December 25th, 2009


Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

This post opens year 2010 season. By tradition, the first post of each season is on a nursery rhyme.

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.

There are two mysteries involved: the partitioning of wool and the black sheep. Some hotheads have speculated that the rhyme relates to transatlantic triangular trade involving black slaves, but for now the common take is that this rhyme reflects anti-tax sentiments of overexploited English working classes rebelling against the reactionary forces embodied by King Edward I imposing a new tax to fund his pointless 8th and 9th crusades based on unverified French intelligence about the exploits of the Islamic extremists in Syria:

...Louis IX {and Edward I} were disturbed by events in Syria, where the Mamluk sultan Baibars had been attacking the remnant of the Crusader states. Baibars had seized the opportunity after a war pitting the cities of Venice and Genoa against each other had exhausted the Syrian ports that the two cities controlled. By 1265 Baibars had captured Nazareth, Haifa, Toron, and Arsuf. Hugh III of Cyprus, nominal king of Jerusalem, landed in Acre to defend that city, while Baibars marched as far north as Armenia, which was at that time under Mongol control.

...This popular rhyme probably dates back to the 13th Century, and relates to a tax imposed by the king on wool. One-third went to the king(the 'master'), 1/3 to the church (referred to as the 'dame') and 1/3 was for the farmer (the 'little boy who lives down the lane').

...An old variant of the ending runs: Two for the master, one for the dame, but none for the little boy, who lives down the lane. This was the variant of the lyrics until 1765, when it changed to the current version, thought to be more suitable for young children. The old version referred to Edward I's wool tax, which he imposed in 1272 to fund his crusades.

...The final line of this rhyme until 1765 went like this: And none for the little boy who cries down the lane. It is thought it was changed to make it more pleasant. When Edward I returned from his crusading in 1272, he imposed new taxes on wool to fund his military campaigns. It was this wool tax that is said to be the basis of the rhyme. Rather than being a gentle song about sharing things out fairly, it's a bitter reflection on how brutal life was for the working classes.

The custom duty of 66-100% sounds insanely high. Wikipedia informs that 'Great Custom' wool tax of 1275 "involved the collection of 6s 8d to the Crown per sack, about 5% of the value." This is close to our median sales taxes, so the horror stories of overtaxed English farmers still grudging popular resentment against the exploitative king seem to be exaggregated.

I think that the timing is guessed correctly, but the particulars are different. Edward I did impose permanent customs duties, but those were very mild, as high levels of taxations would ruin the wool trade (sheep can be grown anywhere). So he found another solution to his financial ordeals, the one that made him very popular with the local clergy and the long suffering working classes:

...England's Jews were the king's personal property, and he was free to tax them at will. By the 1280 the Jews had been exploited to a level where they were no longer of much financial use to the crown, but they could still be used in political bargaining. Their usury business had made many people indebted to them, and caused general popular resentment. In 1275, Edward had issued the Statute of the Jewry, which outlawed usury and encouraged the Jews to take up other professions; in 1279, in the context of a crack-down on coin-clippers, he arrested all the heads of Jewish households in England and had around 300 of them executed. The final attack came in the form of the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, whereby Edward formally expelled all Jews from England. This not only generated revenues through royal appropriation of Jewish loans and property, but it also gave Edward the political capital to negotiate a substantial lay subsidy in the 1290 Parliament.

...Shortly after his coronation Edward I., in 1275, made some experimental decrees. The Church laws against usury had recently been reiterated with more than usual vehemence at the Second Council of Lyon (1274), and Edward in the "Statutum de Judaismo" absolutely forbade Jews to lend on usury, but granted them permission to engage in commerce and handicrafts, and even to take farms for a period not exceeding ten years, though he expressly excluded them from all the feudal advantages of the possession of land. This permission, however, regarded as a means by which Jews in general could gain a livelihood, was illusory. Farming can not be taken up at a moment's notice, nor can handicrafts be acquired at once. Moreover, in England in the thirteenth century the guilds were already securing a monopoly of all skilled labour, and in the majority of markets only those could buy and sell who were members of the Gild Merchant. By depriving the Jews of a resort to usury, Edward was practically preventing them from earning a living at all under the conditions of life then existing in feudal England; and in principle the "Statute of Judaism" expelled them fifteen years before the final expulsion. Some of the Jews attempted to evade the law by resorting to the tricks of the Caursines, who lent sums and extorted bonds that included both principal and interest. Some resorted to highway robbery; others joined the Domus Conversorum; while a considerable number appear to have resorted to coin clipping as a means of securing a precarious existence. As a consequence, in 1278 the whole English Jewry was imprisoned; and no fewer than 293 Jews were executed at London.

The black sheep had wool. Some went to the master, some went to the dame, and none went to the little boy who cried down the lane. No forced assumptions are needed.