Silent Girls and a Dumb Cake

With the approach of Halloween, it seems only appropriate to share a superstitious tradition related to romance which was still observed by some women and girls during the Regency, often on that night. As with most superstitions, the specifics of the practice varied from region to region, though the end result was essentially the same, a single young woman might be able to learn the identity of her future husband by baking one of these special "cakes." Such a superstition might be just the thing to add a little bit of magic to a Regency romance.

When silent girls made dumb cakes . . .

The tradition of dumb cakes in England dates back to at least the Middle Ages, but the practice continued well into the late nineteenth century in many parts of Britain. Some scholars believe the superstition originated in Lewis, the northern-most part of the largest island of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, after which the custom migrated south though the British Isles. Others are of the opinion that the superstition was an Irish import which had grown up in that ancient Celtic country and gradually made its way across the Irish Sea. Regardless of its exact source, the tradition of young single women making dumb cakes as a means by which to divine the identity of their future husbands was well established across Britain by the seventeenth century. Many young women were still employing that tradition of love divination in the early nineteenth century, right through the Regency.

Though there were a number of different versions of this divination ritual, there was one universal constant which held true for every one of them. The cake, or cakes, must be prepared by the young women hoping to learn the identity of their future mates in complete silence, thus the finished pastry acquired the name "dumb cake." If any word, even whispered, or any sound, was uttered by any of the girls during the preparation of the dumb cake, the special magic associated with it would be lost and the spell would be broken. Even worse, in some versions, not only would the spell be broken, but some dreadful calamity would also befall the young woman who had broken the silence. In a few versions, the calamity would be extended to all of those who lived in the same house as the offender. It must be noted that a few students of folklore have suggested that this rule may have been an attempt by older family members to keep chattering young girls quiet on one night of the year.

The older versions of the ritual required that each young maiden prepare her dumb cake in solitude, which would certainly have helped to ensure her silence during the process. However, many later versions held that a group of unmarried girls prepare one, or several, dumb cakes together. Since odd numbers were regarded as particularly lucky in England, in most cases, groups of three, five or seven girls would have worked together to prepare their dumb cake. When a group of girls prepared a dumb cake together, they must all put in an equal amount of effort, if they were all to reap the rewards of the divination ritual. Any girl who did not do her share in preparing the dumb cake would be denied any hint about her future husband during the course of that night.

By the Regency, several of the unmarried young women in a household might prepare a dumb cake together. However, they would attempt to keep their numbers odd in order to ensure the success of the ritual. Alternately, in some villages, a group of unmarried young women who were friends might gather at the home of one of the group to prepare their dumb cake(s) together, again, ideally, with an odd number of girls. Of course, such group efforts would require greater discipline to maintain silence throughout the mixing and baking process. In many cases, this group of girls would also spend the night together in order to be able to complete the ritual, since all of them would have to be under the same roof as the dumb cake for its divination magic to come to fruition.

The dumb cake was actually more of a bread than a cake, though the recipe varied slightly from region to region. The main differences were with the proportions of the ingredients, rather than with the ingredients themselves. Most dumb cakes were to be made of salt, wheat meal, barley and water. One of the oldest of the dumb cake recipes required that the first three of the ingredients each be measured in an egg shell, with enough water added to make a firm dough. Some recipes called for the ingredients to be measured by the thimble, cup, pint or pound, but in all cases, the first three ingredients were measured in equal proportions, with the water added to create a moist, stiff dough. In some areas, the recipe called for a small amount of soot, sand or brick dust be mixed into the dough. In other areas, some kind of dried fruit, often currants or raisins, was added to the dough or pressed into the top before the cake was baked. In some regions, each girl made their own dumb cake, while in others, all of the unmarried girls in a household took turns mixing and kneading the dough for a single cake. Regardless of the number of makers, the end result would be a cake or loaf which was decidedly unpleasant to eat, but the tastiness, or lack thereof, had no bearing on the magic with which this special cake would have been endowed by its silent maiden bakers.

The next step in the ritual is another which varied from region to region. This involved the baking of the cake. It must be put into the oven late in the evening, but before midnight. The doors of the house were to be left open and the maker(s) of the cake were to retire to a corner of the kitchen, seated in a half-circle and wait, in complete silence. If they followed the rules, soon after midnight, the spectre (or "fetch," in the north country) of the future husband(s) of each of the girl(s) who had made the dumb cake would enter the house and turn the cake so it would not burn. Each girl would only be able to see the spectre of the man intended to be her future spouse. Anyone present who had not been involved in the preparation of the cake would see nothing. In some versions, the spirit of the future husband would then also eat a slice of the cake before vanishing into thin air. In others, the fetch simply turned the cake and left the house. But it seems these specters or spirits could not enter the house unless the door was left open on that night. If the door was closed, they would turn around at the threshold and never enter the house.

Other versions of the ritual came into play after the dumb cake was baked. These versions typically required that the cake be fully baked before the stroke of midnight. After the cake was removed from the oven, it was to be cut into the number of slices matching the number of girls who had prepared it. Then, each girl was to scratch or prick her initials into the top of their slice of the cake. The cake, or slices of it, carrying each girl’s initials, was to be laid on the hearth, and the girls were all to retire to bed for the night. In many versions of this part of the ritual, the girls not only had to continue to remain silent, they also had to walk backwards to their bedchambers, even going upstairs backwards, and getting into their beds, all without a sound. Leaving the door to the house open in this version of the ritual seems to have been optional. At sometime soon after midnight, the spectre of the future husband of each girl would enter the house and prick his initials next to hers on her slice of the dumb cake.

Still another version of the ritual calls for the baked dumb cake to be cut into the number of pieces equal to the number of girls who had prepared it. But instead of scratching their initials into the top of their slice of the cake, each young woman would eat a small portion of her slice, then she would carry the remainder with her to bed, where she would place it under her pillow before retiring. This must all be done before the stroke of midnight. In most cases, these girls were also required to walk backwards up the stairs and to their bedchambers, without uttering any sound. In a few versions of the ritual, the young woman had only to eat her piece of the cake, she did not have to put any of it under her pillow that night. If all the rules of the ritual had been followed properly, each young woman would then dream of her future husband while she slept that night. In the Midlands, a slightly risque aspect of this version of the ritual required that each young woman remove all the pins and loosen any fastenings on their garments. This was to be done because the spectre or fetch of her future husband would chase her in her dream, trying to grab her. The clothes were loosened so that the young woman could escape the clutches of the spirit which pursued her by slipping out of her clothing. Apparently, there could be vaguely specified, but ominous consequences if she should be caught, even in a dream. These versions of the ritual are what gave rise to the alternate name of these cakes as "dreaming cakes." Those who did not dream of a man after having eaten some of their slice, or while their piece of the dumb cake was under their pillow, were supposedly doomed to spinsterhood.

In yet another version of the ritual, once the dumb cake was baked, whether the cake, or slices of it, were initialed and left on the hearth, were eaten, and/or were placed under the young woman’s pillow, the revelation of her future husband would come to her in a different form. In this version, at midnight, if she was seated alone before her looking glass, the young woman would see the spectre of her future husband behind her in the mirror, usually just on the stroke of midnight. Of course, like most of the other versions of this ritual, she would have had to follow the rules that she remain completely silent and that she walk backwards to her bedchamber before peering into her looking glass at midnight. Some scholars have suggested that the rule to walk backwards as part of the dumb cake ritual added to the sense of "other-worldliness" which would be experienced by the participants, because it was not something they typically did in their daily life.

In some of the areas of northern England and southern Scotland, the young women who made their dumb cakes were also expected to fast for the entire day before they baked them. They were required to abstain from both food and drink from the time they rose in the morning until they retired for the night, with the exception that they could eat some of the dumb cake once it was baked. But they could not eat or drink anything else until the next morning, if the ritual was to work. In some of these areas, the restrictions were even more severe, requiring that the young women touch nothing to their lips that day, even their fingers, or the divination magic of the dumb cake would be lost. Such restrictions do not seem to have been required in the Midlands or southern England. There are various stories told by young women over the years that they did indeed see their future husband’s initial on their slice of the cake when they rose the next morning. Others claimed to have dreamed of their future husbands as they slept on the night they made a dumb cake. One woman, in particular, initially felt the ritual did not work, since during the course of the night, she dreamed of three men, one with a wooden leg. But in the end, the accuracy of her dream was borne out, since she eventually had three husbands, the last of whom did have a wooden leg.

Another variation in the dumb cake ritual was the night on which it was to be performed. Three of the most propitious nights for this future husband divination ritual were believed to be Halloween, Christmas Eve and Midsummer’s Eve. But the same ritual could also be performed on the eve of the feast of St. Agnes, (20 January), the eve of the feast of St. Mark, (24 April) or the eve of the feast of St. Anne (25 July). In Oxfordshire, it was believed that it was not necessary to wait for the eve of a particular religious feast or pagan holiday. Rather, the ritual of the dumb cake could be performed on any given Friday night. However, in that county, the ritual also required that the young women not only remain silent while preparing the cake, they could not even smile during the process.

By the Regency, it would appear that the dumb cake ritual was most often performed in rural rather than urban areas. Even before the turn of the nineteenth century, various versions of the dumb cake ritual had been published in a host of chapbooks which eventually circulated throughout the British Isles. For that reason, even before the Regency began, the regional variations of the dumb cake ritual had begun to break down. Many literate young women may have ignored the version of the ritual which was handed down by oral tradition through an elder of the family or the village. If they could read, they may have preferred to perform the ritual based on the version they found in any one of those chapbooks. However, young women who were not able to read were more likely to have followed the guidance of an elder woman from their family or village if they wanted to employ a dumb cake ritual in order to learn the identity of their future husband.

Curiously, in the Tyneside region of northeastern England, there was a related ritual which could be performed by single men hoping to see a fetch of their future brides. According to custom, the most propitious night for this ritual was the eve of the feast of St. Agnes, 20 January. This ritual involved no baking or silence, but rather, a strong stomach. The single man must eat a whole red herring, raw, bones and all, before he retired for the night. He could then expect the fetch of his future wife to appear to him in his dreams while he slept.

Dear Regency Authors, could some version of the dumb cake ritual add a bit of magic to the plot of an upcoming Regency romance? Perhaps the heroine, who lives in a remote rural region, though skeptical, has been pressed into participating in the dumb cake ritual. Then, mayhap only a few days later, the man she saw in her dream arrives in the area. How might that play out in the story? When a group of young women in a village plan a dumb cake ritual, will they refuse to allow one of their number, whom they don’t like, to participate, claiming her inclusion will make their numbers even instead of the much luckier odd number? Will the heroine, who finds the whole business very silly, invite that young woman to make a dumb cake with her that evening, thereby earning the gratitude of that young woman’s very handsome and charming elder brother? Or, mayhap the heroine is following the version of the ritual in which the spirit of her future husband is supposed to appear to her in her looking glass that night? Might the hero find a way to slip into her room that night, to be sure she sees him in the looking glass? Are there other ways in which a dumb cake ritual might liven up a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Silent Girls and a Dumb Cake

  1. Why do I have a vision of sisters, working hard on not giggling, putting their cakes into the oven and then in walks one of the servants saying “What be you young misses up to making foul smells in my kitchen?” and I wager the shrieks of horror would break the silence. Maybe one who is truly superstitious would be really scared about bad luck and is comforted by a hero …

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      From what I learned, only the girls making the dumb cake had to maintain silence to ensure the spell worked. So, unless the servant was part of the baking party, she was free to say anything she pleased. If the young women were able to maintain enough discipline not to say anything in response, the dumb cake magic would not be lost. If they could not control themselves, then their efforts would have been for naught.

      However, I can see a version of your plot bunny in which their brother(s) come to taunt them as they tried to bake their dumb cake. It would certainly take a very strong will for sisters to ignore the taunts of brothers in such a situation.


  2. This was very interesting, I’ve read about some of the traditions, legends and rituals associated with divination of a future husband including St. Agnes ritual but not this much detail. Wondering if this is related to the origin of baking charms into bread or cake for divination — i.e. someone finds a charm for a new marriage, baby, etc.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      It took a fair bit of searching to find the various versions of the dumb cake ritual. Based on my research, I do think the dumb cake and the cake with charms baked in were related. From what I read, most scholars believe the cakes with charms originated in Ireland, and they were known there as “barm bracks.” Such barm bracks were typically made on Halloween, and may have been the root of the dumb cake ritual, since they also foretold the future.

      The recipe for the barm brack was no more appetizing than that for the dumb cake. A barm brack was usually make with strong black tea, coarse flour and dried fruits. But as with the dumb cake, the point was not the taste, but the fortune told for each person who got one of the charms. These Irish barm bracks may well have also lent their tradition to a similar English version, in which the charms were mixed into the Christmas pudding.



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