24 and “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 the 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.
Along came a blackbird
And snipped off her nose.

This nursery rhyme is a little disturbing and its “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”, refer to a14th-century amusement which consisted in placing live birds in a pie, as a form of entremet. This peculiar tradition was related by an Italian cook of the period, Giovanni de Roselli, who wrote “Live birds were slipped into a baked pie shell through a hole cut in its bottom.”

Entremets, a French word meaning “between servings”, originally were elaborate forms of entertainment dishes common among the nobility and upper middle class in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period. They were popular in wealthy banquets as a sign of luxury, an opportunity for the hosts to show off their opulence.
Initially they were highly coloured preparations, such as scale castles, caricatures of knights or battle scenes, but then the idea came of covering live animals or birds with a pastry shell so that once the upper crust was cut the entrapped birds would fly out.

In “The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes” (1951), we read that the poem was tied to a variety of historical events or folkloric symbols and the twenty-four blackbirds could stand for the hours in the day, with the king representing the sun and the queen the moon.

The blackbirds may also represent an allusion to monks during the period of the dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, with Catherine of Aragon personifying the queen, and Anne Boleyn the maid hanging out the clothes. The pecking of the nose may be her eventual execution.

In addition, the number 24 has been tied to the Reformation and the printing of the English Bible with the 24 letters of the alphabet at the time.

Canta una canzone per sei penny,
una tasca piena di segale
Ventiquattro merli
Cotti al forno in una torta

Quando la torta fu aperta
i merli cominciarono a cantare
Non era un piatto delizioso
Da servire a un re?

Il re era nel suo ufficio
A contare il suo denaro
La regina nel suo salotto da ricevimento
A mangiare pane e miele

La serva era nel giardino
A stendere gli abiti
Arrivò un merlo
E le mozzò il suo naso

(L.Z.)

22 thoughts on “24 and “Sing a Song of Sixpence”

  1. Mia madre ha sempre cantato questa canzone a me e ai miei fratelli e io l’ho cantata ai miei figli. Ci sono anche delle azioni con le mani che l’accompagnano e alla fine ci prendeva il naso tra il pollice e l’indice e faceva finta di toglierlo come fa il merlo alla serva!

    Liked by 1 person

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