The Puzzling Origin Of The Popular Nursery Rhyme ‘Baa, Baa, Blackship’

By Divya G November 28, 2023

The nursery rhyme “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” may appear innocuous on the surface, but like many childhood rhymes, it has sparked controversy and conjecture about its underlying meaning.

Image courtesy of JRMGallery/Shutterstock

While some interpretations have linked it to racial depictions, particularly in the 1980s when a nursery in Hackney reportedly banned the rhyme, subsequent investigations revealed the absence of any actual ban.

One alternative interpretation proposes a connection between the rhyme and medieval tax policies in England. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes suggests that the song could be a subtle protest against taxes imposed on wool exports during Edward I’s reign.

The lyrics, with references to the division of wool value between the crown, the church, and the farmer, hint at discontent with the resulting scarcity. This theory gains additional support from historical accounts, such as Katherine Elwes Thomas’s argument in The Real Personages of Mother Goose, linking the rhyme to protests during Edward VI’s reign.

However, this tax-related interpretation lacks robust evidence, and other theories suggest that farmers considered black sheep less fortunate due to the non-dyable nature of their wool. The exact meaning of “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” remains elusive, with various conjectures vying for prominence.

Despite the ambiguity surrounding its origins and meaning, historical records indicate that the rhyme has deep roots, dating back to at least 1744. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes notes the consistency of the lyrics over centuries, with only minor variations. Additionally, the rhyme shares its tune with other well-known songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the alphabet song, all derived from the French nursery rhyme “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman.”

Image courtesy of Eziz Charyyev/Shutterstock

In conclusion, while the controversy surrounding “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” persists, its historical significance and meaning remain elusive, leaving room for interpretation and speculation.