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Origins: Goosie Goosie Gander

'I took him by the left leg / and threw him down the stairs'

'I took him by the left leg / and threw him down the stairs'

Goosie goosie gander,
Wither shalt thou wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady’s chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn’t say his prayers;
I took him by the left leg
And threw him down the stairs.

Ah, religious intolerance. Many songs and poems have been penned on the subject, and this is one of them. Thought this was an innocent rhyme about adulterous poultry? You were wrong, my friend!

Queen Elizabeth I, the last Tudor monarch, passed the Act of Uniformity in 1559, effectively outlawing Catholicism, introducing the Book of Common Prayer and demanding that every citizen attended church once a week else face a fine of 12 pence.

For the monied classes, Catholicism tended to be a fairly open secret. and many large houses boasted a private chapel. Catholic priests could be easily found and since dying unconfessed or not christening a newborn were considered grave offences which would ensure eternal damnation doing so was thought more than worth the risk.

Goosie Goosie Gander (or Goosey Goosey Gander) is a narrative of the raids on suspected Catholics during Elizabeth’s reign. Officials would tear houses apart looking for priests, and upon finding a suspected Papist preacher would demand that they swear allegiance to the Queen as head of the Church. This was something a Catholic priest could not do – they simply ‘would not say [their] prayers’.

The punishment for failing to swear allegiance was in the hands of those that found the sinner, and, frankly, being ‘thrown down the stairs’ was being let off lightly.

While this is a very neat explanation for the origin of the rhyme, it fails to take into account the earliest recorded version of the rhyme, published in Gammer Gurton’s Garland or The Nursery Parnassus in 1784:

Goose-a goose-a gander,
Wither shalt thou wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady’s chamber.
There you’ll find a cup of sack
And a race of ginger.

A ‘cup of sack’ in this context refers to a dry white wine drink, usually from Spain; a ‘race’ of ginger indicates a single root of ginger – what we refer to as a hand of ginger. Why does this particular lady keep wine and ginger in her bed chamber? In the eighteenth century ginger, as other spices, was still relatively expensive, but it is unlikely that it would be so expensive as to be kept outside of the kitchen. If there happens to be a food historian reading who can enlighten me, please do!

Iona and Peter Opie record a nursery rhyme dating from around 1780 that talks about the crane fly:

Old father long legs
Cannot say his prayers.
Take him by the left leg
And throw him down the stairs!

The Opies suggest that the two rhymes above were amalgamated to produce the version of Goosie Goosie Gander that is familiar to us in the early 1800s.

One response »

  1. I love to read about the origins of Goosie Goosie Gander, thank you for publishing this article.

    Reply

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