Following the British obsession with cakes through 1,200 years of history.
By Dr. Ben Gazur
Biochemist and Journalist
The United Kingdom is a nation of cake munchers, and there are few celebrations that are not marked by the baking and consumption of some form of cake. To most people, cakes are no more than a sweet treat, but in the past many confections had folkloric powers of prediction, protection and the power to effect miraculous cures. Ben Gazur follows the British obsession with cakes through 1,200 years of history.
The Venerable Bede, writing in 725 CE, recorded that what we now call February was once named Sol-Monath, or Solmōnaþ – the Month of Cakes. This was the time when the ancient Britons offered up cakes to their gods. These religious offerings were the sort of hearth-cakes King Alfred the Great is said to have burned through his inattention.
The coming of Christianity did not remove cakes from religious rites. Pilgrimage was a key part of worship in the medieval church. Many pilgrims bought expensive badges to mark their pilgrimage, but there were cheaper alternatives, such as pilgrimage cakes, which may also have been believed to have healing powers, thanks to their association with saints. In Wales, the Aberffraw Biscuit, shaped like the shells linked to St James, may have arrived via pilgrimage from Santiago de Compostela.
Those who did not want to venture far on pilgrimage could simply pop round to their neighbour’s home for a holy cake. At Allhallowtide (comprised of Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day), groups of carollers known as Soulers would visit homes and sing in return for a soul cake. These were marked with a cross, and in return for the cakes the Soulers promised to pray for the souls of those in Purgatory.
Cakes with images on could also have secular meanings. Hard biscuits stamped with the image of conjoined twins were given out in the village of Biddenden each year at Easter. Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst are said to have been born in Biddenden in 1100 CE. When they died, they left 20 acres of land to the Church to provide food for the poor, which later included these biscuits with their image on. These strange cakes were rarely eaten but treasured as curiosities.
Hot cross buns are a quintessentially British Easter food. These buns, marked with a cross, traditionally date from the 14th century in St Albans. Among the folklore associated with these buns is that they never go mouldy because of their holy nature, they will prevent fires in a kitchen, and when grated into a drink will cure many illnesses. Several old hot cross buns can be found in museum collections across Britain which, though somewhat stale, do not appear to have gone mouldy.
Cakes that did not go mouldy must have seemed to have a magic all of their own. In a widely reported custom from the 19th century, special cakes could be found hanging behind doors. These witch cakes were baked rock solid and dried in the oven – they were not meant to be eaten. Witch cakes were an example of apotropaic magic in that they were thought to keep witches and other supernatural evil-doers out of the house. Witch cakes were easy to make, easy to replace, and offered magical protection with a minimum of fuss. How the spikes on the cake kept evil out is not recorded.
Of course, most cakes associated with folklore were meant to be consumed. Giving groaning cakes was a widespread practice where rich fruit cakes were given to women who had just given birth. These cakes were no doubt a welcome source of nutrition and energy, but they also served in several folklore practices. Slices of these cakes were given to unmarried women to place under their pillows because they were thought to bring on dreams of a person’s future spouse.
Folklore can be fun, and food folklore can be deliciously mischievous. By medieval times, it had become the tradition that on the twelfth night following Christmas Day, a special cake was made with a bean inside. The person who was lucky enough to get the slice with the bean was crowned as the Lord of Misrule for the evening. These merry monarchs decided the games and activities of the feast.
While Twelfth Night was once one of the major days of the Christmas season, today most of its traditions have migrated to Christmas Day itself. One of the most exciting (if dangerous, due to the choking hazard) bits of folklore was the hiding of charms inside the Christmas pudding. Many families stirred a silver sixpence into the pudding. Whoever got the coin was destined for a year of riches. Other charms were sometimes added: a silver wishbone meant good luck, a thimble stood for thrift, and an anchor for safety.
Folklore is an ever-evolving thing. Customs and traditions fall out of favour, but new ones emerge all the time. One modern piece of folklore related to birthday cakes sees them decorated with small candles, one for every year of a person’s life. If they can all be blown out in a single breath, then whatever you wish for will come true – especially if your wish is for a slice of cake.