What do you think of when you hear the phrase “Mother Goose?” A kindly old woman telling stories to children by the fire? An actual goose with anthropomorphic qualities? Just an image of a book of nursery rhymes? Well, no matter what comes to mind, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the phrase. It does, however, prompt a highly specific question: Was Mother Goose a real person?
For anyone who was hoping that Mother Goose did actually exist at one point, alas, here’s some bad news: Unlike Granny Smith, Mother Goose is not, and never has been, a real person. The good news, though, is that the story of how the character came to be—and, more importantly, how she became such an iconic figure—is a truly fascinating tale.
Here’s the history of Mother Goose, from her French origins to her English translation and beyond.
Ma Mere de L’Oye, or, the Original Mother Goose
The fictional personage now known as Mother Goose originated in the volume of French literary fairy tales Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités, or Stories or Tales from Times Past, with Morals, collected and published by Charles Perrault in the late 17th century. Containing eight tales—“La belle au bois dormant” (“The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”), “Le petit chaperon rouge” (“Little Red Riding Hood”), “La Barbe bleüe” (“Blue Beard”), “Le Maistre Chat, ou le Chat Botté” (“The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots”), “Les Fées” (“The Fairies,” also sometimes known as “Diamonds and Toads”), “Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre” (“Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper”), “Riquet à la Houppe” (“Ricky of the Tuft”), and “Le petit Pouçet” (“Little Thumb,” known more commonly as “Hop o’ My Thumb”)—this volume was published in French for the first time in 1697.
However, the earliest extant manuscript for the collection is dated 1695 and contains only “Sleeping Beauty,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Blue Beard,” “Puss in Boots,” and “The Fairies.” Notably, it also wasn’t titled Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités; instead, it was called Contes da ma mere l’Oye—or, Tales of Mother Goose. According to the Morgan Library and Museum, which holds the manuscript, this title “seems to have been a traditional term for such stories in France.”
However, when Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités was finally published, this original title was relegated to the frontispiece, the illustration of which had been transferred directly from the 1695 manuscript. This illustration features a woman of indeterminate age—possibly a nursemaid—seated with a number of children before a fireplace, animatedly telling them stories. Above their heads, a sign pinned to the door behind them reads, “Contes da ma mere l’Oye.” The inclusion of the frontispiece eventually led to the collection being referred to as Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes da ma mere l’Oye—that is, the original title became its subtitle—which, in turn, was eventually shortened to “Contes da ma mere l’Oye,” or even simply, “Contes.”
From French to English and from Fairy Tales to Nursery Rhymes
The first English translation of Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités didn’t come along until 1729, courtesy of Robert Samber. As Christine Jones pointed out at Public Domain Review in 2013, the Samber translation gave us most of the names by which we still most commonly refer to many of these stories and their protagonists today: For example, the monikers Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and Cinderilla (yes, with a second “i,” rather than a second “e”) were all his linguistic decisions. But more to the point, this version also gave us the English name of the titular avian personage: The volume was originally published under the name Histories or Tales of Passed Times—but several editions later, under titles such as History or Tales of Passed Times Told by Mother Goose and simply Tales of Passed Times by Mother Goose. All of these editions, including the 1729 one, feature illustrations resembling the frontispiece from the original French version, sign and all. This time, though, the sign is in English, reading “Mother Goose’s Tales.”
In her English incarnation, Mother Goose first began to be associated with nursery rhymes—as opposed to fairy tales—sometime in the mid-to-late 18th century, thanks to the publication of Mother Goose’s Melody: Or, Sonnets for the Cradle. This book of verses was divided into two parts, the first of which contained “the most celebrated Songs and Lullabies of the old British Nurses, calculated to amuse Children and to excite them to Sleep.” These “celebrated Songs and Lullabies” included such nursery rhyme classics as “Little Tom Tucker,” “The Cat and the Fiddle,” “Jack and Jill,” and “Patty Cake”—all already known, but assembled together here in one handy volume. (Meanwhile, the second part was made up of songs drawn from the plays of Shakespeare—for example, “O Mistress Mine, Where Are You Roaming?” from Twelfth Night.)
The tricky thing about Mother Goose’s Melody is that we don’t know precisely when it was first published. However, as Colonel W. F. Prideaux noted in his introduction to the 1904 edition of Mother Goose’s Melody—which was, according to its title page, “a facsimile reproduction of the earliest known edition” of the book—the original Mother Goose’s Melody was most likely first produced by renowned publisher John Newbery sometime around 1765. Meanwhile, the copyright wasn’t taken out until 1780.
These days, Mother Goose is presented as an imaginary author of fairy tales and nursery rhymes as well as the occasional subject of such stories. This transition from “author” to “author and star” came about in the early 19th century due to the success of a pantomime that took its cues from a well-known fable, but also added Mother Goose as an additional character. Written by Thomas John Dibdin and originally performed at the Theatre Royal at London’s Covent Garden at the end of 1806, this pantomime’s title was Harlequin and Mother Goose, or The Golden Egg; meanwhile, the fable from which it drew its inspiration was one of Aesop’s—“The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs.” Shortly thereafter, versions of a rhyming story called “Old Mother Goose and the Golden Egg” began appearing in publications and also featured Mother Goose not just as the author figure but also as a character within the story itself.
Will the “Real” Mother Goose Please Stand Up?
Despite the fact that Mother Goose herself is wholly fictional, several theories do exist regarding possible real-life inspirations for the figure.
Somewhat unexpectedly, many of them were royalty. For example, some theories posit that the original Mother Goose was Bertha of Burgundy, the wife of King Robert II, a man who ruled as King of the Franks from 996 to 1031. Bertha was reportedly known both as Berthe la fileuse, or Bertha the Spinner, and Berthe pied d’oie, or Goose-Footed Bertha—the first because she was an excellent storyteller and the second due to the odd shape of her feet. Meanwhile, other royal theories look back a little bit further to the 8th century: Bertrada of Laon, the mother of Charlemagne, was sometimes known as Berte aus grands pies, or Bertha Broadfoot.
Another theory suggests that the “real” Mother Goose wasn’t royalty at all, but rather a woman named Elizabeth Foster Goose who was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1635 and married Bostonian Isaac Goose in 1693. By the time Elizabeth became a grandmother, she was reportedly a wonderful teller of tales and enjoyed regaling her grandchildren with them. It has been suggested that Mother Goose’s Melody may be the work of Elizabeth Foster Goose that was originally published in 1719, although there are no surviving copies dating back to that time to support the idea.
These days, it’s generally accepted that the personage of Mother Goose has no real historical basis—that is, that she is simply a fictional character or folkloric figure. Even so, she remains a figure of enormous power, occupying the minds of children and adults alike. And it’s no wonder—real or not, who wouldn’t be enthralled by such a wonderful storyteller?