Mother Goose: A Brief History

We all know and love Mother Goose and her rhymes; however, we don’t know very much about the actual woman who was dubbed Mother Goose, if there even was such a woman, or the history of the rhymes she is credited with creating. Let’s explore her literary legacy and the purported, oft disputed, history of this fun, beloved figure.

Though she is well-known in the United Kingdom and most other countries where English is the native language, like Australia, Mother Goose is best known in the United States, where her stories are known as nursery rhymes. In the United Kingdom, Mother Goose is commonly known as a Christmastime pantomime, while the rhymes themselves are associated with a number of different popular and classical British pantomimes.

While Mother Goose is supposedly the author of these nursery rhymes, whether or not there is a woman specifically and officially known as Mother Goose has been disputed often as more than one country claims her as their native daughter. However, there are many purported facts and ideas about her and who she was. The first mention of Mother Goose is in 1650, in a weekly French publication done in verse, which was published by Jean Loret. The remark he made, “…comme un conte de la Mere Oye,”, translates into “like a Mother Goose story.” His use of this term, “un conte de la Mere Oye,” suggests public familiarity with the term and whatever it connotes.

Although there seems to be a veritable history in the United Kingdom dating from around 1660, many people believe that the real Mother Goose was actually the second wife of Isaac Goose, who lived in Boston, Massachusetts during the 17th century. This wife would either have been Elizabeth Foster Goose, who lived from 1635 to 1693, or Mary Goose, who lived from 1665 to 1758. The latter is interred in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground located on Tremont Street. Eleanor Early, a popular history and travel writer in Boston during the 1930s and 1940s, alleges that Mother Goose was the second wife of Isaac Goose; when she married Isaac, she brought her six children into the marriage to join the ten children he already had. It is believed that after Isaac died, Elizabeth moved in with her oldest daughter, who lived on Pudding Lane and was married to Thomas Fleet. Fleet, a publisher, finally gathered all of his mother-in-law’s songs and rhymes, which she told to all of her grandchildren, and published them.

Katherine Elwes Thomas wrote The Real Personages of Mother Goose in 1930, in which she suggests that Mother Goose might actually be based upon stories told about the wife of France’s King Robert II, “Goose-Footed Bertha,” who, legend has it, told incredible stories which were loved by children.

However, Iona Opie, the self-proclaimed Mother Goose expert, doesn’t give credence to Thomas’s suggestion or the claim that Mother Goose was from Boston. In fact, one of the most popular early collections of fairy tales, penned by Charles Perrault in France and published in 1695, was known as “Contes de ma mère l’Oye,” or “Tales of my Mother Goose.” When the collection was translated into English and published in 1729 by Robert Sambers, it was called “Histories or Tales of Past Times, Told by Mother Goose”. It is also alleged that John Newberry then took the idea of Mother Goose, collected a number of English rhymes and stories and published them in 1765, calling his book “Mother Goose’s Melody”, or, “Sonnets for the Cradle”.
In some cases, Mother Goose rhymes are translations of traditional rhymes and stories from other countries, most notably France.

Regardless of where they originated or who they first came from, Mother Goose rhymes are traditional rhymes and stories, collected from the United Kingdom and the United States, that have entertained children for hundreds of years.

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