31 Oct 2017

Written by Anne Lawrence-Mathers, Professor in Medieval History, University of Reading.

It is well known that Reading Abbey was founded by King Henry I in 1121.  However, it is less well known that the king also ensured, unintentionally, that Reading would play a significant part in bringing Halloween to England.

At the time, Halloween was an accompanying custom to the feast of All Souls. Henry helped to bring these traditions to England by linking Reading closely to the great abbey of Cluny. Reading was a Cluniac monastery, founded with monks from the abbey of Cluny. Cluny abbey created a special commemoration for the souls of all the dead. This feast of All Souls, held on November 2nd, the day following the older feast of All Hallows or All Saints, became part of a great, two-day feast. English sermons and poems of the late middle ages claim that it ranked immediately after Christmas in its importance.

The origins of Halloween have been traced back to the writings of Bede, in the eighth century. Bede explained that the pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated religious rituals in their ‘Holymonth’ (September). By contrast, they called November ‘Bloodmonth’ as this was when cattle were consecrated to the pagan gods and slaughtered. This may be why the feast of All Saints, celebrated on 1st November, appeared in England first in the eighth century. By the tenth century, it was one of the major feasts.

God's saints are angels and human beings. Angels are spirits without body... Now this day is worthily consecrated to these angels, and also to the holy people who through great virtues have flourished for God from the beginning of the world

Aelfric of Eynsham (monastic writer)
St. Aethelwold and his congregation
St. Aethelwold and his congregation (BL MS Add. 29598 f118v)

It was around the year 1000 that the Abbey of Cluny took the next step.  The abbot had received an extraordinary message from a hermit, living on a rocky island in the Mediterranean.  He had seen the souls of the dead being tortured with fire by demons, and believed that only the intervention of Cluny could save them. Accordingly, the abbot began the feast of All Souls, which was celebrated on November 2nd, the day following the feast of All Saints, to protect all the Christian dead.  At Cluny itself the new celebrations were so important that a ‘follow up’ service was held on 8 November; and this feast of the ‘Octave’ of All Saints Day also appears in the service books of Reading Abbey up until the 15th century.

The dead tormented by demons
The dead tormented by demons (BL MS Cotton Nero C iv, f38r)

Besides this special celebration, however, Reading Abbey could call upon the power of its great relic, the Hand of St James, throughout the year.  An example is the story of Alice, a girl from Essex, who was haunted by a ghost which appeared to her as a corpse in a shroud.  Poor Alice was so terrified that she fell into a fire and was badly burned, and no one could help until St James himself appeared to her and told her to come to Reading.  The saint healed her burns, and she stayed in Reading for some time. Alice helped the monks and stayed safe from the ghost.  Similar stories were told by many other abbeys, all agreeing that it was the Church which had a special role not just in burying the dead but also in protecting the living from ghosts and supernatural threats.

St. James
St. James (Reading University MS 2087)
Hand of St James relic from Marlow
The hand of St. James (photo: R. Baxter)

The feasts of All Saints and All Souls became ever more popular, becoming the two-day feast of ‘Hallowmass’ in late-medieval England. All Saints was described as helpful to the busy Christian, who may not have been able to celebrate the feasts of every saint individually but could catch up on 1st November. Finally, the feast also offers a special link to the saints gathered in heaven for the occasion, through contact with their relics.   The feast of All Souls, on the following day, turned to the non-saintly dead. This feast put the living almost in touch with the dead, whilst pointing out the power given by God to demons to torment and punish sinners. After all this it is perhaps hardly surprising that by the late middle ages the feast of Hallowmass was celebrated by lighting candles and torches, by musical performances in church, and by ringing church bells (often until midnight).  As a fifteenth-century poem explained, the first day of November was the first day of a double feast whose second half was All Souls Day.  A place of special power and safety was provided in Reading by the great abbey church, in which the feasts of All Saints and All Souls were solemnly celebrated.

Punishment of sinners
Punishment of sinners (BL MS Royal 19 C I, f33)

All this had to change at the Reformation, when England rejected the Catholic church in favour of the new Church of England.  The feasts of Hallowmass were reduced to a one-day celebration of All Saints on 1 November, while All Souls fell out of favour.  The relationship between the living and the dead was managed in a different way; but this was only partly successful.  The ritual contact with the dead, the feasting, the lighting up of the night, and communal protection against danger continue to be important at the beginning of November – although the date has changed to the night of 31st October!