Soul Cake and Souling

Soul, soul, a soul cake!
I pray thee, good missus, a soul cake!
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him what made us all!
Soul cake, soul cake, please good missus, a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry, anything good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, one for Paul, and three for Him who made us all.

All Souls’ Day is one of the feast days of the Roman Catholic Church. All Souls is observed on November 2. Special prayers are offered for the deceased souls in Purgatory, believed to be waiting. All Souls follows All Saints Day on November 1, the day on which the saints in heaven are commemorated under the assumption that the souls languishing in purgatory should also be remembered and prayed for. All Souls’ was established by Abbot Odilo of Cluny (d. 1049) and  was widely celebrated by the 13th century. All Souls’ is also known as Soulmas Day or Saumas.

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, it was common in England and the British Isles for people to give food and alms to the poor on All Souls’ Day with the assumption that the food was recompense for praying for the dead. In the 17th century John Aubrey1)John Aubrey. Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. 1686–87. Ed. James Britten. London: The Folklore Society, 1880. 23. describes piles of small cakes set out on All Souls’ in Shropshire houses; visitors to the house would take a soul cake with the understanding that they would pray for the souls of the departed family members. The idea is that the prayers assist the departed souls in purgatory to move on to Heaven. Aubrey offers two lines of a lyric he describes as “an old Rhythm or saying”:

A Soule-cake, a Soule-cake,
Have mercy on all Christen soules for a Soule-cake.

Aubrey’s reference is to a traditional lyric performed by “mummers,” people going house to house and singing on November 2, the Feast of All Souls, the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed, or in Latin commemoratio omnium fidelium Defunctorum, in hopes that the mistress of the house would reward them with a soul cake. The soul cake, as suggested by Aubrey’s reference, is a small round cake that was typically made with oats as well as flour, and seasoned with spices and dried fruits. The mummers or singers would be rewarded for praying with the soul cakes. The cakes and the custom of distributing them to visitors date back to the Middle Ages in England. The practice of going house to house and singing is called “souling” and is frequently cited as an analogue if not an ancestor of modern day Halloween trick or treat. Souling seems to have been a fairly localized custom until the 19th century, primarily associated with Shropshire, north Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire.

There are genuine medieval recipes for soul cakes but they’re generally not very tasty. Like many medieval desserts, historic soul cake recipes tend to be over indulgent with respect to spices for modern tastes. Later recipes, especially those from the 18th century, are much more like a modern slightly spicy scone with dried fruit.

Here is a modernized version of a recipe from the English recipe compilation referred to as Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book. The original recipe from 1604 is as follows:

Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barme, beat your spice, & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together, & make it in little cakes, & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them and fruit.

There’s a modern version of the recipe here that was featured on The Food Network.

These days the song is better known than the custom of souling. Here’s Sting on the David Letterman Show, singing the Soul Cake song, with the traditional melody, and some lovely but not quite so ancient additional lyrics. The song is from Sting’s If On a Winter’s Night album of seasonal music for Winter.

References   [ + ]

1. John Aubrey. Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. 1686–87. Ed. James Britten. London: The Folklore Society, 1880. 23.