I have mentioned before that I am a member of a most interesting group, The New Ælfric Society; I also mentioned the story of King Alfred burning the cakes, and how maybe there was more to it than just a careless king not concentrating on the baking!
Here is an extract from an article on our website regarding this:
Anglo Saxons in England prior to Christianisation would have practiced the tradition of making cakebread, unleavened sun-cakes, as an offering – a sacrifice, a burnt offering. This was veneration of the earth in the hope of abundance and of sunlight with the return of lighter, longer days to grow the seed. The ritual was marked by the offering of sun-cakes, sol-cakes, Cakes of Light. The word ‘sol’ translates as ‘sun’ in many languages, including Old English, where ‘sól’ with a long ‘o’ also signified ‘sun’. The purpose of the Cakes of Light was to prompt fertility of the fields prior to the ground being awakened with the plough and enriched with seed.
Anglo Saxons in England certainly observed this rite by using ploughing charms which were offered to the Grain Protector to make a field fertile; it was called the Æcerbot (O.E. meaning ‘Field-Remedy/Acre-Remedy); an atonement for disturbing the sacred surface of the earth/ erðe.
Charms survive in manuscripts dating from the tenth or eleventh century in England but originate in a far more ancient tradition. After the offering of the sacrificial ‘cakes’ or ‘poultices’ to the field, and before nightfall, a plough was anointed with an equally hallowed mixture, usually consisting of a paste made from oil, salt and fennel with the addition of frankincense when this ritual became Christianised.
The antiquity of the Feast of Cakes was known to the Roman historian, Tacitus’. In his first mention of the Angli he notes that they looked on the earth as their ‘mother’, which accords with the Old English practice of offering the charm of Æcerbot to the earth. The reverence for Mother Earth is explicit in this early medieval ploughing verse:
Whole be thou Earth
Mother of men.
In the lap of God,
Be thous as-growing.
Be filled with fodder
For fare-need of men.
Acre full fed,
Bring forth fodder for men!
The older ritual of offering continued with little variation after the introduction of Christianity to England as may be evidenced in the most familiar tale associated with the Saxon King Alfred,his burning of the cakes. Two points to consider are these – why would a king be tending ‘cakes’ and why would it be noteworthy that he burned them?
A comprehension of the old language and customs mentioned earlier and in other cultures may clarify the significance of why Alfred was ‘burning’ the cakes. In Slavic lands, the festival of Maslenitsa is celebrated over the course of the week between the dates that now equate to the Candel and Lenten festivals. People prepared hot round pancakes, sun-cakes of light, some to eat and some to burn as a sacrifice. This old celebration helps us towards a better understanding of the story of Alfred and the burning of the cakes.*
King Alfred’s flight from his base at Chippenham to the Somerset Levels (at Athelney) took place on 6th January 878, occasioned by a surprise attack from the Danish King Guthrum , just over three weeks before the Feast of Cakes followed by the start of the shriving, Lenten period. As King Alfred was known to have been still lodging on the Somerset Levels in February/March he may, quite properly, have carried out any ritual associated with observing the holy days as befits the king/intercessor, as a Christian rite and duty and as a Christian worshipper. If that involved the offering or ‘giving up’ of flat bread/cakes/pancakes then that would have been an observance of an age-old custom suitably Christianised for his times.
* There is a precedent for this legend of burning the cakes. The Old Norse historical saga of the Viking King Ragnarheri, (Reginheri in the Frankish annals) also known as Ragnar Hairybreeks, also ‘burned the bread’ when his ships called at Spangerhed, Norway. In Old Norse Ragnar’s nickname was ‘hairy breeches’ or ‘shaggy trousers’. He attacked Paris in A.D. 845 and then sailed to England where King Aelle II defeated him and cast him into a pit of vipers to die slowly. Ragnar’s sons took vengeance; Ivar the Boneless, his fourth son, crossed the North Sea with a large army, faced King Aelle, captured him and sentenced him to die according to the custom of Rista Blodörn – a very painful death. Ivar was the mastermind behind the attacks on the English mainland in the last quarter of the ninth century.
After this victory Northumbria appears no longer as a Saxon kingdom. Ivor was made Earl of Dublin; Danish merchants flocked to England. Bjorn, another brother, was made King of Sweden. Gotefrid became King of Jutland. Another son, Sigurd,called the Snake Eye, inherited the Danish crown.