A Baker’s Dozen: Avoiding Serious Punishments

Hello everyone. I hope you all had a good long weekend.

Here we go.

For the most part, bakeries sell their food by the dozen, or batches of twelve, but many continue to advertize sales which call for a baker’s dozen. When you ask for this, you’ll always get thirteen pieces of whatever you ordered, for the price of twelve. At first thought, it may seem like an arbitrary number, but the idea are well founded, & probably saved more than a few lives.

To figure out what in the world the tradition means, we have to go back about four thousand years & work our way forward.

One of the earliest milestones of human civilization was the city of Babylon. It was located on the site of modern day Baghdad & as such an important city in our history, it gave birth to many ideas, which we still use variations of today. One of these fundamentals to society was one of the first comprehensive codes of law ever written. Bakers just happened to fit into this set of laws in a very strict way.

Here’s how:

A bustling city needs its inhabitants to be fed & Babylon was no different. So, what did they turn to to feed the population? Bread. Historical records show that because wheat is easy to grow & grind into flour, foods made from the grain have been a primary food source since he dawn of mankind. Because of this need for food & the widespread knowledge of how to cultivate wheat, bakeries were prominent around early cities.

While most of the shopowners were honest, some of them were sneaky & took advantage of their patrons. At the time, the baker’s standard was to give them a box of twelve loaves of bread. This was before any laws were put into practice to protect the customers’ interests, so bakers would produce smaller loaves, or if they were feeling exceptionally audacious that day, they’d short them a loaf. More money could be made because people would unknowingly spend the same amount for less bread.

Well, people started to catch on & quickly became sick of being cheated out of food, so much so that laws were passed to prevent it from happening. If you were a baker in Babylon & you cheated someone out of bread, your hand would be chopped off. Fast forward to Ancient Egypt, & your ear would be cut off & nailed to your bakery door. That’s how important bread was to those early societies.

Rules like this remained the same for almost two thousand years, until they faded into obscurity. Once this happened, the bread based conning started to become an apparent problem again. Slowly, people started to notice again & just like before, became upset. In fact, the issue became so prominent, that King Henry III of England, tired of being shorted, himself, lost his patience. In the 1260s, he called his court into session, specifically to address this. Out of this meeting, a law was passed, which stated that the weight of a wheat kernel in relation to the weight of a coin had a direct correlation on what to charge for loaf of bread & a gallon of wine. The law was called the Assize of Bread and Ale Act & it went something like this:

By the consent of the whole realm of England, the measure of the king was made; that is to say: that an English penny, called a sterling round, and without any clipping, shall weigh thirty-two wheat corns in the midst of the ear, and twenty-pence do make an ounce, and twelve ounces one pound, and eight pounds do make a gallon of wine, and eight gallons of wine do make a London bushel, which is the eighth part of a quarter.


This was groundbreaking, as it regulated the standard weight of a loaf, while letting the price of a loaf to fluctuate based on the market price of wheat. Before long, penalties for cheating customers were brought back into play, with various claims as to what they were. Some historians advocate that the punishment was flogging, while others claim that the Babylonian loss of a hand was the retribution.

Regardless of what the actual punishment was, most bakers didn’t think he extra dollar or two was worth it. Flogging often resulted in death & so did hand-removal, so to combat the risk & to assure mistakes weren’t made (you could also get nailed for an accident), bakers would throw in an extra loaf. It assured that the original dozen would still be there, in case something rendered one of the loaves inedible. This would push the weight of the basket over the legal requirement, even if bread accidentally came out of the oven too light. It was a win-win situation for everyone because customers would walk away happy they had an extra piece of bread & bakers were happy they were able to keep their hands. All in all, I’d say it was a good trade.


A medieval bakery. Notice the baker’s dozen batch of bread on the table (Image in Public Domain).

The act only lasted a few because the king decided that sitting in a jail cell was a better alternative to losing the country’s bakers to whippings & blood loss, right?

Wrong. The law remained unchanged until 1863, when England passed one of its Statute Law Revision Acts,  Parliamentary act which nullifies or revises past laws that have become obsolete. That’s six hundred years of on-the-books flogging & be-handing as a remedy for lying to customers.

So, my friends, the next time you walk into a bakery, take some time to think of all those poor souls who sacrificed their hands so you could get a free cupcake with your twelve others.

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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Filed under Etymology

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