This Halloween, there’s a unique twist on the classic “trick or treat” – instead of tricks, you may receive a delicious oat-based biscuit and potentially help release souls from purgatory.
This weekend, English Heritage is bringing back the medieval custom of souling. This involves going door to door, singing and reciting prayers for the souls in return for a small round pastry known as a soul cake or soulmass-cake.
Guests at 13 locations throughout England, ranging from Tynemouth Priory to St Mawes Castle, have the opportunity to request a soul cake after closing time as a token to honor the deceased, while supplies last.
According to Michael Carter, a senior historian at English Heritage, the scheme is an enjoyable method of shedding light on history and may pleasantly surprise individuals.
According to him, people often believe that Halloween traditions are purely American. However, the custom of trick-or-treating is actually a combination of ancient traditions, dating back to the 14th century, where people would go from door to door asking for treats.
The practice of souling may have originated around 1000 AD. Carter refers to a manuscript written by a canon at Lilleshall Abbey in Shropshire in 1400, which mentions the tradition as a way to save souls from purgatory.
In Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, there is a mention of “like a beggar at Hallowmas.” In the late 17th century, John Aubrey observed that in Shropshire, it was customary, regardless of religious affiliation, to stack a tall pile of soule cakes on a table for visitors to take. The tradition included reciting the rhyme, “a soule cake, a soule cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soule cake.”
The exact date when souling ceased to occur is a topic of discussion. According to Carter, there are accounts of it happening in certain areas of Sheffield until the 1990s, but it was not fully comprehended by those participating. It is possible that this tradition still continues today, and Carter is interested in learning more about it.
According to available information, there is no clear indication of the exact flavor of a soul cake. However, it is believed that they were closer in texture to biscuits rather than cakes and were typically prepared with oats and possibly flavored with nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon. Some variations may have also included raisins or currants, which have been incorporated into English Heritage’s 2023 rendition.
The tradition of soul cakes sheds light on a history that is often misunderstood by children who participate in trick or treating, and even by past generations who used to carve turnips and request money from door to door.
English Heritage explained that the holiday of Halloween is thought to have originated from a festival before Christianity, which signified the beginning of winter. This was a time when people believed the line between the living and the dead was less distinct, and it was said that the spirits of the deceased would return to their homes.
During the time of Christianity, the custom merged with the observance of All Saints’ Day, during which saints and martyrs were honored on November 1st. Similarly, November 2nd became All Souls’ Day, a day dedicated to honoring the deceased. It is possible that preexisting traditions such as bonfires and costumes may have intertwined with Christian festivities.
Carter’s desire is for people to have a curiosity to learn more. He strongly believes that individuals are more likely to absorb knowledge if they find it enjoyable.
It is suitable for castles, palaces, and abbeys to participate as well. He stated, “These are the types of locations where individuals would traditionally seek shelter and anticipate receiving aid or generosity.”
The cakes will be offered at 13 locations during either the hours of 4pm to 5pm or 5pm to 6pm, from October 28th to October 31st.
To create your own soul cake:
300g plain flour
2 teaspoons of a blend of spices.
A small amount of nutmeg
150g butter, diced
150g caster sugar
Two egg yolks (or one whole beaten egg)
2 tbsp milk
1 tbsp oats
½ tbsp cider vinegar
Heat the oven to 180C (356F), with the fan at 160C (320F) or gas mark 4. Sift the flour, spices, and a small amount of salt into a bowl, then use your fingers to incorporate the butter. Add in the oats, currants, and sugar and mix together.
Combine the egg, milk, and cider vinegar until well mixed, then mix in with the dry ingredients. Form a soft dough and add additional milk if needed for a moist consistency.
Roll out the dough on a surface dusted with flour until it is approximately 5mm thick. Use a round cutter with a diameter of 6cm to 7cm to cut out the soul cakes and lightly score a cross on the top. Place the cakes on two greased baking trays.
Bake between 15 and 25 minutes, until the edges are a light golden brown. Allow to cool on a wire rack.