Oct 312015


Today begins Allhallowtide. Allhallowtide, Hallowtide, Allsaintstide, or the Hallowmas season, is the triduum encompassing the Western Christian observances of All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en), All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’) and All Souls’ Day, and runs from October 31 to November 2. Allhallowtide is primarily a time to remember the dead. The present date of Hallowmas (All Saints’ Day) and thus also of its vigil (Hallowe’en) was established by Pope Gregory III (731-741) and was made a time of obligation throughout the Frankish Empire by Louis the Pious in 835.

The Christian attitude towards the death of martyrs is first exemplified in the New Testament, which records that after the beheading of St. John the Baptist, his disciples respectfully buried him. Stephen was likewise “given a Christian burial by his fellow-Christians after he had been stoned to death by a mob.” Two of the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers, Ephrem the Syrian and John Chrysostom, wrote about the importance of honoring the dead; the theologian Herman Heuser writes that in the early Church, the feast days of the martyrs were local observances, with churches being built on those sites where their blood was shed. Frances Stewart Mossier explains that this changed during the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, saying that:

This arrangement worked very well at first, but soon there were more martyrs than there were days in the year, and so one day was set apart in honor of them all, and called All Saints’ Day. This took place about the year A.D. 610. The day of the year on which the festival first occurred was the first of May, and it was not till two hundred years after that it was changed to Nov. 1, the day we now observe. The Christians of those times were in the habit of sending the night before All Saints’ Day in thinking over the good and helpful lives of those in whose honor the day was kept and in praying that they might be like them. Services were held in the churches, and candles and incense burned before the pictures and statues of the saints. It was to them one of the holiest, most significant days of all the year.

Following the establishment of All Hallows’ Day and its vigil, All Hallows’ Eve in the 8th century, Odilo of Cluny established a day to pray for All Souls (all the dead, not just martyrs), forming the third day of the triduum of Allhallowtide.


All Hallows’ Eve (today) is the first day of Allhallowtide. According to some scholars, the Christian Church absorbed some Celtic practices associated with the Celtic celebration of Samhain, a day associated with the lifting of barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead. The idea was to Christianize the celebration in order to ease the Celts’ conversion to Christianity. But other scholars, including myself, maintain that the Christian observance of All Hallows’ Eve arose completely independently of Samhain. However, some aspects of the two celebrations have merged. All Hallows’ Eve was not originally associated with witches and ghosts, but Samhain was, and are now part of Hallowe’en.

The Christian Church traditionally observed Hallowe’en through a vigil when worshippers would prepare themselves with prayers and fasting prior to the feast day itself. This church service is known as the Vigil of All Hallows or the Vigil of All Saints. After the service, suitable festivities and entertainments often follow, as well as a visit to the graveyard or cemetery, where flowers and candles are often placed in preparation for All Saints’ Day (All Hallows).


Allhallowtide is associated with a number of sweet cakes worldwide. Today when I was grocery shopping (in Mantua) I came across these pan dei morti – a kind of raisin filled soft biscuit laced with ginger and sweet spices.


A soul cake is a small round cake which is traditionally made for All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day to commemorate the dead in the Christian tradition. The cakes, often simply referred to as souls, are given out to soulers (mainly consisting of children and the poor) who go from door to door during the days of Allhallowtide singing and saying prayers “for the souls of the givers and their friends”. The practice in England dates to the medieval period, and was continued there until the 1930s, by both Protestants and Catholics. The practice of giving and eating soul cakes continues in some countries today, such as Portugal (where it is known as Pão-por-Deus), and in other countries, it is seen as the origin of the practice of trick-or-treating. In Lancashire and in the North-east of England they are also known as Harcakes. The tradition of giving soul cakes was celebrated in Britain or Ireland during the Middle Ages, although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy.


The cakes were usually filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger or other sweet spices, raisins or currants, and before baking were topped with the mark of a cross to signify that these were alms. They were traditionally set out with glasses of wine on All Hallows’ Eve as an offering for the dead, and on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day children would go “souling”, or ritually begging for cakes door to door. In 1891, Rev. M. P. Holme of Tattenhall, Cheshire, recorded the song traditionally sung during souling, from a little girl at the local school. Two years later, the text and tune were published by folklorist Lucy Broadwood, who commented that souling was still practiced at that time in Cheshire and Shropshire. Other versions of the traditional soul-cake song were collected in various parts of England until the 1950s. The Watersons recorded one in 1965 on their album Frost and Fire, which was immensely popular among folkies of my generation.

Here’s a recipe for soul cakes from Shropshire


Shropshire Soul Cakes


2 ½ cups (340 g) all-purpose flour, sifted
¾ cup (170 g) granulated sugar
¾ cup (170 g) butter
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp allspice
¼ tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
2 tsp of apple cider vinegar


Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles cornmeal. You can do this very quickly by pulsing the ingredients in a food processor.

Add the egg and vinegar and mix with a wooden spoon until it all comes together into a ball. Cover the bowl and chill for at least 20 minutes.

Lightly flour a clean, flat surface and roll the dough out to ¼-inch thickness. Cut into large rounds using a cookie cutter. Cut or press a cross shape into the cakes. Place the cakes on to the baking sheets and press raisins into the top of the cakes, if desired. Gather the scraps together and roll again until all the dough has been cut into cakes.

Bake, one sheet at a time, for 12-15 minutes, or until the cake tops are lightly golden.

Yield: 24 cakes

Nov 022014


Today is All Souls, the last of a trio of days, Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls, associated with honoring departed souls. One year I will get round to talking about them, but this year I want to celebrate All Souls College at Oxford, officially, “The Warden and the College of the Souls of All Faithful People Deceased in the University of Oxford,” certainly the oddest college at the university, and maybe at any university.

There are no undergraduate members of the college, and all of its members automatically become fellows (full members of the College’s governing body). Each year, recent graduates of Oxford and other universities are eligible to apply for Examination Fellowships through a competitive examination and interview process (once described as “the hardest exam in the world”).


The College was founded by Henry VI of England and Henry Chichele (fellow of New College and Archbishop of Canterbury), in 1438. The Statutes provided for the Warden and forty fellows – all to take Holy Orders; twenty-four to study arts, philosophy and theology; and sixteen to study civil or canon law. The College’s Codrington Library, completed in 1751, was built through the bequest of Christopher Codrington, one time governor of the Leeward Islands. Today the College is primarily a graduate research institution supported by its endowment.

Although the college now has no undergraduate members, there were times when it did, especially in the early 17th century, on the instigation of Robert Hovenden (Warden of the college from 1571 to 1614), in order to provide the fellows with servientes (household servants). The admission of undergraduates for this purpose was abandoned in the 19th century, although four Bible Clerks remained on the foundation until 1924.


The chapel was built between 1438 and 1442 and remained largely unchanged until the Commonwealth. Oxford, having been a largely Royalist stronghold, suffered under the Puritans’ wrath. The 42 misericords date from the Chapel’s building, and show a resemblance to the misericords at Higham Ferrers. Both may have been carved by Richard Tyllock.

Christopher Wren was a fellow from 1653, and in 1658 produced a sundial. This was originally placed on the South wall of the Chapel, until it was moved to the quadrangle (above the central entrance to the Codrington Library) in 1877. During the 1660’s a screen was installed in the Chapel, which was based on a design by Wren. However, this screen needed to be rebuilt by 1713. By the mid-19th century the Chapel was in great need of renovation, and so the current structure is heavily influenced by Victorian architectural ideals.

Around 500 Oxford undergraduates who have received a first class honors degree, and students from other universities with equivalent results during the previous three years, are eligible to apply for Examination Fellowships (sometimes informally referred to as “Prize Fellowships”) of seven years each. Several dozen typically do so (although this figure has climbed steeply in recent years). Two examination fellows are usually elected each year, although the college has awarded a single place in previous years, and made no award on rare occasions.

The competition, offered since 1878 and open to women since 1979, takes place over two days in late September, with two examinations of three hours each per day. Two are on subjects of the candidates’ choice. Options include Classics, English Literature, Economics, History, Law, Philosophy, and Politics. Candidates who choose Classics as their subject have an additional translation examination on a third day.Two are on general subjects. For each general examination candidates choose from a list of three questions, such as:

“‘If a man could say nothing against a character but what he could prove, history could not be written’ (Samuel Johnson). Discuss.”

“Should the Orange Prize for Fiction be open to both men and women?”

“Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?”

Before 2010, candidates also faced another examination, a free-form essay on a single, pre-selected word. This has since been discontinued, much to the dismay of many members of the university at large. Oxford entrance examinations in general usually have a few questions that are a bit off the wall and are meant to test your wit and imagination as well as intellect. For my entrance exams I did some standard papers, such as European history, Greek and Latin translation, and Latin composition. But there was a fourth on general topics. One question that got me especially high marks was “Why do crosswords?” (the English cryptic kind).


Essay words for the All Souls exam have included, water, style, integrity, innocence, and bias. This essay was dropped because the examiners felt that it was not a good test of the candidates’ potential to pursue worthwhile research. I find this a little hard to fathom given that undergraduate education at Oxford (certainly in my time), tends to be on the narrow side, and the one-word essay was a chance for the examiners to see a broader side of the candidates. Four to six finalists are invited to a viva (oral exam), then dinner with about 75 members of the college. The dinner, in theory, does not form part of the assessment, but is supposed to be simply a reward for those candidates who have reached the latter stages of the selection process. However, a friend of mine, who was a fellow for many years, told me that the candidates are informally judged on their quality as dinner companions. Whether this is decisive or not, I do not know. During this discussion he also passed on a legend that at one time the dessert was cherry pie – a test to see what the candidates did with the pits.

About one dozen Examination Fellows are at the college at any one time. There are no compulsory teaching or research requirements; they can study anything for free at Oxford with room and board provided. As “Londoners” they can pursue approved non-academic careers if desired, with a reduced stipend, as long as they pursue academia on a part-time basis and attend weekend dinners at the college during their first academic year. As of 2011 each Examination Fellow receives a stipend of £14,842 annually for the first two years; the stipend then varies depending on whether the fellow pursues an academic career.


Every hundred years, and generally on 14 January, there is a commemorative feast after which the fellows parade around the College with flaming torches, singing the Mallard Song and led by a “Lord Mallard” who is carried in a chair, in search of a legendary mallard that supposedly flew out of the foundations of the college when it was being built. During the hunt the Lord Mallard is preceded by a man bearing a pole to which a mallard is tied – originally a live bird, latterly either dead (1901) or carved from wood (2001). The last mallard ceremony was in 2001 and the next will be held in 2101. The precise origin of the custom is not known but it dates from at least 1632, when the archbishop of Canterbury chastised the fellows for drunken rioting at the feast.


Here’s a sterling English recipe for cherry pie. Make sure you include the pits!