Sing a Song of Sixpence,
A bag full of Rye,
Four and twenty Naughty Boys,
Baked in a Pye.
The earliest mention of this rhyme dates from the eighteenth century. The reference to blackbirds in a pie may refer to a medieval practice for putting live creatures, and even musicians (!), into large pies to have them later burst out for the amusement of noble diners. Indeed, according to contemporary sources, at a 1454 grand banquet a troupe of no fewer than twenty-eight musicians emerged from a piecrust to entertain the guests with their songs.
Known as the Feast of the Pheasant, the banquet was hosted by Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy (1396–1467). Other entertainments included jousting, plays, and a live elephant. All of this was done as part of Philip’s very public gesture—and that of some of the lesser nobles in attendance—to take up arms in a new crusade against the Ottoman Turks, who had taken the city of Constantinople the year before, much to the shock and horror of the West.
Despite his declaration to fight the Turks, nothing ultimately came of his proposed crusade except crumbs in the musicians’ instruments.
In any case, blackbirds or pigeons flying out of a pie for medieval courtly amusement certainly happened from time to time, and not just at such lavish feasts.
The title of the rhyme seems to have been drawn from a long tradition of paying musicians a meagre amount for a song.
Shakespeare writes in Twelfth Night, act II, scene III: “Come on; there is sixpence for you: let’s have a song.”
The only problem with the whole bird theory is that there is an earlier version of the rhyme, printed in 1744, with only one verse, the second half of which reads, “Four and twenty Naughty Boys, Baked in a Pye.” This is quite different and conjures up some rather unpleasant mental images. So which came first? Was there a “bird version” already circulating based on medieval and Tudor extravagance? Or were the “naughty boys” the originals, changed to blackbirds a few decades later because cannibalism was rather unacceptable?
In either case, the modern “semi naked woman” bursting out of the birthday cake is probably a descendant of this strange tradition.
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 parlour,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose
In their 1951 The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Iona and Peter Opie write that the rhyme has been tied to a variety of historical events or folklorish symbols such as the queen symbolising the moon, the king the sun, and the blackbirds the number of hours in a day; or, as the authors indicate, the blackbirds have been seen as an allusion to monks during the period of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, with Catherine of Aragon representing the queen, and Anne Boleyn the maid. The rye and the birds have been seen to represent a tribute sent to Henry VII, and on another level, the term “pocketful of rye” may in fact refer to an older term of measurement. The number 24 has been tied to the Reformation and the printing of the English Bible with 24 letters. From a folklorish tradition, the blackbird taking the maid’s nose has been seen as a demon stealing her soul