Ahhh, the cosy childhood memory of Mother Goose, what could be more innocent? But where did Mother Goose come from and what darker societal secrets is she hiding?
The phrase ‘Mother Goose Tales’ first appears in French in 1697 as a title on the frontispiece of Charles Perrault’s collection Contes du Temps Passe.
A goose was considered a foolish animal. “A certain symmetry is implied between the low humour of the animal, the lowness of the genre, and the lowness of the presumed audience. For children as well as animals are perceived as lesser creatures: like women, especially old women, and of the lower class. From goose to Mother Goose is a short step.” (Warner 3-4)
The simplicity of Mother Goose, as a peasant storyteller, matches the (perceived) simplicity of the child. Fully functioning adult women are conspicuously absent from the plot of many favourite fairy tales. Adolescent girls feature as heroines of the tale, barren women are featured as evil stepmothers, and old women are featured as either silly and harmless or witches. The stories rarely, if ever, feature kindly women in their prime. Natural mothers are usually killed off before the narrative begins, and the remaining women in their prime are villains.
“It is possible that one of the buried reasons for the vanishing mothers of fairytale is that perfection in a woman entails exemplary silence and self-effacement—to the point of actually disappearing out of the text. The seventeenth century was a time when women were struggling on many different fronts for the right to speak and write and teach. ‘Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection’ (2:11) ‘But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence’ (2:12). The tongues of women were also associated with curses and nagging; there even exist, from the same century that saw the development of Mother Goose Tales, scold’s bridles—contraptions like dog muzzles designed to gag women who had been charged and found guilty for something they had said.” (Warner 11)
Calling a woman a ‘gossip’ is a way of demeaning the conversation of women, and the changes in the meaning of the word ‘gossip’ illuminate the participation of women in storytelling. A ‘gossipping’ was originally an old word for a christening feast, and a ‘gossip’ was a godparent of any gender. By the 1590s-1660s, the word became associated with a godmother exclusively. “The linguistic link between godmothers and gossips is important in the world of fairytale; the fairy godmother, or magic old woman and the crone storyteller, are often made to look alike by illustrators, the doubled subject of the story or rhyme Mother Goose often doubles the part of the fairy in the tale that she tells: it is she who knows Cinderella’s true worth, for instance, and imparts it to her listeners; it is the story she tells that reveals the heroine’s identity and resolves her triumph in the same way as the fairy godmother.” (Warner 15) Society accepts Mother Goose’s role here as a kindly elderly woman, the teller of tales for children, who never has a tale about herself. However, things were about to change.
Perrault’s original 1697 book featuring Mother Goose was translated into English by Robert Samber in 1729, and the beloved stories of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Little Red Ridinghood’, ‘Puss in Boots’, and ‘Cinderella’ were first introduced in England as ‘Mother Goose’s Tales’. Then John Newbery, one of the first publishers for children, published a book of traditional nursery rhymes under the title of Mother Goose’s Melody, or Sonnets for the Cradle in 1765. Gradually, the name ‘Mother Goose’ spread all through the British Isles.
However, it was with the introduction of the nineteenth century pantomime that the character of Mother Goose began to morph from a narrator of tales to a character in the tales herself. The 1806 production of Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, the Golden Egg transformed the Mother Goose trope. Perrault and Newbery had supplied the original ‘Mother Goose’ name, but there was no story to go with it. The kind of quandary one would face when making a full-length movie from a Disneyland ride…
The author of Harlequin and Mother Goose, Thomas Dibdin’s, task was to invent some action appropriate to the figure of ‘Mother Goose’. While the story itself is an original piece of work, it cobbled together many elements of traditional fairy stories. Young love that cannot be is a tale as old as time; the young hero’s plea to Mother Goose to use her magic power to help reminds us of the fairy godmother. In Dibdin’s Mother Goose invention, our hero Colin is in love with Collinette, who, at the order of her guardian, is about to marry the hideous Squire. On their wedding day the Squire orders that Mother Goose, a local woman, be dunked for witchcraft. Colin defends Mother Goose from the Squire and in return she grants him a goose that lays a solid gold egg. With this the characters transform into their harlequinade equivalents, Colin becomes Harlequin, Collinette; Columbine and Squire the Clown, and the plot becomes a quest for the two young lovers to marry.
The well-known saying ‘to kill the goose that lays the golden egg’ is derived from a Greek fable, and was known in England since at least the sixteenth century. But most interestingly, Dibdin presents Mother Goose actually as a witch, as is clear from the stage directions and the first scene. Although the story contains fairytale elements, Harlequin and Mother Goose is also a story of the supernatural, newly fashionable in the age of the Gothic Revival.
One of the most dramatic scenes is in the graveyard. When the Squire approaches his late wife Xantippe’s tomb. Mother Goose raises the ghost of Xantippe and the terrified Squire runs out.
Of course there is a joke here. “‘Xantippe’ is a traditional name for a shrewish and bad-tempered wife, and the Squire’s song implies that he had been terrified of her in her lifetime. So when Mother Goose raises the ghost, his terror has a comic edge to it. There is also, possibly, an element of burlesque or parody of the most famous of all witches, the Witch of Endor in the Old Testament, who raises a ghost.” (Tsurumi 29) It is within this pantomime that the association of Mother Goose with the supernatural was first introduced.
The Mother Goose of this pantomime also represents here two sides not usually put together, the macabre elements of a witch with the kindly aspect of a fairy godmother. “Mother Goose, who used to be a wise and witty teller of fairytales and then was seen as a legendary writer of nursery rhymes, now apparently was beginning to be depicted as a champion of the old conception of the world associated with the obsolete witchcraft.” (Tsurumi 29-30)
The association of an old woman with traditional fairy tales or nursery rhymes is long standing. ‘Mother Hubbard’ as an old woman telling stories was known already in 1590.
‘Mother Bunch’ is also older than Mother Goose. Mother Bunch is thought to be identified with a London alewife and bawd of the sixteenth century. [See alewives]
Besides ‘Mother Bunch’ and ‘Mother Carey’ there is also the well-known ‘Mother Shipton’, a witch and prophetess who is alleged to have lived in Tudor times. Her career and sayings were the subject of many pamphlets in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We probably know her best today due to Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy (‘Discovery of Witches’ TV show).
In popular literary culture the term ‘Old Mother’ almost always had some connotation of an intermediary between the everyday world and the world of the supernatural. At the same time, there are social implications too. ‘Mother’, like ‘Dame’ and ‘Gammer’, was a term of address for an elderly woman of the lower classes, and could be used as a prefix to her surname. This use of ‘Mother’ goes back at least to the fifteenth century. “Because witchcraft was traditionally associated with the lower-class older woman, assumed to be both poor and ignorant, ‘Mother’ or ‘Old Mother’ became a slightly mocking and patronising way of referring to an alleged witch or prophetess or supernatural figure. It suggests that with the increasing rationalism and the consequent disintegration of the old ways of life, old ideas or conceptions of the world were laid aside and could become a subject for mockery and fantasy.” (Tsurumi 30-31)
Within the comfortable distance of mockery, the representation of Mother Goose flying on the back of a gander is most likely a wink to the image of the witch flying on a broomstick, which had been established since the fifteenth century. By the nineteenth century, the lore of witchcraft and magic has become a source of fireside entertainments, even safe for children, and the resulting thrill has its roots within gothic literature rather than hellfire.
While the image of Mother Goose as a witch is playfully presented in the pantomime, for her written works, she is presented as a somewhat whimsical old woman, rather than a witch. An edition of Perrault’s tales printed in 1817 in Glasgow has a cover showing Mother Goose sitting at a desk and reading a book.
Even with her hooked nose and chin, and wearing a high-crowned hat, she is now a much loved grandmother who tells household tales:
Here Mother Goose on Winter Nights
The old and young she both delights.
After the popular pantomime, and the printed ephemera associated with it, the combined image of Mother Goose and the witch was established. And the image of Mother Goose flying through the air on her gander is one that is most called to mind today when envisioning the character.
And what of her longevity? Four hundred years after her first introduction, many of us still remember Mother Goose tales from our own nursery days. Part of her success is due to many of the tales being repackaging of even more ancient legends, the timeless tales of our humanity, but there is something else about Mother Goose that retains its allure. There is a frisson within her character between the light and the dark; between the witch and the grandmother. She represents wisdom, but with a sting. Her knowledge is to be respected, and her voice is almost defiant—we can look to her as holding the tales of our shared childhood in her old hands. And the fact this power is vested in a woman makes her feel a bit rebellious. She represents the ‘old world’; a darker, more dangerous time, but within the safety of nursery lessons—the shiver of danger felt in a cosy home. This dichotomy has driven countless gothic novels, and will keep Mother Goose close to hand for many generations to come.
Perry, Rosie, ‘Mother Goose – The Evolution of a Classic Christmas Pantomime’, Adam Matthew, https://www.amdigital.co.uk/about/blog/item/mother-goose
Tsurumi, Ryoji ‘The Development of Mother Goose in Britain in the Nineteenth Century’, Folklore, 101:1, p28-35. 1990.
Warner, Marina, ‘Mother Goose Tales: Female Fiction, Female Fact?’, Folklore, 101:1, p3-25. 1990.