known.

Sources:

Gloria T. Delamar, Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature (London and Jefferson: McFarland and Company Inc., 1987), 131-132.

 

Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1984), 16-42.

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