Three Bags Full of Meaning

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.

A black sheep with three bags full

A black sheep with three bags full

One of the nursery rhymes that I have read to Jack and am beginning to do so with Owen is Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, which the earliest written version goes back to England a generation prior to the American Revolution in 1731. In addition, there is more to the children's poem than the nice onomatopoeia of the words, baa baa black sheep. Young children like the onomatopoeic sound since they can repeat these words easily.

Mother Goose rhyme in the 1901 edition

Mother Goose rhyme in the 1901 edition

However, when I read the rhyme to Jack, he gets more from the rhyme than merely the onomatopoeia that Owen hears. I give Jack a history lesson about early England. I explain that the history of the meaning of this rhyme goes back the late 13th to the 15th centuries when the Plantagenet kings beginning with Edward I started taxing wool.

Al reading to Jack

Reading to Jack

However, the issue about the three bags full wasn't obvious to even an intelligent child like Jack. For example, the rhyme begins with a question:

Bah, Bah a black Sheep,
Have you any Wool?

That is asking the black sheep whether he or she has any wool. Black wool had a higher resale value than ordinary wool due to the fact it would not take costly time and material to dye the wool.

The next 5-verses are also often misunderstood by the casual reader. Many non aficionados think that the master and the dame are some landed gentry couple who are buying a couple of bags of wool.

Three Bags full,
One for my master,
One for my Dame,
One for the little Boy
That lives down the lane

The reference about the first two bags have to do with taxation. The one bag is for master...meaning the king and the one bag is for the Dame...meaning the church. These were in essence illusions to the taxes paid to the church and state. The remaining bag is the one for the little boy that lives down the lane...meaning the commoner or the sheepherder who raised the sheep necessary for the production of the wool. In other words, back in those times over a half millennia ago, they were taxing at 66%.

When looking into this rhyme for material that I didn't know, I came across the term, Woolsack. The Woolsack is a royal pillow upon which the Lord Chancellor sits upon during meetings of the House of Lords, which is the Upper House of Parliament in the UK. How I missed that is beyond me. There are over 200,000 links to the term, Woolsack, in Google.

Chancellor's Woolsack

The Woolsack is a symbol of power that Parliament has regarding taxing and exporting the least back centuries ago. The symbol remains without the any real commensurate power.

Gregory Pappy Boyington Gregory "Pappy" Boyington
One of the interesting things about this old English rhyme seems to have captivated not only young children but also their parents in the mid-70s with the TV series: Baa Baa Black Sheep. The Black Sheep were a famous WWII fighter squadron commanded by Colonel Greogory "Pappy" Boyington. Pappy Boyinton was an excellent pilot downing 26-Japanese planes until he was shot down over Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. He was captured by the Japanese and spent nearly two years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.


Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story in 1888 called Baa, Baa, Black Sheep and included it in a collection printed in Wee Willie Winkie. The song, Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, was one of the first two songs to be saved to and played back from a computer in 1951. The other song was In the Mood.

I can hardly wait to start to explain all this data about Baa, Baa, Black Sheep to Owen. Jack got most of it prior to 3-years of age. The bar is pretty high for his brother. However, I think that he'll do quite well. In the meantime....

Al reading to Owen

Reading to Owen