2 November: All Souls' Day

A Soul Cake ! A Soul Cake!
pray good missus for a soul cake!
An apple or pear a plum or a cherry
Any good thing, to make us merry.

Traditional Rhyme

I'm away this week, but it's All Souls wherever you are. Back to normal next week.

‘All Souls Day’ or the ‘Commemoration of the Faithful Departed’ is the day when Catholics specifically remember the souls of the dead condemned to purgatory – that intermediate state between death and judgement.

In the pre-reformation Church, the night before All Souls was marked by prayers for the dead, followed by all night bell ringing in order to comfort the souls in purgatory. That interests me. Surely if that is the case, the dead souls must actually be able hear the bells and therefore must be temporarily released back to earth. All of which all seems to tie in very neatly with the Pagan belief that spirits are abroad at this turn of the year.

After the Reformation the new Protestant Church didn’t hold with purgatory and attempted to suppress All Souls Day. However of all the changes to the liturgical calendar brought in in the sixteenth century, this practice proved the most difficult to abolish. Not surprisingly people wanted to remember their dead in the traditional way. There is even an account of a fight at Hickling in Nottinghamshire in 1587 when the men of the village ‘used violence against the parson at that time to maintain their ringing.’ (Hutton p 372)

A peal of church bells being rung in a 17th-century woodcut Photo: The Stapleton Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library

In Britain – particularly in Wales and the north, the traditional way to celebrate this Feast was to go ‘souling.’ That is to go from door to door begging for a soul cake from the housewife, who would hopefully give it out of piety and supplication for her dead loved ones.

Soul cakes may also have been given to the priest as a thank you gift for saying a mass for a particular soul in purgatory. As John Aubrey says in his 'Remaines of
Gentilisme' published in 1686:

'soule-cakes lying upon one another like the picture of sew-bread in the old bibles. They are about 2d of bignesse and all 
visitants that day take one. This custome is continued to this time'

'Showbread' was a consecrated unleavened bread that sat on an altar in the Jewish Temple and was only consumable by a priest - so Aubrey may be unconsciously giving us a hint as to their origin. Alternatively and earlier John Mirk’s ‘Festial’ a collection of sermons published about 1400 says '… wherefore
 in olden time good men and women would this day buy bread and deal it for the souls that they loved, hoping with each loaf to get a soul out of purgatory.' I wonder what 'olden time' was in 1400?

So what is a soul cake? Thomas Blount’s Glossographia’ (1674) calls them 'Soul Mass Cakes’ and says they are ‘a kind of oat cake’. An internet search produces numerous so-called authentic versions. There’s really no way of knowing and in any case I’m sure the recipe changed depending on where they were made. I think it likely they were a flat cake maybe yeasted, maybe not. In Wales they were a sort of autumnal hot cross bun.

My soul cakes are a biscuit, cut in the shape of a bell, marked with a cross and presented as Aubrey suggests lying upon one another. A peel of soul cakes in fact.

Soul Cakes

6oz butter

10oz caster sugar
1 egg and 1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla essence
grated rind of a lemon
10oz plain flour
Oven 180c
Cream the butter and sugar until white and fluffy, beat in the egg, the yolk, the lemon rind and the vanilla. Sieve in the flour and mix to a soft dough. ( I did the first part in my mixer and the second by hand) Chill for at least 30 minutes. Roll out as thin as you dare - about 1/8". Cut into the desired shape and mark with a cross. Bake for 8 minutes until just colouring. It didn't feel appropriate to brown them. Cool on a wire rack.

These are lovely with a cup of tea, or if you are my Mum with a G &T at about one o'clock.

‘Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
And may a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night,
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come…’

From: ‘All Souls’ Night’ by W. B Yeats (1865-1939)


Gerry Snape said...

this is a new custom on me Liz. But very apropriate after my search for the long dead relatives this last week. Thankyou.

Liz said...

Thanks Gerry. It sounds as though you might be a family history person too? - it was my obsession before I started this blog...

kate said...

lovely post Liz. I tend to celebrate the night before - it was my mothers custom to tune in to the dead when the veil was thin. I raise a glass of whisky to her every year on Hallowe'en in the hope that the veil is thin enough to let a little drop pass through! Kx

Choclette said...

A peel of biscuit bells, I like it. As usual with your posts, I've learnt something - great stuff.