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Baa Baa Black Sheep: Innocent nursery rhyme?

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“Baa baa 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.”

Baa Baa Black Sheep: Innocent nursery rhyme? Or a blatant fallacy about the volume of fleece one sheep can produce? Today we’ll explore if this is a continuing misrepresentation of wool production throughout the ages which misleads future generations of farmers, or if the real meaning is something entirely different.

Where to begin? First we need to determine if the ‘sheep’ in this instance is singular or plural. This will allow us to determine if the fleece clipped from the black sheep is from one sheep or an entire flock. Now sheep is an irregular plural (which means the singular and plural of the noun are the same) so this alone does not tell us anything. We need to instead look to the following verses for overall context of the rhyme. Red Hen, Brown Cow, and Busy Bee are the subjects of the additional verses which are all singular so from this we can extrapolate that Black Sheep means one single sheep.

The rhyme originated in the United Kingdom in the early 1700s and, although I’m no sheepologist, a Google search tells me that the Black Welsh breed is the only purely black sheep in the UK. They were primarily bred for wool in the middle ages and so the likelihood of Baa Baa Black Sheep being about Welsh Blacks is high. A Welsh Black gives up to 2 kgs of wool with each clip, and 2 kgs of wool converts to about 0.0015 cubic metres in volume when compressed. Wool bags and bales were manually compressed in the 1700s but let’s say for argument’s sake that they didn’t bother compressing the wool, but instead just filled up three bags with fleece. Here we have missing data – we have no idea how big the bags used were. Was there a standard sized bag used to bale wool back then like we have today? Did they just use three random bags they had at hand? It’s a mystery and we may never know for sure.

From one sheep’s fleece, you can make about three jumpers so was there just enough wool for the master, the dame, and the squirt down the road to all have a jumper each? If so, the bags probably weren’t all the same size as the master would have needed a much bigger jumper than the others, but even so, the bags couldn’t have been all that big. Determining the exact size of the bags and how much fleece there was in total however appears to be impossible.

A popular theory is that the rhyme is actually about a heavy wool tax that was in play from 1200-1500 but if this is the case, people must have been very irate if they were still complaining about it 200 years after it was abolished. Another popular theory is that I overthink nursery rhymes way too much and that I really need to find another hobby…