Illustration by Walter Crane for the “The Baby’s Opera, A Book of Old Rhymes in New Dresses“, First edition, George Routledge & Sons, 1877
Baa, baa black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags full.
One for the Master,
One for the Dame
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.
“Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” goes back to the 12th century at least. It was a time when the wealth of England was very much based on wool. The lord chancellor still sits on a wool sack in the House of Commons to remind everyone about that.
The most common interpretation of the rhyme refers to the medieval English “Great” or “Old Custom” wool tax of 1275, which survived until the fifteenth century. The rhyme sounds like a lament from the farmers of England represented by the little boy. The other two figures in the rhyme are the master and the dame: the master is the king or the king’s representatives, the local nobility which collected revenue on behalf of the king–and the dame is the church. All together the taxes would be more than 2 thirds of the farmer’s profit: a third to the king, a third to the church and a third left for the poor little farmer.
Rudyard Kipling used the title for one of his short stories, where he describes his own misfortunes as a child in a foster home.
It seems like this generous sheep is not as happy as the rhyme and song would want you to believe. But then again, like in a lot of children rhymes, making light of one’s misfortunes is the norm, and maybe, the lesson.