I'm the daughter of a craftsman baker (I hesitate to call my father by the proper term: master baker, because it sounds uncomfortably like something else!) I ought to have known all about "the baker's dozen" and its origins, without the need for research. I didn't. I do now.
The origin of a baker's dozen harks back to 13th century England (around 1266/7) when a piece of law known as The Assize of Bread and Ale was enacted. This statute, first of its kind in England, regulated the weight, quality and price of bread and beer manufactured anywhere in England. The law was enforced in cities by licensing systems with fees, fines and punishments for breaking it; in rural districts it was enforced by Lords of the Manors at regular court sessions.
Before establishment of this law it had been relatively easy for unscrupulous bakers to short-weight customers. Bakers had garnered a rather dodgy reputation because of this, and it was at their request that a system of regulation was established Once this new law was enacted bakers needed to make certain they complied, in order to avoid harsh penalty - perhaps a session in the stocks or pillory, or a heavy fine. They came up with the idea of adding a 13th loaf to every order of 12.....an early form of insurance, I guess.
19th century laws superseded the old regulation and stipulated that bread be sold by pound weight; later that was repealed also. In 2009 a European directive abolished more than 800 years of English history. Bakers in the UK, like the French maître boulanger can now bake loaves of any size, shape, and weight.
In establishing the original bread law England was following the pattern of earlier civilisations. Early societies took their bread very seriously, it was a primary food source for many people. In ancient Egypt, a baker found to be cheating a customer would have their ear nailed to the door of their bakery. In Babylon, if a baker was found to have sold an under-weight loaf, the baker would have his hand chopped off.
My Dad, back in the late 1940s through the 1950s, with my Mother's help, ran their own small bakery and store. Very early mornings, before 5.00 AM, he would haul a huge lumps of mixture from his big mixing machine to the baking table, tear off pieces from the lump of dough, and once torn they'd be thrown onto a scale, then kneeded a certain number of times, and put in to pans on a baking tray, then into the "prover" to rise before baking. Dad would work up a well-practiced and distinct rhythm. I was amazed how accurate he'd become in pulling almost exact 1 pound or 2 pound pieces from the pile of dough. His tearing, throwing, kneeding pattern: as the dough hit the balance scale it'd clang a bit, then the dough hitting the wooden table added a different softer thump, then the kneeding action had a muffled shuffle sound....then back to the clang... The melody and beat of bread-making. I can still hear it!
(Illustration at top of post: A card from card game Happy Families as published in the 1880s by John Jacques, London.)