24 April 2020 – St Mark’s Eve

Today I’m currently being silent and it’s killing me. Also today is a two-parter for reasons that will shortly become clear. It’s St Mark’s Eve, one of a small number of days when the veil between worlds is thin enough for certain otherly beings to slip through. As these days are few and far between (others include St Agnes’ Eve, Midsummer, Halloween and Christmas Eve), they tend to be crowded with all sorts of divination shenanigans as communing is supposedly much easier.

St Mark’s Eve is most famously known for a tonne of death divination. But that sounds like madness at the best of times, and these times are not even remotely best. So I’ve gone with the other tradition of making a dumb cake to try and divine who my future husband will be. 

The process of making a dumb cake is only complicated if you try to rationalise all the many, many different suggested methods of making it. Even the common elements diverge wildly. However the three motifs that always seem to be present are:

  1. Whoever is making the cake has to be silent throughout
  2. Flour and salt are used to make the dough
  3. Stuff happens at midnight

Which is why this is a two-parter; I’m making the cake tonight but the results are in tomorrow. 

So the overall approach I’ve taken comes from The Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore, Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, partly because the description was only a short paragraph and therefore relatively simple, partly because it calls a dumb cake a ‘species of dreaming bread’ (p.197) which I find hopelessly charming especially if read aloud in the voice of David Attenborough (which of course I can’t do, as I am silent), and partly because it doesn’t mention that I should have been fasting for the entire day as some of the other sources do. The rest is a mish mash. I felt given this really isn’t a ritual for one but also not something easily achieved over video conferencing, mish mashing was fine.  

1. Whoever is making the cake has to be silent throughout
In this day and age being silent isn’t as simple as just zipping it. So I’m interpreting silent as no talking, no texting, no WhatsApping, no emailing, no social media engagement – not even clicking the heart on a tweet, no humming, no singing, no tutting, no groaning, and no dramatic sighing (I did come close when the cornflour fell out of the cupboard and exploded on the floor). Expressive hand gestures, interior laughs (small), finger clicks and Paddington hard stares are allowed but only in an emergency. I had a small, and silent, internal tussle about whether making notes and typing up the post constituted a rule break, but I couldn’t find any mention of the written word being forbidden, so I went with it. Hence I’ve squared it with myself that I’m able to publish this post tonight, but not promote it until tomorrow.

And so since 8pm when I started the process, my lips have been firmly sealed and will be until after the ritual is complete. However, some sources say that dumb doesn’t mean silent, but comes from the Middle English ‘doom’ meaning destiny. This kind of makes more sense than being quiet, unless the silence was imposed to stop all the unmarried women from moaning about being single.

2. Flour and salt are used to make the dough
There is absolutely no consistency with the recipe. None. Nada. Measuring can be done by eggshell, thimble, spoon, handful, pinch, pound. Ingredients don’t even have to be edible like soot, sand, brick dust, nail clippings. Urine can be substituted for water (or as one source puts it ‘your own water’). Sugar and dried fruit can be added to make it more cakey. Not to mention how you actually bake it, like how many women are supposed to take part in the ritual, or whether initials are pricked or carved into the bread, or even at all, or whether you sit or stand in the kitchen while it’s baking. And on and on. So with mish mashing in mind, this is what I did:

Using a sheet of A4 white paper as my board, I mixed a handful of plain flour with a pinch of salt, then I added a bit more as most of the recipes call for salty. Then making a well in the centre, I splashed in some water until I’d made a dough. There was no point in kneading it as the flour was gluten free, so I bap-shaped it, cut my initials in the top, popped it in a tin and put it in the oven at 160C. It wasn’t cooked after 15 minutes, or 30, and by 45 I was worried it would go so hard I wouldn’t be to cut it, so I took it out and left it on the side to cool.

Then following the instructions of The Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore, Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, I cut it into three. I suspect the The Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore, Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs omitted the part where traditionally it’s usually three women who make the cake and therefore the three makes sense, but I did it anyway. Next it calls for ‘a part of each to be eaten’ (p.197) so I nibbled (very salty, but not unpleasant, after all it is bread) and then popped the uneaten bits under my pillow. 

3. Stuff happens at midnight
So this is where I leave you. I have to spend the rest of the evening being silent and then when the clock strikes midnight, I must go to bed by walking backwards, and no matter what appears as a consequence of this ritual, I cannot say a word until tomorrow morning otherwise the spell will be broken and ‘direful calamities may be dreaded’. I just have to hope that I don’t do what I did the other night and slip on the stairs, stubbing three toes and yelling a barrage of expletives loud enough to wake the dead. As it’s said they will be walking tonight, and I really, really don’t want to see any. See you tomorrow.


Resources

Cooper, Q. and Sullivan, P. (1994) Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem: 366 Days of British Myths, Customs & Eccentricities, London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Day, B. (1998) A Chronicle of Folk Customs, London, Hamlyn

Hazlitt, W.C. (1995) The Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore, Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, London, Bracken Books

Jones, J. and Deer, B. (1987) Cattern Cakes and Lace, London, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Roud, S. (2006) The English Year: A Month-By-Month Guide To The Nation’s Customs and Festivals, From May Day to Mischief Night, London, Penguin Books

Simpson, J. and Roud, S. (2001) Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, Oxford University Press

https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2016/10/the-dumb-cake.html

http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2009/04/dumb-cake.html

http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/dumbcake.htm

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