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'Goose' was a common term used for adulterors

The nursery rhyme Goosey Goosey Gander is filled with multiple meanings. It is another one of those rhymes believed to have emerged from the time of great persecution in England during the Reformation. It also holds a contemporary, colloquial meaning.

The original verse goes something like this:

Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady's chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn't say his prayers,
So I took him by his left leg
And threw him down the stair (

There are other versions that deal with more specific ideas from which separate meanings have been interpreted.

Catholic priests being killed for continuing to keep the faith Image source: wikimedia commons

The primary interpretation is believed to be regarding the Catholic priests getting persecuted by King Henry VIII and his Protestant successors. Catholicism in England was frowned upon when King Henry established the Church of England. Anyone practicing Catholicism was put to death for treason. Many of the courtiers were hanged on this charge, and are noted in history as being martyrs for their faith.

Those who managed to practice their religion without being discovered did so in what was called a 'priest hole'. These were small rooms in the walls of a house that was covered by tapestry or a bookshelf. The required prayer instruments would be placed here, and the person would retire to this chamber at night, or at a time when they were not required elsewhere. The goose that wanders her mistress's house in the nursery rhyme discovers such a person, presumably a priest, and exposes him, or 'throws him down the stair'.

An alternative meaning to this rhyme originates from the lower class of England's population, a colloquial term used widely among the non-rich. The word 'goose' was used commonly to address a prostitute, and here, could possibly refer to a woman who has acquired an STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection). "Whither shall I wander?/ Upstairs and downstairs/ And in my lady's chamber," could be a reference to the spread of an infection that a man acquires from such a woman, which causes him to be ostracised from his community. It was quite common in England for an upper-classman to bed a lower-class woman in the society of those days.

It is rather interesting that such a practice would turn into folklore, and in turn, become a rhyme sung by little children all over the world. It has certain amusing images no doubt, but not without raising questions. England of the times of Reformation was certainly a dark place, with a terribly dark heritage.

Keywords: Heritage, Rhymes, Folklore, England, Reformation



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