Skip to main content

History - Soul food

Reveal the medieval origins of modern trick-or-treating

Reveal the medieval origins of modern trick-or-treating

Halloween is not usually looked on as a teaching opportunity, but it is the perfect occasion to study the Middle Ages and the values that shaped daily life. As part of a topic called Extreme Childhood, my class studied the history of Britain through the experiences of children in each era and compared them to life today. They took a look at modern Halloween practice before tracing its origins to the Middle Ages.

The children excitedly discussed parties, costumes and goody bags; indeed, the event was only surpassed by Christmas as their favourite celebration. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, they had no idea why each year on 31 October they dressed up, went out and effectively demanded treats from their neighbours.

I explained the beginnings of trick or treat by showing images of life for the poor in the Middle Ages. We discussed taxes, the Domesday Book and the fact that paupers survived on very little at all, most of which was given over in taxes. We looked at pauper houses and clothing and, by the end, my class had started to understand the extremities of life for the poor during the period. I asked them how they thought children in the Middle Ages might have celebrated Halloween and was met with ideas of costumes made of sticks and feathers and simple parties.

The origins of Halloween, however, are far less celebratory. It is believed to have started on All Souls' Day (2 November) when the poor would beg for food from wealthier people in return for praying for the souls of their dead. It was hoped that, in a time of such high mortality, the extra prayers would help to push their souls into heaven.

Wealthier families would bake soul cakes (a simple oat and ginger biscuit) and give them to the poor and destitute in return for their prayers. Souling, as it was known, became an annual event and was the precursor to modern trick-or-treating. Far from the fun times of today, for many families it was a survival tactic.

We went on to bake our own soul cakes and sold them to the rest of the school. The proceeds went to Save the Children, so the tradition of helping the less fortunate was continued.

It is often difficult for children to relate to the lifestyles of people in the past, but by making reference to their own experiences they can often gain a deeper understanding.

Chris Fenton is an associate headteacher in the North West of England

What else?

Explore life in the Middle Ages with a PowerPoint from buxtocl.


Or compare life in medieval England to the present day with alainechristian's presentation.


Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you