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Extra Bread: The Origins Of The Baker's Dozen

Ancient History | August 9, 2019

An itinerant baker's cart. Source: (Photo by: Leemage/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Many times, when you order a dozen rolls or loaves of bread at a bakery, you bring home 13 instead of 12. These bonus carbs are brought to you by the practice known as the "baker's dozen," a custom which dates back to medieval England. Contrary to popular belief that the bakers were redefining math to get more customers, the origin of the baker's dozen was more about covering their own rear ends than it was about customer satisfaction. It all started with the Assize of Bread and Ale Law. 

The bakers guild was called The Worshipful Company of Bakers. Source: (medievalist.net)

Regulating Trade

Trade of goods in medieval England was strictly controlled by the government. Trade guilds were set up to keep tabs on the practices within each industry type, and bakers fell under the regulation of the "Worshipful Company of Bakers" guild that began as far back as the 1100s. People had a bit more reverence for bread back then.

King Henry III enacted the Assize of Bread and Ale Law. Source: (royal.uk)

The Assize of Bread and Ale Law

In 1266, to mitigate the hassle of fluctuating food prices, King Henry III resurrected an old law that mandated the price of bread and baked goods in accordance with the current price of wheat. Among other provisions, the Assize of Bread and Ale Law decreed that bakers or ale brewers who shorted their customers would be punished. The punishments ranged from fines to flogging and pillorying, which we can all agree is adequate justice for robbing someone of delicious bread.

Pillorying was one of the punishments for underselling bread. Source: (northunberlandarchives.com)

Selling Bread by the Pound

Each baker made their loaves slightly different in size, so it was hard to make sure each customer was getting the same amount for their money. The Assize of Bread and Ale Law solved this problem by ordering bakers to sell by the pound rather than the loaf, which was great for customers who wanted to know they were getting their money's worth but not so much for bakers, many of whom didn't own scales. Adding to their anxiety were the regulators who routinely patrolled marketplaces and shops. We like to think they had cute little bun-shaped badges.

Regulators patrolled the marketplaces to make sure the bakers were abiding by the Assize of Bread and Ale Law. Source: (youtube.com)

Covering Their End Pieces

With regulators watching and punishment looming if they shorted their customers, bakers began the practice of throwing in extra bread or rolls, just to make sure they met the minimum weight. Most of the time, it wasn't a full loaf but an end crust or smaller loaf. The bakers were willing to incur the extra expense of the baker's dozen because it saved them stiff fines or embarrassing punishments, and no one in history has ever complained about extra bread, so it was a win-win.

13, not 12, donuts in a baker's dozen. Source: (danielcrawford.bandcamp.com)

Today's Baker's Dozen

Since bread, rolls, and buns are now made in manufacturing facilities with controlled measurements and automated packaging, most baked goods are sold by the dozen, not the baker's dozen. However, if you visit a specialty bakery, it is not uncommon to still get 13 items when you ask for a dozen. Even though the Assize of Bread and Ale Law is as dead as King Henry, bakers still follow the traditional custom of giving the customer more than they asked for. Now if only they could make it so those calories don't count.

Tags: the bakers dozen

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.