The earliest mention of Halloween? John Mirk’s “Festivall” or “Festial” or “Liber Festivalis

This evening I happened to come across Lisa Morton, The Halloween Encyclopedia (2011).  I can see some errors in it, but on the whole it is an admirable effort.  On p.148, under “Parties”, we find this statement:

One of the earliest written mentions of Halloween, from the 1493 Festivall, contains this description of what sounds like a contemporary Halloween party: “Good frendes suche a daye ye shall haue all halowen daye.”

Appendix I : Chronology of Halloween, (p.203), has the first mention of halloween as:

1493—Festivall mentions celebrating Halloween with “good frendes”

There is no reference, unfortunately.  What on earth is “Festivall”?

The old Bodleian “Catalogus Librorum Impressorum Bibliothecae Bodleianae” vol 2., p.40 (online here) tells us of a “Liber festivalis [anglice]” printed in Westmonesterio [by W. de Worde] in 1493 – this is perhaps the source of the date given above -, and below also of “The boke that is callid festivall” printed at Oxford by Theod. Rood and Th. Hunt in 1486.  None of this is easily accessible, and what is the book anyway?

Some intensive googling later, I discover that it is a book composed in the late 1380s by the Augustinian canon John Mirk, and one of the most commonly printed English books before 1500.  It is a sermon collection, organised by saint’s day, and written in English rather than Latin.  The sermons usually contain stories and anecdotes.  The book is today often referred to as “John Mirk’s Festial“.

The standard edition is Johannes Mirkus (John Mirk), Mirk’s Festial: A Collection of Homilies, ed. Theodor Erbe; series: Early English Text Society extra series XCVI, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. for the Early English Text Society, 1905.  This thankfully is online at here.  Unfortunately it is printed in Middle English, complete with weird letters.  The text is readable enough, with a bit of effort.  There is a glossary at  the back.

A new edition is in progress by Susan Powell, but this I was unable to access.

I have not been able to find the text given, not even by searching for “frend”.  Possibly Morton used the more up-to-date edition?  But on p.266, we find the start of the sermon for All Saints Day (click to enlarge):

It gives a history of the celebration of All Saint’s Day, referencing Pope Gregory (IV).

The text uses “halowen” to mean “hallow, keep holy”, rather than Halloween.  This is confirmed by the glossary at the end, on p.328:

This all rather suggests that Morton is in a mistake here – that this is not a reference to Halloween at all.

All the same, the Halloween Encyclopedia is both useful and interesting.  I sympathised entirely with the statement in the preface about “sources”:

Unfortunately, many of those source books are little more than collections of fairy tales. They often seem to have been poorly researched, and displayed prejudice or predilection on the part of their authors.

So it still is.


8 thoughts on “The earliest mention of Halloween? John Mirk’s “Festivall” or “Festial” or “Liber Festivalis

  1. I think you’re right: Morton has misinterpreted the sentence. ‘Halowen’ is just the plural “saints”, so the meaning is “Good friends: on such a day you shall have (celebrate) All Saints’ Day.” He’s talking about the first of November.

    She must have got it, directly or indirectly, from the OED. Vol. I (1st ed.) s.v. “All-hallow” has:

    3. All hallows’ day: All Saints’ day; the first of November. arch.
    1483 CAXTON G. de la Tour G vij, Thepystle of al hallowen day. 1493 Festivall (W. de Worde 1515) 147b, Good frendes such a daye ye shall haue all halowen daye. […]

    That is, exactly Morton’s quotation. The text is indeed Mirk’s Festial, but a different version than the one edited by Erbe for the EETS. This is the 1493 edition by Pynson (reprinted by de Worde). I don’t know f there’s a digital copy online, but there is a rough OCR text here:;view=fulltext

    It reads: “Good frendes suche a daye ye shall haue all halowen daye and ye shall faste the euyn” (“…and you shall fast on the eve”). The paragraph says essentially the same as the one printed by Erbe, but one or the other is heavily reworded. Note that the beginning is the formula with which most of the feasts are introduced in the text, e.g.: “Good frendes suche a daye ye shall haue the feste of saynt Peter and Poule”.

    As a matter of fact, there ARE Middle English attestations of something like “Hallowe’en”. The Middle English Dictionary ( ) s.v. ‘al-halwe’ has three, beginning with:

    c1325(c1300) Glo.Chron.A (Clg A.11)9537 : Roberd erl of gloucestere..An alle halwe eue deide.

    The source is The Metrical Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (Rolls Series 86.2 p. 673). But I think here it simply means the date: “on the eve of All Saints'”. No Halloween party in the 14th century.

  2. Thank you so much for this most interesting material. The OED is undoubtedly the source for Morton, then. No blame to her; that’s a reasonable thing to look at.

    The 1493 version is giving the opening words of the All Saints’ Day sermon, although in a slightly different form from the EETS text in the post. No doubt the text was not standardised.

    Good frend•• suche a daye ye shall haue all halowen daye and ye shall faste the euyn: & on the morowe come to the chirche and worshyp god and our lady. and all ha¦lowyn. Frendes ye shall vnderstonde that this feste was ordeyned for thre specyall causes. and those ben thyse. First for the temple halowyng. for omyssion fulfyllyng. and also for ne∣clygent lyuing.

    Good friend, such a day you shall have all saints day and you shall fast the evening: and on the morrow come to the church and worship God and our Lady, and all saints. Friends, you shall understand that this feast was ordained for three special causes, and those be these: First for the temple hallowing, for omission fulfilling, and also for negligent living.

    So the evening before All Saints Day is in fact a fast day at this point.

    The EEBO doubtless contains the 1493 material but wretchedly is behind a paywall. I will google and see if I can find anything.

  3. I see that there is discussion of the mss of the Liber Festivialis in M. F. Wakelin, ‘The Manuscripts of John Mirk’s Festial’, Leeds Studies in English New Series I (1967), 93-118. This does not seem to be online. Apparently it lists 26 manuscripts.

    There IS an article online here by Susan Powell, “The Nativity of the Virgin and St Katherine: Additions to John Mirk’s Festial”, LSE 2010 p.172-85. It seems that there are two recensions of the “Festivall”, the A version, and the revision labelled B.

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