Special Halloween treats mark a medieval tradition for ‘Soul Cakes.’ Image provided by English Heritage.
Special Halloween treats mark a medieval tradition for ‘Soul Cakes.’ Image provided by English Heritage.

13 lucky historic sites celebrate Halloween

4 min


Special Halloween treats mark a medieval tradition for ‘Soul Cakes’

From Framlingham Castle in Suffolk to Scarborough Castle in North Yorkshire, a lucky (or should that read ‘unlucky’ – Ed) 13 sites across the country open their historic doors to trick or treaters this Halloween.

English Heritage were able to celebrate the spooky tidings of the year by treating visitors who knocked on the doors of their castles, palaces and abbeys to a special Halloween treat.

In the medieval tradition, the charity will be treating those who knock to a ‘Soul Cake.’ The pastry is a small, round spiced cake which was made to celebrate (and commemorate) the dead.

The baked item is the equivalent to our modern day pumpkins and synthetic cobwebs.

Believed to be a precursor to modern trick or treating: ‘souling’ was an activity which took place, particularly during the medieval period, around Halloween and All Souls’ Day.

People would go from door to door singing and saying prayers for the souls of the treat givers, their friends and deceased relatives. The deal was they would receive a ‘soul cake’ in exchange. 

A Soul Cake was also known as a soulmass-cake. It was a small round cake and similar to a biscuit. It was traditionally made using oats. Experts say it may have been spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger, as well as raisins or currants.

English Heritage revives the historic tradition by re-creating the medieval sweet treat and handing out Soul Cakes to trick or treaters who knock at 13 of its sites after hours.

All Halloween Day: baking (and breaking) bread for souls

‘I’m sure that many assume Halloween traditions are pure Americanisms, but in fact we know that the tradition of Souls Cakes in the British Isles is very old indeed!’ says Dr Michael Carter, Senior Properties Historian at English Heritage.

‘Even in 1511 it is said, we read in old time good people would on All Halloween Day bake bread and deal it for all Christian souls.’

The charity explains how the tradition has great religious significance as All Souls’ Day was once regarded as one of the great holy days of medieval Europe.

It was a way of affirming the bonds between the living and the dead. It was considered to be a chance to say a prayers to release souls from the pains of purgatory. The act was considered to be a great act of charity.

Soul Cakes were believed to have been made using oats and possibly spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger along with raisins. Image by Jim Holden and provided courtesy of English Heritage.

But the popularity of the tradition even continues to the 20th-century where groups would continue to go ‘souling.’

‘Today’s trick or treating definitely bears resemblance to that tradition of old, and I hope people will knock on our doors to try them – they’re inspired by history and perfect with a cup of tea!’ adds Michael.

It is believed by some that Halloween has its origin in a pre-Christian festival that marked the start of winter.

The belief comes from the notion that the boundary between the worlds of living and dead becomes blurred and souls were said to revisit their homes.

Honouring saints and martyrs

In the era of Christianity, this tradition became absorbed into the celebration of All Saints Day, held on 1 November, dedicated to honouring all saints and martyrs.

The 2 November became All Souls’ Day, a day to honour the dead, and here many existing traditions, such as bonfires, parades and dressing up in costume, may have blurred with Christian celebrations.

All Saints’ Day was also known as All-Hallows, and from this the night before came to be referred to as All-Hallows Eve.

From this term derived the name ‘Halloween’, the name for the beginnings of the festival that was celebrated across Europe in the early Middle Ages, and stuck even as the religious celebrations fell out of favour in later centuries.

Soul Cakes are available at 13 English Heritage sites while they last, and as well as the free Trick or Treat sessions.

For more information, please visit: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk

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