This week’s theme is food folklore and y’all, this one was WAY more complicated than I initially thought it would be.
Roud Folk Song Index number 13191 – Sing a Song of Sixpence
Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing.
Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?
The King was in his counting house, counting out his money;
The Queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey;
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose.
Most of us are familiar with this nursery rhyme, right? It’s one of those rhymes that you just seem to know, and maybe you wondered why there were birds in a pie but it didn’t take up too much of your thought, right?
Well, it should have been taking up your thoughts because depending on what source you look at, there are layers upon layers of suspected meaning here. No one is certain where it came from, when, or why. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, what is known for a certainty is that the first verse was first put into print in 1744 in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book:
Sing a Song of Sixpence,
A bag full of Rye,
Four and twenty Naughty Boys,
Baked in a Pye.
Obviously that last line is a bit darker than the blackbirds but still, it’s essentially the same rhyme. In the next surviving printed version, from 1780, the rhyme was extended to two verses and the boys had been replaced by birds. A version from 1784 shows that the rhyme has been expanded to four verses, with that poor maid being attacked by one of the blackbirds. By the 19th century, two versions of a fifth verse had been added that returned the maid’s nose:
They sent for the king’s doctor,
who sewed it on again;
He sewed it on so neatly,
the seam was never seen.
There was such a commotion,
that little Jenny wren
Flew down into the garden,
and put it back again.
Now, the birds in the pie isn’t actually as weird as it might seem, or, at least, it wouldn’t have been weird to someone from the 16th century. This type of “dish” was known as a subtlety, or an entremet. It was never actually intended to be eaten. It was meant to showcase not only the abilities of the court chef–because the crust was cooked and probably still hot when the birds were shoved into it from a hole cut into the bottom which probably pissed them off and made them poop in fear as the knife descended to cut it open–but also the levels of decadence and extravagance to which the court was capable of reaching. Basically, it was all about politics and social standing, which is something that has definitely not gone away, 500 years later. If you need a modern corollary, think about the spectacle of the Met Gala.
Having said that, the actual origins of the rhyme itself are not known but there are some likely suspects. In Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night (c. 1602), (Twelfth Night 2.3/32–33), Sir Toby Belch tells a clown:
Come on; there is sixpence for you: let’s have a song.
Whoa, here’s a stir now! Sing a song o’ sixpence!
As for the meaning behind the rhyme, well, it depends on who you ask. One explanation has an almost alchemical feel in that the the 24 blackbirds are possibly meant to represent the 24 hours in a day, while the King represents the sun and the Queen represents the moon, which has definite “chymical wedding” vibes to it.
Another suggested meaning lies in the reign of King Henry VIII. Henry dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s, and so the blackbirds are thought to represent the choirs of the monasteries who baked a pie in order to win the King’s favor…? I know, it sounds odd to me too. I mean, Henry was dead-set on obliterating the Catholic Church in England and so the idea that baking a pie would appease him seems a bit silly but it makes more sense when you look further into this. The pie in question may have contained the deeds to 12 manorial estates, sent to the Henry by the Abbot of Glastonbury. Still farfetched but much more believable.
The other story that centers on Henry is the idea that the King in the song is Henry, the Queen is Catherine of Aragon, and the chambermaid represents Anne Boleyn, with the removal of the nose symbolizing her eventual decapitation. I suppose that tearing off a nose was less gruesome than decapitation and so more acceptable in a children’s rhyme?
There are additional rumors that suggest that the rhyme may refer either to the invention of moveable type or that it was part of an elaborate pirate code. I do love a good pirate code so I’m inclined to lean in that direction but honestly, this nursery rhyme could be a simple matter of reading meaning where there is none. Or, maybe the original verse did have a real meaning and the other verses were added on over time for no real reason at all and now those of us with too much time on our hands spend two hours assembling a blog post about the possible meanings of a nursery rhyme that has no real meaning at all.