In Search of the Real Mother Goose
Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn.
The sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn …
Did Mother Goose really exist? Or are Mother Goose tales simply oral stories written down by many authors over a 300-year period?
Two ancient possibilities
In 740, a noblewoman named Bertrada II of Laon married Pepin the Short, King of the Franks, and bore him a daughter and three sons, one of whom would eventually be called Charlemagne. Bertrada’s nicknames were “Bertha Greatfoot,” “Queen Goosefoot,” and “Bertha Broadfoot,” purportedly because her feet were large and webbed. She was also called “Regina pede aucae”—“the queen with the goose-foot.” The other ancient claimant is Queen Bertha, wife of Robert II of France. Because of close blood-ties with her husband, it is rumored that she gave birth in 999 to a son with the head of a goose. She, too, had nicknames: “Berthe la fileuse” (“Bertha the Spinner”) or “Berthe pied d'oie” (“Goose-Foot Bertha”). Over 600 years later In 1650, French historian Jean Loret included the phrase “comme un conte de la Mère Oye”—“like a Mother Goose story”—in his writing, so it’s certain people were familiar with these types of stories long before they were written down or published.
The first published collection
Frenchman Charles Perrault produced the first collection of stories to bear the name “Mother Goose” in 1697. His book of ten fairy tales was entitled Tales from the Past with Morals. The cover featured an old woman telling stories to children and a cat, and it was subtitled, Tales from My Mother Goose. Perrault’s book was translated into English by Richard Samber in 1729 as Mother Goose’s Fairy Tales, but the stories did not attract an audience until forty years later in 1760, when John Newberry, a friend and publisher of Anglo-Irishman Oliver Goldsmith, published Mother Goose’s Melody. According to legend, Goldsmith wrote many of the morals. some of which are satirical, and may have written many of the stories themselves. Newberry would later earn the title “Father of children’s literature.”
The American legend
In 1787, Isaiah Thomas published the first American edition, Mother Goose’s Melody: or Sonnets for the Cradle—even though there wasn’t a sonnet in the book—an edition which includes “Jack and Jill” for the first time. Thomas was a descendant of Elizabeth Goose, and this leads us to the legend of the “Boston Mother Goose.”
Descendants of Isaiah Vergoose (or Vertigoose) and his wife, Elizabeth “Mother” Foster, started this legend in 1860. Mother Foster, who died in 1757 and lived on Pudding Lane in Boston, raised ten of Isaiah Thomas’s children by his first wife, Mary Goose, and six of her own. Her descendants claim that Mother Foster is the originator of the tales, though ten of the tales were already in print in France by the time Elizabeth Foster was five years old. Scholars are still searching for the supposed “ghost volume” of Elizabeth Foster’s work. Despite these inconsistencies, nursery-rhyme pilgrims continue to visit the grave site of Elizabeth Foster to pay homage. Since Elizabeth Foster’s grave has no marker, however, misled pilgrims worship instead at the headstone of a “Mary Goose.” The headstone reads, “Here lies the body of Mary Goose, 42, wife to Isaac Goose, deceased October 19, 1690.” The same cemetery, the Granary Burying Ground, also has the graves of Samuel Adams, Crispus Attucks, Paul Revere, and John Hancock—but few of these men receive the attention Mary Goose does.
Some of the rhymes are reportedly American in origination. “Hush-a-Bye Baby” was allegedly written by a Pilgrim woman who had watched Native American women rock their babies to sleep with cradles hung from trees. The women of the Mayflower came ashore on Monday, November 13, 1620, two days after the men, to wash clothing made filthy from 68 days at sea. This established the orderly ritual reflected in the following “Mother Goose” rhyme:
Wash on Monday,
Iron on Tuesday,
Bake on Wednesday,
Brew on Thursday,
Churn on Friday,
Mend on Saturday,
Go to meeting on Sunday.
Benjamin Franklin even included a version of “For Want of a Nail” in his Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1758:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Perhaps the most famous “Mother Goose” rhyme isn’t even a “Mother Goose” rhyme. Sarah Josepha Hale published “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in Boston in 1830.
So, who is or was Mother Goose? Was she a medieval queen with webbed feet? Was she the mother of a goose-headed son? Was she a man, who published ten of “her” tales in seventeenth century France? Was she a woman who tended sixteen children on Pudding Lane in Boston in the late 17th century? We will never know for sure, but many of us will never forget “her” rhymes.