Simnels

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This article by A C Sarre was first published in the 1958 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

The above word, referring to the kind of light, dry, biscuit that is now eaten all the year round in Jersey, and used to be eaten only in Lent, has been spelt in many ways - Cymenel, semenel, Symenel etc over the ages.

1588 Court Rolls

The following entries in our Jersey Court Rolls dated 12 June 1588 (a month or so before the defeat of the Armada) provoked the present short inquiry into the origin of these cakes or biscuits:

  • Helier grochy and Helier Romeril (chacune d'icelles se submettent a l'amende a l'instance du procureur de la reyne pour avoir bollengé du cymenels contre l'ordre de justice ... chacune a 10 sous.)
  • Jean grochy prend delai a referer de son soumetion vers le procureur de la reyne proposant qu'il auroit bollenge du pain en forme de cymenel contre l'ordre de justice.

Helier grochy and Romeril, each of them, submit to the penalty at the instance of the Procureur de la Reine for having baked simnels contrary to Order of Justice. Both fined 10 Sous). Jean grochy takes a delay in reference to his submission against the Procureur de la Reine who contends that he has baked bread in the form of simnels against Order of Justice).

These two cases appear to be contraventions of an Order dated 1585 but there are further cases in 1592, for on 30 September Michel Le Cras was fined for having sold cymnels in his tavern. Also on the same day Lucas du Feu was fined, at the instance of the Procureur on report of the Vicomte, for having exposed symenels for sale contrary to Justice. Also Thomas Grandin was fined for having 'baked without authority'.

The last incidents in 1592 were contraventions of an order by the Royal Court dated 20 April 1592, laying down that "suivant les Ordres politiques de Justice, il est ordonné que pain ou cimenel ne sera boulangé pour etaient vendu dans halles ny tavernes de l'Isle"

The 1585 Order was given at the Chefs Plaids d'Heritages held on 20 January and we find recorded: "Pour ce que par l'ordre et reforrnacion de Messieurs les Commissionaires Royaulx il est declare que chacun bollenger ferait pain rond a vendre, cependant l'ordre nayant en effet en partie par l'inclination contumace des dits bollengers ; en partie aussi par la negligence des officers subalternes souffront en facon de pain plat appele symenel d'estre vendu, auquel n'y ayant grand substance selong l' Assise et priez dicelui, est distribue au prejudice de l'utilite publique ; partant est il ordonne que aucune tavernier en ceste Isle n'ayant a vendre de telle qualite de pain en leurs tavernes sur peine de lx. sols d'amende pour l'effect que dessus."

Royal Commissioners

The Report of the Royal Commissioners mentioned above is dated 27 June 1562, 4 Elizabeth, and says (in translation) concerning various tradespeople, after butchers and taverners: "similarly every baker will guard and observe from time to time the Rat et Assise du Pain and in accordance therewith each of them must put his own proper mark on his bread before sale, on pain of such punishment as Justice may order. And the said bakers must make bread of 15 deniers, 10 deniers and 5 deniers of current currency of the Island."

The 'Assize of Bread' referred to in the foregoing paragraph was of great antiquity and is quoted by Terrien, 1578, in his commentary on L'Ancien Coutume de Normandie. On page 143 under the title of "Des boulengers, et du poix que le pain doit peser" he gives a list of the prices that bread should be sold at, according to the current price of corn, and the weight of the loaf to be offered. This, in effect, is the duty of a Bread Assize for when the price of corn altered, so did the weight of the loaf.

In the Rolls of the Assizes held in the Channel Islands in 1309, there are more than 100 persons listed who were convicted for breaking the Laws contrary to the 'Assize of Bread'.

Our Jersey legal commentator Philip Le Geyt refers to the process in his Privileges, Lois et Coutumes, Reglemens Politiques : (Translated) "The baker is held responsible to offer his bread for sale on the basis of the current price of corn and at the price that the Viscount shall keep always published on a board in the auditorium of the Court; and the said Viscount will give a particular mark to each baker for the distinction of his bread, and will at all times and places, together with each Constable in his Parish, and each or either of them in the absence of the other, seize and render forfeit to the poor, the bread that he finds defective as regards weight or mark; and at the same time denounce the culprit and bring him before Justice if the complaint is justified."

It may be noted that Le Geyt makes no mention of simnels, and it seems that they have not been thought worth recording by historians in the past. Falle, 1694, and Durell, his commentator in 1837; Jean Poingdestre, Daniel Messervy; De la Croix, .... none of them speaks about simnels.

Act of the States

We read about them, however, in an Act of the States of Jersey dated 10 November 1596, which (translated) is as follows:

"The States having considered the great dearth and famine which menaces the whole of Christianity, and to maintain the public economic policy of the Island in that the grain will not be withheld and that the Market will be conveniently furnished as well for the commerce in seed, as for the bakers and other inhabitants of the Island, and wishing also to remove the abuses and superfluities which the said bakers commit in the making and distribution of their bread, have ordered that all grain of any sort which every Saturday is brought into Town for sale, will be placed on stalls in the Halls until ten o'clock in the morning then exposed for sale according to the market price to the poorest and the richest inhabitants of the Island: And it is expressly forbidden that anyone will buy wholesale or monopolise the grain, or divert it from the market on pain of confiscation of the said grain, the half of which will be given to the accuser or informer and the other half to the poor, without hope of favour from anyone; As to the bakers they are forbidden to make either white bread or symenels on pain of a heavy fine, but bakers will be able to make their bread in large round loaves, or brown bread of five sous and three sous the piece, unless on the week when they may distribute from their houses or taverns, guarding and observing the weight and quality of their bread according to the price of corn of which the Viscount has charge.
"Having regard to the disorders and abuses that the beggars commit, it is forbidden that they shall prowl about outside their own Parish, where they will be provided for by the wealthy people for their assistance according to the Order from Monsieur le Capitaine (the Governor) and Justices on 17 January 1592. And since the stranger vagabonds diminish the substance of the poor without working or profit to the Island, they are hereby commanded to leave the Island within 14 days herefrom on pain of corporal punishment according to the aforementioned Orders."

1177 record

An early record of simnels is in the year 1177, the reign of Henry II. In his Court Life under the Plantagenets Hubert Hall in 1890 deals very thoroughly with a transaltion of the Red Book of the Exchequer which gives full details of the King's Household and its management. There appear to have been two kinds of simnel, one 'Royal' made, possibly, with oil or butter for the King and his immediate Court leaders; and an inferior one made with dripping.

Under the heading "This is the constitution of the King's House" is listed the Officers of the Court and their emoluments, viz: The Chancellor received 'five shillings daily and one royal simnel and one of (dripping), one sextary of clear wine, one of household wine, one wax-candle and forty candle-ends'.

  • The Master of the Scriptorium received two shillings daily, one inferior simnel, one taper and twenty-four candle ends.
  • To the four bakers serving the household-one royal simnel between the four, one inferior simnel between two, and one ordinary loaf to each.
  • To the Naperer-his customary ration. To his man-three half-pence daily and one penny for a sumpter horse and one penny monthly to shoe him " !

The Latin word siminellus is used throughout the above document, and was no doubt based on the Latin simila meaning' fine flour. In Swedish the cake is called simla, Norwegian and Danish simle and German semmel.

Simnels are mentioned in the Guildhall Rolls of London in 1290 and in 1300 (Quoted in Dugdale's Monasticon). Also in the Lesser Black Book of London in 1288, Edward 1.

John Carpenter in his Liber Albus of the City of London, written during the third term of office of his Lord Mayor - Richard Whittington, 1419, quotes 'Desmesne Bread' as being Panis Dominicus, ie Symnels made of the very finest flour, and thus called from an impression upon them of an effigy of our Saviour.

Normandy

In Normandy, France, in the Records of Rouen, 1377, occurs "Un galon de vin et deux siminiaux". The Records of Caux, in 1410 - "un symnel" is quoted. At St Lo, in 1428, one reads "la place ou l'en vente le cheminel", whilst in Paris, in about 1350, one of the current street cries was "Chaudes tartes et siminiaux".

A medieval French description of a simnel was "pain ou gateaux de fleur de farine cuit deux fois, que l'on mangeait surtout dans le Careme" '

In England there seem to have been two kinds:

  • A kind of bread or bun made of fine flour and prepared by boiling, sometimes with subsequent baking
  • A rich currant cake usually eaten on Mid-Lent Sunday in certain districts

In 1688 Holmes' Armory says: A simnel is a thick copped cake or loaf made of white bread, knodden up with Saffron and Currans.

It would appear that the earliest simnels carried on them an impression of a religious nature, either of our Lord, the Virgin, or an angel etc, and one might appropriately sum up this paper by quoting from Frazer's Golden Bough - the Corn Spirit:

"The eating of a cake by the most primitive peoples (pagans) as ritual was symbolic of partaking of the Spirit of the Corn God. Cakes entered into ritual and sacrifices of all kinds from the earliest days. In primitive communities, and as a ritual surviving into much later stages, first-fruits are the subject of solemn ceremonial observances before the bulk of the harvest can be eaten. They are eaten sacramentally, in order that the eaters may obtain the Divine life which is present in them such as the Corn Spirit.

This is suggested by the custom observed in the making of cakes, or the eating of them; by their division among the members of the family, or their being marked with sacred symbols (the Cross in hot-cross buns), or figures such as of Christ or the Virgin on symnel cakes, These simnel cakes probably replace the cakes stamped with pagan symbols or images. As in so many other instances when pagan ritual was Christianised, nothing is more likely than that the cakes used at pagan festivals became, by an easy transition, cakes associated with Christian festivals. Among cakes which have had this history may be mentioned Yule cakes made in the form of a child; pancakes on Shrove Tuesday; cakes eaten on various Sundays in Lent-Simnels on Mothering Sunday-and Whitsun cakes; Hot-cross-buns on Good Friday; Easter cakes, Whitsun cakes, Michaelmas cakes and so on.

The eating of a rich cake in Mid-Lent (on Refection Sunday) is in commemoration of the banquet given by Joseph to his brethren, which forms the first Lesson that day, and the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, which forms the Gospel of that Sunday.

We may therefore leave the subject there, merely remarking that whereas in England they seem to call a simnel cake one filled with fruits etc, (the familiar 'Sally Lunn' cake is very probably a survival of the original simnel) , here in Jersey, at the moment at any rate, we are following the French style "Petit pain en forme de turban. Se mange pendant le Careme".

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