Medieval Mummers


In the late Middle Ages theologians tried to keep All Saints and All Souls strictly apart. But traditions like souling and the distribution of soul-cakes helped to fuse the feasts…

All Saints

The feast for all Saints has very early roots. In the period immediately after 313 when the church was legalised a common commemoration of the martyrs and saints was instituted. At that time it was celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Both St. Ephrem (d. 373) and St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) attest to this feast day in their sermons. At that time it seemed appropriate. Many of the early martyrs had died together; further there were not enough days in the year to go around. Some time in the 8th century the celebration was moved to the autumn, which was otherwise devoid of large feasts. Thus Bede (d. 735) recorded the celebration of all Saints on the 1st of November in England. A hundred years later Pope Gregory IV appointed the this day as All Saints Day and asked Louis the Pious to proclaim this throughout the Carolingian Empire. However, it was not until the beginning of the new millennium the 1st of November was formally established throughout the church

 All Souls

The feast of All Souls developed alongside All Saints as a day for commemorating all the dead (and not just the saints and martyrs). This was instigated by abbot Odilio of Cluny in the beginning of the 11th century when he decreed for all the Cluniac monasteries that special masses and prayers should be offered for all the departed souls.

Popular Traditions

In the beginning the two feast were deliberately placed one after the other. In the later Middle Ages the mingling of the two church feasts was met with consternation of theologians. All Souls was simply too much coupled with popular beliefs and traditions. All over the Western Church kin groups began to visit graves, place candles or light bonfires as well as (in some parts of Eastern Europe) partake of meals on the graves. To what extent these traditions were rooted in ancient pagan customs and thus represented reinvented traditions is not known. But they became widely popular. Added to this was the direct giving of alms in order to buy indulgence for the deceased (as opposed to almsgiving in context of the church).

Medieval Souling

It was believed that for every piece of bread given to the poor a soul could be redeemed from the fire of Hell.

The medieval preacher, John Mirk mentions this tradition of “souling” as old in a sermon from around 1380 – “… wherefore in olden time good men and women would this day buy bread and deal [give] it for the souls that they loved, hoping with each loaf to get a soul out of purgatory”. (John Mirk’s Festial: edited from British Library MS Cotton Claudius A.II. Susan Powell ed, British Library, Early English Text Society, Oxford University Press 2009, p. 270)

Ringing of Bells

Another tradition was the ringing of bells on the night of All Saints, which was thought to bring joy to the poor souls in the purgatory. Both traditions were some of the more tenacious after the reformation and lingered on in many places, even while other traditions were abolished and suppressed by Puritans and Calvinists. Lutherans, though, kept the celebration of All Saints (with its church traditions), but tried to abolish the festivities and traditions connected with All Souls. It stands to reason though that the traditions were kept faithfully in the Catholic Church, where belief in the existence of a purgatory is still a part of the official church dogmatics.

Romantic Revival

However, at the beginning of the 19th century the German romantically inspired theologian, Schleiermacher, argued for a Lutheran revival of the feast. The prime mover was the stupendous loss of human life in the Napoleonic Wars. These “new” celebrations were placed at the end of the church calendar on the last Sunday before Advent. One reason was, that the celebration of the 31 October was reserved for the celebration of the reformation, since Luther had advertised his 95 theses exactly on the evening before All Saints in 1517.

Out of this romantic revival grew the renewed celebration of All Souls. Today it is common in Lutheran Europe to celebrate All Saints with a special service in the evening, where the names of the recently dead are read aloud. Afterwards the congregation walks to the graveyard and lighten candles on the graves. At home cakes have been baked (or bought) for children who are once again walking from door to door begging for alms or “soul-cakes”.

However, it was probably inspiration from the more “folksy” traditions among the irish and Scottish immigrants to USA, which generated the commercial Halloween which has been taken up so enthusiastically by Europeans in the last few years.


The Rise and Fall of Merry England. The Ritual Year 1400 -1700.
By Ronald Hutton.
Oxford University Press 1996

The English Year
By Steve Roud
Penguin Books 2006

Read about the medieval invention of All Souls

Get recipes for Medieval Soul Cakes

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