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All Saints' Day is a Christian holiday.

All Saints, All Saints Day or Feast of All Saints may also refer to:

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San Diego Sarah  •  Link

To read about All Souls Day in the 16th century is to learn that the definition isn’t everything it needs to be.

The 3 days wich begin with the Eve of the Vigil of All Hallows (our Halloween) and continued through All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) were the Catholic substitute for the Druidic Festival of Samhain.
Among other things of the greatest importance, on Samhain the Undead rose from the abyss to spend a night back in the world of the living. The households of the living prepared a fine feast to share with their venerated ancestors returned from the netherworld.

They also made cakes to placate those souls that wandered aimlessly having no welcome waiting from their families. In the 16th century, numerous sources refer to giving out the oaten soul-cakes to the poor that came to the door of a house on All Soul’s Day.
This is the custom Shakespeare refers in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona":

Valentine: Why, how know you that I am in love?
Speed: Marry, by these special marks: first, you have
learned… to speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas.[1]

Apparently the practice was so common as to be recognized by a general audience.

This Shakespeare quote has moved the “puling” (which it was really called) back one day to Hallowmas, All Hallows Day[2], rather than All Souls.

More importantly, he has referred to puling as a special kind of speech spoken by beggars on Hallowmas Day. Valentine’s point makes clear that this puling is the most abject kind of begging, so much so it is proverbial.

The author of the "Medii Ævi Kalendarium" adds that a Mr. George Tollet glossed the above quote, in the 1780s, with “It is worth remarking that on All Saints' Day, the poor people in Staffordshire, and perhaps in other country places, go from parish to parish souling, as they call it, i.e., begging and puling (or singing small, as Bailey's Dictionary explains the word puling) for soul-cakes, or any good things to make them merry.”[3]

When Sir Thomas More wrote the pamphlet “The poor seely souls pewling out of purgatory” (1529) — probably the source of the earliest citations of the word — the souls were not the poor standing-in for souls between cycles of rebirth — which may or may not have been the original custom — but rather for the dead crying out to be redeemed from Purgatory into Heaven. Considered precisely, this left intact a cherished tradition of baking soul-cakes on the day but having no Undead to enjoy them.

This all was part of the church’s patient way to turn the Druidic worship of the dead — which was one of the several aspects of the enormously popular festival of Samhain — into a remembrance of those trapped for long ages in God’s penitentiary.
The outnumbering Undead of the Celts, awaiting rebirth, were transformed into the inhabitants of Purgatory.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link


At some point, the tiny, begging, half-human voices of the Undead had been transformed into a game the poor played in order to expropriate the soul-cakes.

Presumably they dressed for the part.

By Shakespeare’s time, not only the poor went begging door-to-door for treats as stand-ins for the Undead.

Whether that transition occurred toward the end of Druidism or the beginning of Christianity is not known. It is not even clear that there was a time-certain at which Druidism ended and Christianity took over as opposed to centuries of blending during which each altered the other.

The stronger argument would seem to be that “puling” had begun to be a tradition during Druidic times.
The Greek poet Homer describes the speaking of the dead as a “thin piercing noise”[4]
Virgil, in his "Aeneid", does the same: “some raise a shout — faintly; the cry essayed mocks their gaping mouths.”[5]

Shakespeare clearly knows the fact, as he indicates elsewhere:
"The sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the streets."[6]

He has read his classics. It will be another couple of centuries before the Indo-European diaspora is discovered so scholars might detect any connection between it and puling.

But the people who went puling were the unlettered members of society. How would they know about how the Undead were supposed to sound? It’s not impossible that the educated members taught them how the dead sounded. How likely is it?

We are not surprised that Homer and Virgil might share a belief as to how the speech of the dead sounded. We see the ancient Greeks and Romans as being culturally quite close. What does not come as easily to mind is that millennia before that relationship, they began their routes of migration as Indo-European peoples. They went south.

The Celts went predominantly west and became the peoples who are our present subject.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link


The idea the Undead speak in tiny voices — that they pule — goes back some 7,000+ years; each of these Indo-European peoples believed in the tiny voices from the time of their common cultural origin in the Anatolia region of modern Turkey.
Puling therefore probably started before the first Christian missionaries arrived on British soil.

Bailey shows a further evolution in the idea of puling. Plaintive begging has taken on music. By 1841 (the date of the "Kalendarium"), in more Puritan areas the custom has evolved into “Psalm-caking” in which “a sort of procession of young people [went] from house to house, at each of which they recited psalms, and, in return, received presents of cakes”.
But, children being children, Puritanism couldn’t hold for long, and, while the singing is done on All Souls once again, a more modern lyric is recorded in "Notes And Queries".

"Soul! Soul! for a soul cake:
Pray, good mistress, for a soul cake.
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for them who make us all.
Soul! Soul! for an apple or two;
If you’ve got no apples, pears will do. &c.
An apple or pear or plum or cherry,
Is a very good thing to make us merry. &c."[7]

The singing is certainly no longer “small,” the begging no longer abject. Nor do the singers pretend to be the Undead freed for the night from the abyss. The householder who failed to provide treats received a curse for their unkindness.

No citations, that I am yet aware of, refer to the tricks that could be quite frightening by the 18th century in Scotland. The dire warnings given the ancient Celtic worshippers should they fail to placate the dead with food on the night of Samhain mentioned far worse than mere tricks. But the survival of the promise of consequences surely lets us know that tricks of one sort or another there were.


[1] Two Gentlemen of Verona, II.i.15-6, 25.
[2] In modern parlance, “All Saints Day”. The Undead emerging only at night, Shakespeare may be referring to October 31, our Halloween.
[3] Hampson, R. T. Medii Ævi Kalendarium or Dates, Charters, and Customs of the Middle Ages (1841). I.375. Mr. Tollet provided notes to George Steevens’ and Samuel Johnson’s works of Shakespeare published in the 1780s.
[4] Homer. The Odyssey, Vol. 2 (Loeb, 1919). Tr. A. T. Murray. “ταί δέ τριζουσαι ἕποντο.” “: “They followed speaking in a thin, piercing noise.” I have replaced Murray’s insufficient “gibbering”.
[5] Virgil. Eclogues. Georgics. Aeneid I-VI, Vol. 1. (Loeb, 1916). Tr. H. Rushton Fairclough. 541. “tollere vocem exiguam… hiantes”.
[6] Hamlet, I.i.115-6.
[7] Notes and Queries, Vol. 4, November 15, 1851. 381.

Thanks to Virtual Grub Street, a constant fount of information about many things Shakespearian and Elizabethan

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.


  • Nov