See caption
Illustration by Dorothy M. Wheeler
Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” is an English nursery rhyme, also sung as a lullaby to the old French tune Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman, which first appeared in print – without words – in 1761 in Les Amusements d’une Heure et Demy (1761).[1][a]The same tune as “Twinkle Twinkle Little StarEnglish poem and nursery rhyme by Jane Taylor, first published in 1806 under the title "The Star".“.[2] The best known version today is:

Baa, bah, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.[1]

The earliest recorded version of the rhyme appears in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, published in about 1744.[1] The phrase “three bags full” has since entered the language as an idiom for “servile agreement to unreasonable demands”.[3]

In 1275 King Edward I imposed a tax of half a mark on each sack of wool produced,[b]A sack is 364 lbs (165 kgs).[4] then England’s most valuable export. Known as the magna antiqua et custuma from 1303, “the great and old customs”,[4] the levy was introduced at an unfortunate time for the English wool industry, when the sheep population was beginning to suffer from recurring outbreaks of scab disease, which continued until the early 1330s. As well as killing many of the animals affected, the disease ruined the fleeces of the survivors, and the wool industry went into a severe decline from the 1280s onwards.[5] It may therefore be that the rhyme refers to the resentment felt by wool producers in having to pay this tax: “the king” is the master, “the dame” the over-entitled nobility, and “the little boy who lives down the lane” the common man.[6]

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Bibliography


Baring-Gould, W. S., and C. Baring-Gould. The Annotated Mother Goose. Bramhall House, 1962.
Brown, Alfred Lawson. The Governance of Late Medieval England 1272–1461. Stanford University Press, 1989.
Fuld, J. J. The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk. Crown Publishers, 1971.
Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie. Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1997.
Simpson, Jacqueline, and Steve Roud. “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” A Dictionary of English Folklore, Online, Oxford University Press, 2003, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198607663.001.0001/acref-9780198607663-e-37?rskey=jQ5XgM&result=2.
Slavin, Philip. “Mites and Merchants: The Crisis of English Wool and Textile Trade Revisited, c, 1275–1330.” The Economic History Review, vol. 73, no. 4, Nov. 2020, pp. 885–913, https://doi.org/10.1111/ehr.12969.

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