Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 3 November 2022

Soul Cakes and Funeral Biscuits

Yesterday was All Souls Day and November is traditionally the Month of the Holy Souls.

With this in mind I posted in 2020 about the custom of giving out soul cakes in return for the promise of prayers for the departed in Commemorating All Saints and All Souls

That post has a series of links to online articles which show how prayers for the dead and their remembrance was closely woven into medieval traditional and Catholic culture. The living and the dead co-existed in ways that are now remote for many. As a sign of that integration there were seasonal foods and some of the links are to surviving recipes. One of those is to Tasting History which offers both a recipe as well as a history of soul cakes and that can still be seen at Soul Cakes & Trick-or-Treating

This year to mark the season of All Souls that always interesting blog looks at another appropriate type of confectionary in funeral biscuits, and at the linked tradition of the Sin Eater. The video can be seen at Sin Eaters & Funeral Biscuits

The Sin Eater appears to be a tradition associated with the Welsh Marches, or at least one which endured there longest. It may reflect a residual Catholic piety about Purgatory in a region where reforming zeal had made less headway.

The video gives several interesting examples of this custom, but does not include that recorded in Anne Hughes’ The Diary of a Farmer’s Wife 1796 -1797. When I saw that dramatised on television in 1978 it was the first time I had come across the ideas of the Sin Eater. The diary is set, like the other instances, in the Welsh borders. Having said that I am fully aware that the authenticity of the book is a debatable matter as is explained, with references in the Wikipedia article at The Diary of a Farmer's Wife 1796–1797

John Aubrey, in the story cited from his writings in the video, appears to record a residual legacy of such a tradition in seventeenth century Oxfordshire with the gift of cake and ale to the officiating clergyman in the porch after a funeral. That may suggest it was not, or had not been, just a custom exclusive to the Welsh Marches.

As I suggested two years ago maybe churches could take a lead and give out soul cakes after Mass this time of year to revive the custom, and families could counterbalance the modern commercialisation of the season into “Trick or treat” by sharing soul cakes with friends and neighbours. 

Handing out wrapped gingerbreads to invite someone to a funeral might however go down less well in this death-denying age. However if you want to try there is the recipe online.

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