A soul! A soul! A soul cake!Please, good Missus, a soul cake.An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,Any good thing to make us all merry:One for Peter; two for Paul;Three for Him who made us all.

— Traditional English folk song

Devotees of the gentle folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary will recall these lyrics but may not be aware of the story behind the song, a tale extending far into those medieval centuries which used to be called the Ages of Faith, because Catholic teaching so permeated daily life.  

Among many distortions about the Middle Ages taught nowadays is that everyone in Europe was miserable. Rapacious bishops and greedy priests terrified illiterate nobles and overworked peasants with a wrathful, capricious God who, unless placated by mechanically recited prayers and forced alms, would cast believers into eternal damnation. This sordid medievalism is also seen in films and television series.

Mostly, it’s bosh.

People living during the Ages of Faith usually led happy and productive lives. Granted, craftsmen, peasants and serfs worked from morn to sunset and what was mostly rural living was difficult. Yet it wasn’t all hard work and drudgery.

Within the liturgical year, all 52 Sundays and 30-33 holy days of obligation were days of complete rest from work. There were also some 70 saints’ days, such as Michaelmas in September and Martinmas in November.

Special festival days of merriment occurred during Christmastide, including Epiphany; Paschaltide, the 50 days celebrating Easter; and Whitsuntide, the octave of Pentecost. Passiontide, the final two weeks of Lent, was more somberly commemorated.

In all, about three months of each year were given over to breaking up daily routine while providing rest from manual labor. During these festivals the Church encouraged games, recreation, theatricals, music and song.

In this tradition, Hallowtide, as it was known, was and remains part of the liturgical year, from the evening of Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. On these days all saints in Heaven, known and unknown, are venerated and their intercession begged, and relief offered the Holy Souls in Purgatory, through prayers and special Masses.

And that brings us back to the soul cakes.

During the late afternoon or evening of the vigil of the feast of All Saints — All Hallows in Olde English — children in cities, towns, villages and hamlets would go “souling” — strolling door-to-door, calling on their extended families, friends and neighbors, singing ancient “souling” hymns about the need to pray for those in Purgatory.

Grateful housewives presented singers with small, round loaves of sweet quickbreads or small cakes looking like muffins or thick cookies, each marked with a cross of raisins or currants. The singers ate them still warm, while saying prayers for the souls of that family’s faithful departed in Purgatory.

This is the origin of the Hallowe’en (“Hallows even”) tradition of “trick or treat.” The trickery wasn’t part of the original tradition.

When life was much harder, families sought an afterlife of heavenly repose in the glory of God. There was a much more vibrant belief in the Communion of Saints: that those living on earth are intimately connected to the faithful departed, united in Christ by baptism and prayer.