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A Soul Cake for All Hallows’ Eve

Posted on: 31/10/2013 with tags: All Hallows' Eve, An Appetite for Violets, food, Food Historian, Food History, halloween, historical fiction, history, Martine Bailey, Soul Cakes

It is the end of October, the fields are bare, the leaves have been blown from the trees, and the nights are growing longer. The darkness is coming. At this time of year we celebrate the end of summer and the cycle of death and rebirth. From as far back as anyone can remember, on one special night we gather together to share food and drink, play tricks and games. It is a time to connect with our ancestors, and honor the dead.

In my home county of Cheshire this gathering has long had a unique name – Souling or Soul-caking. My debut novel AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS begins on Souling Night, a time when mischief is rife and the world can turn upside down. It is 1774 and the household is baking to welcome a band of mummers with blackened faces and outlandish costumes who demand entry at the door and sing:

A soul, a soul, a soul-cake,

Please good missus, a soul cake…’

Later they perform a mumming play in return for food and drink. Just how old Cheshire Souling might be is suggested by the ritual of a horse’s head led by a man in a white sheet, a performance called ‘hodening’, which is thought to be an echo of the Norse god Odin. Other characters can include a Hero, Saint George or King George, a Blackamoor or Saladin, Kings, Fools, Devils, and a Doctor who magically brings the hero back to life in a way that echoes many rituals of death and renewal. The rhyming couplets of the play are passed on orally, so characters emerge like ‘Bellsie Bob’, a corruption of ‘Beelzebub’. But then none of it is serious – it’s about slapstick, taunting, and free-flowing beer.

So what are soul cakes and why are they handed out? Even in the fourteenth century the idea of Soul Cakes was ancient, as John Mirk wrote in Festial,wherefore in olden time good men and women would this day buy bread and deal (give) it for the souls that they loved, hoping with each loaf to get a soul out of purgatory’.

In pre-Reformation England these cakes were given to the poor as alms to try to free dead souls from Purgatory. Later, in one of those mingling of pagan and Christian traditions, the poor village Soulers conferred a blessing on rich households in return for food and drink – suggesting the rich had better pay up or risk a bad harvest, or worse.

Surviving recipes for Soul Cakes vary, but they are generally small, round, spicy and sweet. Sugar and spice and dried fruit were for centuries the mark of festival food, a welcome relief from bland everyday food. Recipes describe a ‘cross’ design that hints at two crossed bones rather than a crucifix.

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Martine marking crosses in her soul cakes.

When I baked them as research for AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS they were quite delicious spiced biscuits. An ancient ‘serving suggestion’ from a pre-literate age was to lay the cakes ‘in a tall heap like the picture of the Shew Bread in the Bible’.

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A table full of Shew Bread.

These days a few groups of Cheshire Soulers keep the ritual alive and next weekend I’ll be watching a performance in a local pub. On Souling Night (or All Hallows’ Eve or Hallowe’en) it seems history does indeed live, in our instinct to walk the streets in outlandish costumes and eat and drink special foods, and bless or curse (trick or treat) our neighbours … 

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Soul-Cakers in 1920s Helsby, Cheshire.

Martine Bailey’s debut novel, AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS, will be published by Hodder and Stoughton in May 2014.

Amy Dolman

Post author: Amy Dolman

Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient; Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave; Upcoming book i'm most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

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