Who Even Is Mother Goose?

Many nursery rhymes are credited to Mother Goose. But was such a fowl figure ever even real?
According to some depictions of her, Mother Goose isn't even a bird.
According to some depictions of her, Mother Goose isn't even a bird. / Ceneri/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (Mother Goose)
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A huge number of classic nursery rhymes and children’s tales are attributed to a figure known as Mother Goose. She’s often depicted as a matronly old woman, but she does occasionally look decidedly more witch-like; she’s pictured either riding a giant goose or with a regular-sized waterfowl by her side. She’s sometimes even portrayed as a goose herself.

But imagery aside, was Mother Goose actually based on a real person? Answering that question may be a wild goose chase, but read on to learn about the figure’s known history and the women who might have inspired her.

The Goose That Lays the Golden Egg

Mother Goose’s first mention in print is actually as mère l’Oye (French for “Mother Goose”). A 1613 book of satirical poems by Mathurin Régnier includes the lineQue d’un conte d’Vrgande & de ma mere l’Oye,” which translates to “What a wild tale and from my Mother Goose.” 

Illustration of the cover of a book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes
Mother Goose features in this 19th-century book of nursery rhymes. / Culture Club/GettyImages

The figure was clearly known before this time, but a collection of stories wasn’t attributed to her until 1695, with Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Tales of my Mother Goose). Perrault’s volume collected classic fairy tales such as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” It was translated into English by Robert Samber in 1729, under the title Histories or Tales of Past Times, Told by Mother Goose, and was then reprinted in the United States in 1786.

Another collection of stories—this time nursery rhymes, rather than fairy tales—that used the avian moniker is Mother Goose’s Melody; or Sonnets for the Cradle. It’s thought that this book, which contains iconic rhymes such as “High Diddle Diddle” and “Little Jack Horner,” may have first been published in 1765, but no original copies have been found. 

A caricature of Mother Goose based on Dan Leno.
A caricature of Mother Goose based on Dan Leno. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Although Mother Goose usually receives billing as the so-called author of children’s tales, she does make a few appearances in stories herself. The rhyme “Old Mother Goose and the Golden Egg” was published around 1820 and likely took inspiration from Thomas Dibdin’s 1806 pantomime Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, The Golden Egg. This show starred famed clown Joseph Grimaldi and was itself probably inspired by Aesop’s ancient Greek fable “The Goose with the Golden Eggs” (which lacks a Mother Goose character). Another Mother Goose pantomime hit the stage in 1902, with the title role being played by renowned comedian Dan Leno, who popularized the cross-dressing Dame character.

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Given that the earliest known reference to Mother Goose is from France, it’s reasonable to think the character may have been based on a French woman. One such suggestion is Bertha of Burgundy, Queen of King Robert II, who ruled at the turn of the 11th century. A myth spread about Bertha having one foot that resembled a goose’s webbed feet, leading to her becoming known as “Goose-footed Bertha” and “Queen Goose.”

The Real Mother Goose, title page
Who is she? / Culture Club/GettyImages

A little over a decade after Bertha’s death in 1010, Egbert of Liège published Fecunda Ratis (The Well-Laden Ship), which includes the lineHoc quoque cum multis abiit, quod Bertheca nevit,” which in English reads “This, too, has passed away with many things, this [time] when Bertha has spun.” This is likely a reference to stories of Bertha’s supposed penchant for spinning (yarn, not tales). The phrase when Queen Bertha was spinning became used in the same vein as once upon a time, and the conflation of this storytelling phrase with the legendary Queen Goose may have led to the creation of Mother Goose.

An even earlier Queen Bertha who may be linked to Mother Goose is Bertrada of Laon, mother of Charlemagne, the First King of the Franks. Her association with large feet is documented as far back as Adenes Le Roi’s 13th-century Li Rouman de Berte aus grans piés (The Romance of Bertha of the big feet), but others added to her legend—including giving her a webbed foot like a goose. There were once numerous statues of a goose-footed queen, “Reine Pédauque,” throughout France, with Bertrada being a potential candidate for the woman who was depicted, but they were all destroyed during the French Revolution

Photo of a 19th-century cast of a 13th-century statue of Bertrada of Laon.
A 19th-century cast of a 13th-century statue of Bertrada of Laon. / Jebulon, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Jacob Grimm—one half of the Brothers Grimmproposes that the legends about these Queen Berthas, with their “swan-maiden’s” feet, can be traced back to Perchta (or Berchta), a mythical figure from Germanic folklore. But it wasn’t just Berthas who were fabled to have had a goose-like foot, with similar rumors springing up about the Queen of Sheba. However, there’s no direct evidence linking any of these queens to Mother Goose.

A non-royal suggestion comes from America, with Bostonian grandmother Elizabeth Foster Goose (or, according to some sources, Mary Goose, Isaac Goose’s first wife) being put forward as the true Mother Goose. Apparently, printer and publisher Thomas Fleet gathered together the rhymes and songs that Elizabeth, his mother-in-law, told to his children, printing them as Songs for the Nursery, or; Mother Goose’s Melodies for Children in 1719. However, this quaint tale rests entirely upon the word of John Fleet Eliot, a descendant of Thomas, and a copy of the alleged original book has never been found. Plus, even if this story were proven true, Perrault’s volume still predates Fleet’s by 24 years.

None of these contenders have a particularly strong case, and while a real—but currently unknown—historical woman may have inspired Mother Goose, it’s likely that she was simply a figment of a storyteller’s imagination.  

Popular Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes

Mother Goose has been listed as the author of many popular nursery rhymes. Though the below tunes predate the mysterious figure, they’ve all been published in some sort of Mother Goose book at various points throughout the centuries.

Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes

“Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”

“Little Jack Horner” 

“Little Bo-Peep”

“Humpty-Dumpty”

“Mary Had a Little Lamb”

“Little Miss Muffet”

“Jack and Jill”

“There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe”

“This Little Piggy”

“Old Mother Hubbard”

“Old King Cole”

“High Diddle Diddle”

“Peter Pumpkin Eater”

Read More Stories About Nursery Rhymes:

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