The Real Mother Goose

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the King’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Background: According to Katherine Thomas in The Real Personages of Mother Goose, this rhyme is 500 years old and refers to King Richard III of England. In 1483 his reign ended when he fell from his mount during battle; he was slain as he stood shouting “My kingdom for a horse!” Richard’s fall made him Humpty Dumpty. Originally the last line was “Could not set Humpty up again”–which can be interpreted as either putting him back on his horse, or back on the throne.

Old King Cole was a very old soul, a merry old soul was he. He called for his pipe and he called for his bowl, and he called for his fiddlers three.
Background: There was actually a King Cole in Britain during the third century. No one knows much about him, but historians agree that he’s the subject of the poem. Of interest: There’s a Roman amphitheater in Colchester, England which has been known as “King Cole’s Kitchen” for centuries.

Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie. He stuck in his thumb and he pulled out a plum, and said “What a good boy am I.”
Background: In the mid-1500s, when King Henry VIII was confiscating lands belonging to the Catholic church, the Abbot of Glastonbury–the richest abbey in the British kingdom–tried to bribe the monarch by sending him a special Christmas pie. Inside the pie, the abbot had enclosed the deeds to 12 manor houses. The courier who delivered the pie to the king was the abbot’s aide, Thomas Horner. (The name “Jack” was contemporary slang for any male, particularly a knave). On his way, Horner stopped, stuck in his hand, and pulled out one of the deeds from the pie–a plum called Mells Manor. Shortly after, Horner moved into Mells, and his family still lives there today (although they deny the story).

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick.
Background: For centuries, jumping over a candlestick was a method of fortune-telling in England. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes: “A candlestick with a lighted candle was placed on the floor and if, when jumping over it, the light was not extinguished, good luck was supposed to follow during the coming year.”

Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

Background: According to James Leasor in The Plague and the Fire, this “had its origin in the [London Plague of 1664]. Rosy refers to the rosy rash of plague… The posies were herbs and spices carried to ward off the disease; sneezing was a common symptom of those close to death. In the Annotated Mother Goose, the authors note that the third line is often given as a sneezing noise (“At-choo, at-choo”), and that ” ‘We all fall down’ was, in a way, exactly what happened.”

But Who Was Mother Goose?

No one’s quite sure. There are at least two possibilities, according to The Annotated Mother Goose:

  • Charles Perrault, a French writer, “published a collection of fairy tales called Tales of My Mother Goose in 1697. The book contains eight stories: ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘Bluebeard,’ ‘Puss In Boots,’ ” etc.
  • But many scholars maintain that Mother Goose was actually one Elizabeth Foster Goose, of Boston, Mass. In 1692, when she was 27, Elizabeth married a widower named Isaac Goose and immediately inherited a family of 10 children. One of her step-daughters married a printer several years later and the printer enjoyed listening to “Mother Goose” recite old rhymes to the younger children. In 1719, he published a collection called Songs for the Nursery, or Mother Goose’s Melodies.

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