Back to the Index Page


On Simnel Cakes by Arthur Machen


'Mothering Sunday,' we may take it, falls, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, in the month of March. I should not like to be too precise, since the calculation of the date of Easter is a very knotty matter, and the oldest difference to divide Christendom into two camps. Moreover, I have not got the Dominical Letter, the Golden Number and the Epact by me; and you must have all these handy if you would talk about Easter and the dates dependent on it. But, on the whole, I think we may say safely that Mothering Sunday—called also Mi-Carême, Mid-Lent, and Refreshment Sunday—falls in March. We will not go into the question of the origin of the name 'Mothering'—a very pleasant, friendly and homely title. There are certain words in the Epistle for the day which may account for it; at all events, this Sunday has always been celebrated as a feast in the midst of a fast. And I have a very vivid recollection of the manner in which the festival was observed in the west country about fifty years ago. I was not very old then; and the ritual appealed to me highly. I can well remember the aspect of the country town on the Saturday, the market day, before Mothering Sunday. Or, I should say, the aspect of the confectioners' shops in the narrow high street. For they were more gorgeous on this day than on the market day before Christmas. They were full of cakes, cakes for every purse, wonderfully adorned with icing, white and pink; a truly delicious spectacle. For the custom of the country was that on the day following, Mothering Sunday, every child should present his mother with a cake. I believe that farm-servants, in especial, made a great point of this observance. Out of slender savings—five or six or seven pounds a year were their wages in those days—they would buy a cake and beg leave of absence from the farmer on the Sunday, tramping, some of them, ten miles over the hills to the maternal cottage, there to make their offering, and warm their hands at the old hearth before setting out again for the farm by deep lanes and black March woods. A friendly, kindly custom; one of the good observances that smoothed the rough places of life in the old days.

Now these kind cakes were, of course, Simnel cakes, though I do not recollect whether they were prepared according to the usual recipe which so pleasantly puts a layer of almond-paste not only outside the cake but in its very vitals. And, that everything should be pleasant about this mid-Lent festivity, some ingenious person was at the pains to invent an etymology for the word Simnel, which is matchless in its absurdity. Simnel was just mediaeval English for a cake. It comes from the Latin, Simila, which means the finest wheaten flour. Originally, I suppose, the English word was 'simmel,' this became 'simnel' as 'pantomime' becomes—on some lips—'pantomine.' But about eighty or a hundred years ago, the ingenious person got to work on simnel. I conjecture that he had settled that Charing was, really, chère reine; a touching allusion to Queen Eleanor. He had shrunk from the vulgarity of Rotten Row and had demonstrated that it was a corruption Route du Roi. He had made Birdcage Walk into Bocage Walk, and had explained how energetic apprentices sometimes set the tems, or sieve, on fire. Refreshed by these labours he turned his eye on simnel—and produced his masterpiece.

Once on a time, it appears, there was an old couple, Sim and Nell by name. They were dear old people, with the best hearts in the world, but after many long years of happy married life, they had retained their several individualities. And so, when it came to a question of their having a cake, there was something of a dispute. One—I forget which—wanted it baked; the other would have a cake that was boiled. So, one regrets to say it, they differed and even quarrelled as to this cake; the debate rose to such a pitch that Nell rushed at Sim with the broom. In her violence, she broke some eggs that lay on the table, and this catastrophe brought these nice old people to their senses. They saw that they had been silly. They agreed that, to please both parties, the famous cake should be part baked, part boiled. And to round off all, and to smooth everything over, literally and metaphorically, the smashed eggs should be used to glaze the cake. And so, from this quarrel and reconciliation between Sim and Nell, the cake was naturally called Sim-nel.

There; that is the etymology; and in the words of my favourite classic, 'Get Rich Quick Wallingford': 'Can Limburger smell worse?' But I confess to being curious as to the identity of the inventor of this ridiculous and imbecile fable. Was he one with the inventor of the other etymologies which I have mentioned, or was he 'a little syndicate,' operating in false derivations?—I forgot, by the way, one of the noblest efforts in this kind: the account of how the tavern sign of 'The Goat and Compasses' arose from the piety of Puritan days, when the Sour Saints drank their ale under the proclamation, 'God Encompasseth Us.' But, as I say, the mental process of the individual, or individuals, who invented the simnel nonsense, and all the other like nonsenses, interests me. Was he a leg-puller, who deliberately made up idiotic tales, chuckling as he reflected that there was no limit to human folly? Or was he merely a solemn ignoramus, with a misdirected zeal for piercing to the root of things, who sat down, as it were, before any word or phrase that he did not understand, and set his weak brains working until they evolved a feeble fable? It will ever be a mystery. In all probability, the person who invented these outrageous tales was a Rationalist, a man with the scientific mind. He perceived that it was all nonsense to talk of setting the Thames on fire; the thing couldn't be done. He didn't know that every nation has the proverb, the name of the river being varied. So he made up his ingenious story of the energetic apprentice and his sieve, or whatever the tems may be. And so again; never having heard of simila, fine, sifted flour, he made up the tragi-comedy of Sim and Nell.


Back to the Index Page