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A painting of the ritual portrayed in the Eve of St Agnes, by John Keats. The painting is of two young women in their bed chamber, observing a wraith-like character slumped on their bed. The painting is held at the Tate.
The Eve of St Agnes by James Smetham, 1858. The Tate.

Customs uncovered: St Agnes Eve, dumb cakes, and the prediction of the future

St Agnes Day was traditionally a time when young women were able to bring about visions of their future lovers and husbands. Here's how...

January 20th was traditionally St Agnes Eve, when young women would experiment with ways to predict their future love lives. It being a peculiar, liminal time of the year, this practice involved suitably odd behaviour. Before you read on, remember: some traditions die out for good reason. The recipe for the dumb cake, in particular, should probably be avoided.

The preparation and eating of dumb cake was a true test of determination involving a salt and sugar concoction mixed with the urine of several friends.

In this article, you will find…

Who was St Agnes?

St Agnes Day was named after a Christian martyr who swore to dedicate her life, including her virginity, to the work of Christ. Born in Rome in the early-fourth century, legend has it that she was a particularly good-looking child of around 13 years of age. It seems that a combination of her determination and her beauty led to abhorrent behaviour on behalf of her suitors. Agnes was dragged to a brothel, where it was noted that she grew thick hair across her whole body, and men who attempted to rape her were instantly struck blind. When her persecutors tried to burn her at the stake (circa 304 AD), the wool she wore would not ignite and the flames refused to lick her. Dumbfounded, the centurion overseeing her execution stepped forward and beheaded the girl. Her blood flooded the floor, and watching Christians soaked it up with their clothing.

In the years to come, visions of Agnes were reported across Europe, and her tomb became the site of pilgrimage. Miracles were said to have taken place there: the daughter of Constantine the Great, Constantina, was cured of leprosy. She was canonised sometime in the mid-fourth century, and is now seen as the patron saint of girls, chastity, virgins, victims of sex abuse, and gardeners, among a number of other things.

What happened on St Agnes Eve?

Eve of St Agnes, John Everett Millais, circa 1863

By the 17th century, and up until the 19th century, St Agnes became the object of a folk tradition in which young women undertook certain rituals in the saint’s name, so as to be able to foretell their love lives and marriages. As the folk historian, Steve Roud, has written, “It may seem strange that a person who was famous for preferring death to marriage was called upon in this way… but superstition doesn’t follow such logical patterns.”

The practice turns up in plenty of literature of the period, John Keats writing the tale in The Eve of St Agnes (1820) of a young man who falls in love with the daughter of his enemy. On hearing that she is about to perform a divination ritual on St Agnes Eve, breaks into her bedroom so that when she awakes, she sees him and he becomes the object of her visions made flesh. Romantic or downright creepy? You decide.

How did women predict their future husbands?

The painting of a woman standing in a moonlit room. She is dressed for bed and her brown hair hangs long around her shoulders.
The Eve of St Agnes, by Claude Shepperson

Any number of divination rituals have been recorded. Generally speaking, they fall into your typical “throw hemp seeds over your shoulder at midnight, intone the name of St Agnes, and the wraiths of your future lovers will appear behind you” category.

In The English Year, Roud records a ritual printed in Derbyshire in 1874, in which young women who intended to see their future on St Agnes Eve would undertake a 24-hour fast, beginning on January 20th, drinking only “pure water” and refusing to speak to anyone. At midnight on the 21st, she would take to her bed, lie on her left side and pronounce the following incantation three times:

Saint Agnes is a friend to me
In the gift I ask of thee
Let me this night my husband see

Her subsequent dreams would reveal her husband, but only if she dreamt of one man. If she dreamt of multiple men, then her future was determined to be… shall we say… a little more polygamous.

Another method of conjuring up these visions was the somewhat self-flagellatory preparation and consumption of ‘dumb cake’ – a true test of determination involving a salt and sugar concoction mixed with the urine of several friends. All of which begs the time-honoured question: is he really worth it?

Dumb cake recipe

A print showing the baking of dumb cake. Three women stand by a fire, frying dumb cake in a frying pan, each woman looking serious in their endeavours.
The Dumb-Cake Baking. Print by W. Finden, circa 1843

Make this cake with several friends.


  • Equal measures flour and salt
  • Equal measures of all participants’ urine
  • Soot to taste


  • Mix flour salt and “every one of your own water”
  • Roll the cake “broad and thin”
  • Mark your initials on a piece of the cake with a pin or bodkin
  • Set it before the fire to bake
  • Speak not a word while it bakes
  • Garnish with soot

To serve

  • Place it on a plate and each turn the plate once
  • She that turned it first, let her turn it again

A wraith of each participant’s husband-to-be will appear and cut out the letters of the name, break the letters in two, hand the cake to his intended, and tuck in.

If a bell should ring at any point during this process, everyone should get away to bed, “to prevent leading apes in hell”.

The information in our Customs Uncovered series comes from several books, most commonly The English Year (Steve Roud, 2006), and The Stations of the Sun (Ronald Hutton, 1996).