March 20, 2020

B is for Baa Baa Black

        (My theme for this year’s A-Z Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Baa baa, Black Sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.
One for my master, and one for my dame,
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.

        The Black Sheep was happy to share his wool, but appreciated it when people asked nicely.
        Perhaps the most interesting variation in this nursery rhyme is that there’s another version that gives none for the little boy who lives (or cries) in the lane.  At first I thought perhaps this was one of those rhymes that had been nicened up in recent times, but in fact one of the oldest versions ever printed gives a bag to the boy in question, so it seems that throughout the history of this verse some people have chosen to withhold wool from the poor lad.  I wonder why?  When you do that, the math doesn’t even add up!  (But perhaps the boy in the lane had been known to throw rocks at the sheep?)
        I have three illustrations for you.  The first cracks me up because the boy’s pose makes me sure he must be greeting the sheep with a beer-commercial-style “Whasssaaap!?!”  The block itself is carved quite nicely, with lovely details in the tree, for example.  The second illustration shows the sad contrast between the master and dame and the wool-less little boy in the lane.  The selfish young master and dame certainly look ill-natured enough, and the boy in the lane certainly appears to be an innocent victim.  And finally the black sheep with its three bags full, which seems pretty impressive to me, although my level of expertise about wool production is low.  Well done, Black Sheep!
        One of the earlier books of nursery rhymes, from about 1760, includes morals with some of them, and for this rhyme (it gives the variant with none for the boy), it says helpfully, “Bad Habits are easier to conquer Today than Tomorrow.”  Very true, no doubt, but can anyone see what possible connection this has to the story of the Black Sheep?
        A final note for impressionable children: Bad Habits are easier to conquer Today than Tomorrow… but also, Appreciate those who provide you with the things you need.

[Pictures: Wood engraving from Mother Goose’s Melodies, published by C.S. Francis and Company, 1833 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Color wood block print by Walter Crane from The Baby’s Opera, printed by Edmund Evans, c 1877 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Wood engraving from Nursery Rhymes, published by Richardson and Son, c 1840 (Image from Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book).]


Kristin said...

I thought the boy in the first picture was mocking the sheep, so no wool for him!
Maybe the moral had to begin with B also.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Hah, I hadn't even noticed that the moral started with B, as well. But the first illustration accompanied the version in which there is a bag of wool for the boy.

Kathe W. said...

hah! baa baa bad boy! You chose a fun theme! Looking forward to more! We can really pay attention to everyone's blogs sincewe're in seclusion!

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

That is a weirrrd moral to attach to this rhyme... I feel like we are missing a piece from its history?...

The Multicolored Diary

Fantasy Writer Guy said...

How sad. I've only ever heard a version where everyone gets wool. Unless I had misheard. I am also writing ahead because I never know when I'll have to lay low for a couple days, but I'm holding back on posting them.

Take care.

Deborah Weber said...

I, too, was a bit aghast at the first block which looked to me like the little boy was ungraciously pointing out the poor bare sheep's lack of wool. Oh dear!

I do love a good moral, but I have to agree the admonishment about bad habits and its connection to black sheep is beyond me. Maybe it's a very old version of an editoral slip up. :-)

Jade Li said...

Looks like straight up classism in the 2nd print. They are "above" him and their clothes are nice. He is "below" them and his clothes are raggedy, and his bag of wool is behind the black sheep. Children get conditioned from an early age.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Jade, you're certainly right, but in this picture I think the message is not that the rich ones are better, but that they're selfish for not sharing. I think we're definitely supposed to sympathise with the poor boy.

Interesting that you're seeing the boy in the first picture as mocking. I wonder whether he's meant to be the master or the little boy in the lane?