Twelve Days of Christmas: Six Geese a-Laying

By Professor Anne Lawrence-Mathers

As this is the History blog, today presents an opportunity to celebrate the Six Great Geese of History (as chosen by us).  They will be presented – obviously – in chronological order.

First up is Aesop’s Goose, perhaps better known as the Goose who Laid the Golden Eggs. She first appeared in Aesop’s famous Fables, believed to have been written in the 6th century BCE. They were later translated many times, and the tragic tale of this goose has been retold up to the present day. Sadly, her magical ability to lay golden eggs led to her murder at the hands of greedy owners who wanted to get hold of all her golden eggs at once. Since the Fables are morality tales it is not surprising to find that the owners ended up in possession of nothing but a dead goose!

Canva - White Eggs in Brown Nest - Photo by Alizee Marchand
[Image credit: Photo by Alizee Marchand]

Next, and rather more historical, are the Geese who Saved Ancient Rome. Their story is told by Livy, in Book Five of his History. ‘The Capitol of Rome was in great danger; for the besieging Gauls had found an easy ascent by the rock at the Temple of Carmentis. On a moonlight night they gained the summit all in silence. Not merely had they escaped the notice of the sentinels, but even the dogs had not been alarmed. But they did not escape the notice of the geese of the Temple of Juno! Marcus Manlius, a redoubted warrior, was awakened by their hissing and the clapping of their wings. He snatched his arms, and calling loudly to his fellows, ran to the spot.’ The Roman garrison was victorious, the Gauls were thrown back down the rock, and the geese were heroes (or heroines). They have been celebrated in many ways, including on a Suchard chocolate wrapper.

mottegeese[Image credit: Sacred Geese of the Capitol, by Henri-Paul Motte, 1889. Image from WikiArt.]

Geese were also prominent in medieval history, including a Goose who Went on Crusade. This exploit was commemorated by Guibert of Nogent in The Deeds of God Through the Franks. ‘What I am about to say has been testified to by numerous authors. A poor woman set out to join the People’s Crusade and a goose, clearly exceeding the laws of her own nature, followed her. Rumour rapidly spread the news that even geese had been sent by God to liberate Jerusalem. They even claimed that the goose was leading the woman and showing her the way. At Cambrai they assert that the woman walked through the church and up to the altar, and the goose followed behind, with no one urging it on. Soon after, however, the goose died in Lorraine.’ Guibert’s story echoes other medieval sources, such as the bestiary, in celebrating the ability of geese to walk long distances as well as their value in protecting humans.

Linking the medieval and modern worlds are the Geese of St Eulalia, who occupy a privileged position in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St Eulalia in Barcelona. They commemorate the patron saint of the city, the first martyr of what was then the prosperous port of Barcino. According to Saint Eulalia’s Life, white birds, identified as geese, flew down to protect her martyred body while the city was covered in white snow. Thirteen geese (commemorating the early death of the saint) have been kept in an inner courtyard of the cathedral, perhaps since the fifteenth century, and are claimed to protect the city even now.

St Eulalia[Image credit: St Eulalia’s Geese. Photo taken by Nathan Badera. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

Next, and bringing the story to the Victorian period, are the Christmas Geese who walked from as far away as Norfolk to London, in time for the Christmas festival. They were specially prepared for the journey and given protection for their feet – but once they reached Leadenhall Market their fate was usually sealed. An exception was ‘Old Tom’, who somehow escaped being killed and cooked and became a well-known figure in Leadenhall. After his death in 1835 a poetic obituary was published in The Times ‘In memory of Old Tom the Gander. Obit March 1835, aged 37 years, 9 months, and 6 days’.

‘This famous gander, while in stubble, Fed freely, without care or trouble: …
Transplanted to another scene, He stalk’d in state o’er Calais-green,
With full five hundred geese behind, To his superior care consign’d,
Whom readily he would engage To lead in march ten miles a-stage.
Thus a decoy he lived and died, The chief of geese, the poulterer’s pride.’

Leadenhall_Market_entrance_Illustrated_London_New_1881[Image credit: Leadenhall Market entrance, Illustrated London News 1881.]

Our sixth and final set of ‘great geese’ are wild geese, traditionally famous for being chased. This image goes back at least to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where Mercutio challenges Romeo: “Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.”  Strangely, it seems that a wild goose chase was originally a complex sort of horse race!  Modern wild geese, it seems, are having a much better time than most of these famous geese, and provide what has been called ‘one of the success stories in the contest between wildlife and agriculture’. Decline in farmland bird populations has been estimated at 50% since 1980; but northern-hemisphere geese, which now winter mostly on agricultural land in both Europe and North America, actually show increases in their numbers. As these geese have discovered, food quality, nutritional content and abundance are higher on farmland than in wetlands and can support higher numbers of birds. (Information taken from: A.D. Fox and K.F. Abraham, ‘Why Geese Benefit from the Transition from Natural Vegetation to Agriculture’, Ambio. 2017 Mar; 46(Suppl 2): 188–197. Published online 2017 Feb 18. doi: 10.1007/s13280-016-0879-1).

Alternative candidates for the title of Great Geese of History are very welcome!


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