WHO WAS MOTHER GOOSE by William Gilmer


What comes to mind when you hear the name Mother Goose?
Maybe you envision a group of children sitting in a circle while a teacher reads aloud, or perhaps a parent tucking the little ones in with a bedtime story. We all know Mother Goose, but where did this figure of children’s literature come from? Was there a real Mother Goose, and if so, who was she?

The story of Mother Goose is a complicated one, much more so than I expected when I began researching the topic. The name, or title, itself stretches far back into history. The earliest verifiable reference to Mother Goose is in Jean Loret’s La muze historique, a collection of verse describing the news and popular happenings of the day. In 1650, Loret mentions that something is “like a Mother Goose story," showing that the phrase was popular enough at the time for Loret to expect that the average reader understood what it meant.

Jean Loret’s reference is not the only thing we have to go on. Another French author and fairytale founding father, Charles Perrault, published Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals subtitled, "Tales of Mother Goose." This collection was introduced in 1697 and contained classics like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood. Perrault pulled inspiration from preexisting folk tales and from the French salons, home to the préciosité literary style, where women would engage in literary conversations, some of which involved the spontaneous reciting of fairytales.

Despite there being multiple mentions of Mother Goose before their births, a Bostonian family managed to convince people that they were the originators of the character. For many years (in North America) it was thought that the real Mother Goose was a woman named Elizabeth Goose (1665 – 1758). Elizabeth and her husband Isaac had six children. One of those children, also named Elizabeth, married Thomas Fleet, a well-to-do printer. The story goes that after Thomas and Elizabeth had their first child, Elizabeth recited rhymes and stories she had learned from her mother so much so that Thomas got the idea to put them all into a book and credit the elder Elizabeth with their creation. No copy of this manuscript has ever been discovered, which alone brings the story into question, but even if the book itself is proven to be real, its earliest publication date would have been well after the already mentioned references to Mother Goose.

It’s not hard to show that Mother Goose was used throughout early 1600’s France, but to take the investigation any further requires some speculation. William Walsh, in his 1915 masterpiece “Heroes and Heroines of Fiction, Classical, Medieval, Legendary” makes the argument that Mother Goose is the cultural combination of the German Alpine goddess Bechta and a famous French queen. Bechta was the goddess of spinning, weaving, and domestic affairs and was often depicted as having the foot of a goose.

Bertrada of Laon, who also went by “Bertha Broadfoot” or “The Queen with a Goose-foot”. Bertrada was born in the early 700s and is most remembered for being the mother of the famous Roman Emperor Charlemagne. Much like Bechta, she was also described as having the foot of a goose. While this could have been a clubfoot, chances are she had two very average feet. With her son being an Emperor, we know more about Bertrada of Laon than most people from her time period. There are numerous accounts of her throughout early history, and the fact that she had an unusual foot isn’t mentioned until a 13th century poem by the minstrel Adenes Le Roi, causing people to assume that this detail was added to her mythology after her death. The connection with fables and fairytales is thought to far come from her method of teaching young Charlemagne. Many sources claim that she taught him how to behave as a leader through playful rhymes and imaginative stories. While the stories that have filtered down to us are probably not the same as those told to Charlemagne by his mother, it’s a fun idea to think about.

The story behind Mother Goose is a winding road with no fixed destination. While we do have some facts, and an idea of when the title showed up in French literature, we are left without definite answers. Was Mother Goose a combination of the cultural memories of an Alpine goddess and a famous emperor’s mother? With only the speculations of modern folklorists to go on, it’s hard to say with any confidence. We can take a little solace knowing that Mother Goose is here to stay. The phrase has been used in the same way for at least four hundred years, which given the propensity for language to change, shows the staying power of the character.
The tradition of Mother Goose is still going strong. Fairy tales are enjoying renewed popularity and the “Mother Goose stories” continue to be reprinted for children around the world. You can join in on the fun by sending us your stories inspired by the world’s most well-known avian parental unit. We’d love to see what you can come up with for our Fairy Tale Flash series.
William Gilmer is a writer and poet living in Michigan where Fall never lasts long enough. Over two dozen of his pieces have been published both online and in print. Keep an eye out for his monthly articles in Enchanted Conversation Magazine, and if there isn’t enough going on in your feed, follow him on Twitter @willwritethings
Cover: Amanda Bergloff

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  1. All the speculation that's out there about the origin of the name or of who "the original" Mother Goose was makes me wonder if the first use of the name wasn't perhaps entirely random, and then it caught on and everyone used it to denote "nursery rhymes". Like Google, which has now become a verb...

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