A visiting custom carried out in the 19th and 20th centuries mainly by children, but previously by adults, in the Shropshire, north Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire area, on All Saints Day (1 November) and All Souls Day (2 November). The soulers visited houses, sang a song, and collected money, food, drink, or whatever was given to them. The songs vary somewhat from place to place, but they all follow the same basic pattern:Soul, soul for a souling cakeI pray you, missis, for a souling cakeApple or pear, plum or cherryAnything good to make us merryUp with your kettles and down with your pansGive us an answer and we'll be goneLittle Jack, Jack sat on his gateCrying for butter to butter his cakeOne for St. Peter, two for St. PaulThree for the man that made us all(Shropshire: Bye-Gones Relating to Wales & the Border Country (1889–1890), 253)
(Shropshire: Bye-Gones Relating to Wales & the Border Country (1889–1890), 253)
Begging at All Souls was already proverbial in Shakespeare's time, as Speed comments in Two Gentlemen of Verona (II. i)—‘to speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas’. The soul-cakes mentioned in the song are the remnant of pre-Reformation beliefs concerning the need to help souls out of Purgatory by prayer and alms-giving. John Mirk's Festival (14th century) provides an early reference: ‘… 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’ (p. 269). Denham, writing of the north of England, implies that by the mid-19th century the practice was on its last legs: ‘A few thrifty, elderly housewives still practice the old custom of keeping a soul mass-cake for good luck …’ (Denham Tracts, 1895: ii. 26).
Two other visiting customs took place in roughly the same geographical area, Clementing (23 November), and Catterning (25 November, St Catherine's Day), with the same basic pattern of visiting, singing, and requesting food, although Catterning was apparently regarded as more of a female custom. Charlotte Burne argued persuasively that these three were all aspects of the same custom. Clementing was first mentioned by Plot (1686: 430), and Catterning in 1730 (quoted Wright and Lones, 1940: iii. 168). Of the three customs, Souling was the most widely reported.
Wright and Lones, 1940: iii. 121–45, 167–86;Charlotte Burne, Folk-Lore 25 (1914), 285–99.