The phrase a baker’s dozen, which means thirteen, is first recorded in Greenes Tu quoque, or, The cittie gallant (London, 1614), a comedy written by the otherwise unknown playwright John Cook and staged at the end of the reign (1558-1603) of Elizabeth I:
– Staines. Come Gentlemen, heere’s dice.
– Scattergood. Please you aduance to the Table?
– Bubble. No indeede sir.
– Scattergood. Pray will you goe?
– Bubble. I will goe sir ouer the whole world for your sake, But in curtesie I will not budge a foote.
– Ninnihammer. Heere is the Cash you sent me for, and master Rash,
Heere is a Letter from one of your sisters.
– Spendall. I haue the dice, set Gentlemen.
– Longfield. From which sister?
– Rash. From the mad-cap, I know by the hand.
– Spendall. For me, six.
– Omnes. And six that.
– Staines. Nine; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8: eighteene shillings.
– Spendall. What’s yours sir?
– Scattergood. Mine’s a Bakers dozen: master Bubble tel your mony.
The phrase is from the bakers’ former practice of giving thirteen rolls where twelve were requested, to protect themselves against accusations of giving light weight. The following explanation is from Slang and its Analogues Past and Present (1890), by the British lexicographer John S. Farmer (1854-1916):
Baker’s Dozen, subs. (colloquial).—Thirteen reckoned as twelve. Formerly, so careful were ‘the powers that be’ regarding the supply of bread, that bakers were liable to heavy penalties [see footnote] for any deficiency in the weight of loaves. So hedged in, indeed, was the sale of bread, that the weight of loaves was fixed by law, for every price from eighteenpence down to twopence, but penny loaves or rolls were not specified in the statute. Bakers, therefore, when selling the latter, in order to be on the safe side, gave, for a dozen of bread, an additional loaf.
The extra loaf or loaves were called inbread, literally bread ‘thrown in’. On 28th June 1851, Notes and Queries (London) published this letter from a certain J. B. Colman:
DOZEN OF BREAD; BAKER’S DOZEN.
From the following extracts from two of the “Bury Wills” recently published by the Camden Society, it would appear that a dozen of bread always consisted of twelve loaves; and that the term “Baker’s dozen” arose from the practice of giving, in addition to the twelve loaves, a further quantity as “inbread,” in the same manner as it is (or until recently was) the custom to give an extra bushel of coals as “ingrain¹” upon the sale of a large quantity; a chaldron, I believe.
Francis Pynner, of Bury, Gent., by will, dated April 26, 1639, gave to feoffees² certain property upon trust (inter alia) out of the rents, upon the last Friday in every month in the year, to provide one twopenny loaf for each of forty poor people in Bury, to be distributed by the clerk, sexton, and beadle of St. Mary’s parish, who were to have the “inbread of the said bread.” And the testator also bequeathed certain other property to feoffees upon trust to employ the rents as follows (that is to say):—
“The yerely sūme of ffiue pounds p’cell of the said yerely rents to be bestowed in wheaten bread, to be made into penny loaves, and upon eu’y Lord’s day, called Sonday, throughout eu’y yere of the said terme [40 years or thereabouts], fowre and twenty loaves of the said bread, wᵗʰ the inbread allowed by the baker for those twoe dosens of bread, to be timely brought and sett vpon a forme towards the vpp’ end of the chancell of the said p’ish church of St. Marie, and . . . . the same twoe dosens of bread to be giuen and distributed . . . . to and amongst fowre and twentie poore people . . . . the p’ish clarke and sexton of the said church, and the beadle of the said p’ish of St. Marie for the time then being, shall alwaies be three wᶜʰ from time to time shall haue their shares and parts in the said bread. And they, the said clarke, sexton, and bedell, shall alwaies haue the inbread of all the bread aforesaid ovʳ and besides their shares in the said twoe dosens of bread from time to time——”
And William Fiske, of Pakenham, Gent, by will, dated March 20, 1648, provided twelvepence a week to pay weekly for one dozen of bread which his mind was, should “be weekly given vnto twelue or thirteene” persons therein referred to.
¹ ingrain: a quarter of a chaldron of coal given in for every five chaldrons purchased
² feoffee: a person to whom a grant of freehold property is made
In Pleroma to Pneumatikon or, A Being filled with the Spirit (London, 1670), the English preacher and theologian John Goodwin (1594-1665) used the image of the dozen and the inbread to illustrate his religious discourse:
The kingdom of God, i.e., heaven, and the salvation of the soul, these require seeking, or else they will not be found […]. Whereas these things, i.e., the conveniences of the world, shall, upon the seeking of the former, be freely, and by way of gratuity, cast in by God unto men. As that which we call the in-bread is given into the dozen, there is nothing properly paid or given for it, but only for the dozen; the kingdom of God, the salvation of the soul, the world which is to come, are like the dozen, he that will have this must pay for it, I mean in labour and endeavours, and in looking after it. Whereas this present world is like unto the in-bread, which will be given in by God to better the bargain.
The inbread was also called vantage of bread. The word vantage was originally an Anglo-Norman variant of Old French avantage—from which English advantage was derived. Here, vantage means an additional amount; Randle Cotgrave gave this definition in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611):
Trezain: masculine. A thirteenth; whence;
Le trezain du pain. Vantage of bread; the thirteenth loafe giuen by Bakers vnto the dozen.
The phrase is from the former bakers’ custom of adding an extra loaf to a dozen sold to a retailer, this constituting the latter’s profit.
This custom was detailed in Liber Albus, or The White Book of the City of London, compiled in 1419. This book of common English law was edited by the English literary scholar and translator Henry Thomas Riley (1816-78) and published in 1859. Riley explains in the Introduction how the sale of bread by regratresses, i.e. female retailers, was regulated:
These dealers, on purchasing their bread from the bakers, were privileged by law to receive thirteen batches for twelve, and this would seem to have been the extent of their profits; with the exception that it was the usage, at one period at least, for the baker to give to each regratress who dealt with him six pence each Monday morning, by way of “estrene” or present, and three pence on Fridays, as “curtasie” money. This practice, however, we find forbidden by public ordinance, under pain of amercement [= fine]; the bakers being ordered to let all such payments in future go towards increasing the size of the loaf, “to the profit of the people.”
In Liber Albus itself, the original text is:
Que nulle de la ville done as regrateresces les vi deniers le Lundy matyn a estrene, ne les iii deniers au Venderdy pur curtasie, nais launciene manere xiii darrees de payn pur xii. Ne resceive le payn freyde de regrateresces arere, sur peine de grief amerciement, qi de ceo soit atteint ; mais toutz tieux costages mette en soun payn, al profit du poeple.
And that no [baker] of the town shall give unto the regratresses the six pence on Monday morning by way of hansel-money, or the three pence on Friday for curtesy-money; but, after the ancient manner, [let him give] thirteen articles of bread for twelve. Nor shall any one take back the bread from the regratresses when cold, under pain of grievous amercement, whoever shall thereof be attainted; but let him throw all such outlays into his bread, for the profit of the people.
Likewise, the statutes of the company of bakers of Kingston upon Hull, in Yorkshire, passed in 1598, stipulate that:
The warden and searcheres³ shall once everie weke repaire and come to the Maior for the time beinge, to take their assize⁴ to sell by, and that all the saide company will deliver forthe their breade from time to time xiijten to the dozen to the poore women, and other of this towne to retaile the same again.
³ searcher: an official appointed by a guild or company to resist the violation of its customs and laws, and to prevent the production of work below a certain standard of excellence
⁴ assize: the statutory settling of the price of bread
The phrase thirteen to the dozen was already well established in 1588, when was published the religious pamphlet Oh read ouer D. Iohn Bridges, for it is a worthy worke: Or an epitome of the fyrste Booke of that right worshipfull volume, written against the Puritanes, in the defence of the noble cleargie, by as worshipfull a prieste, Iohn Bridges, Presbyter, Priest or elder, doctor of Diuillitie, and Deane of Sarum:
You see I haue taken some paynes with you alreadie, and I will owe you a better turne, and pay it you with aduauntage, at the least thirteene to the dozen.
The equivalent French phrase, treize à la douzaine, is first recorded in Quintil horatian (Lyons, 1551), by the French poet and humanist Barthélémy Aneau (circa 1510-1561); in this attack on La Deffence, et illustration de la langue françoyse (Paris, 1549), by the French poet and critic Joachim du Bellay (circa 1522-1560), Aneau writes the following about the French poet Mellin de Saint-Gelais (circa 1491-1558):
Il […] est Poëte, Musicien, vocal, et instrumental. Voire bien d’advantage est il Mathematicien, Philosophe, Orateur, Jurisperit⁵, Medecin, Astronome, Theologien, brief Panapisthemon⁶. Mais de telz que luy ne s’en trouve pas treize en la grand douzaine⁷.
⁵ jurisperit: expert in law
⁶ panapisthemon: a person acquainted with all fields of knowledge
⁷ “Mais de telz que luy ne s’en trouve pas treize en la grand douzaine.”: “But thirteen persons such as him are not found in a great dozen.”
Si defaut soit trove en le pain del pestour de la citee, a primer foythe soit traie sur une claie de la Guyhalle jesqes a soun hostielle, parmy les grauntz rues ou il purront pluis de gentz estre aboteez, et parmy les plus grauntz ordes ruwes, ove le faux payn portant al soun cool. Si le seconde foitz soit trovee en mesme le trespas, soit trayne de la Guyhalle parmy les grauntz ruwes de Chepe, en la forme avaunt-dite, jesqes au pilory ; et soit mys sur pilory, et la demoerge au meyns une houre de jour. Et le tierce defaut qe serra trove, il serra trayne, et serra abatuz le fourn, et le pestour forjure le mestier pur toutz jours en la citee.
If any default shall be found in the bread of a baker of the City, the first time, let him be drawn upon a hurdle from the Guildhall to his own house, through the great streets where there may be most people assembled, and through the great streets that are most dirty, with the faulty loaf hanging from his neck. If a second time he shall be found committing the same offence, let him be drawn from the Guildhall through the great street of Cheap, in manner aforesaid, to the pillory; and let him be put upon the pillory, and remain there at least one hour in the day. And the third [time that such] default shall be found, he shall be drawn, and the oven shall be pulled down, and the baker [made to] forswear the trade within the City for ever.