Wider Fallout From the First Controversy#
Although the correspondence between the two protagonists of the first controversy – Revd. D. Silvan Evans and the anonymous Blackwood author – had come to an end, there were still a couple of loose ends; for immediately after Silvan Evans’ letter in the Academy at the end of February, 1876, appeared another letter from a new correspondent.
And for the curious, the identity of the Blackwood author was still to be revealed…
The Mountain Decameron Makes An Appearance#
Writing from Newtown, in Montgomeryshore, the column in the Academy that contained Silvan Evans’ final letter also included a communication from a certain Mr. E. R. Morris (Vol 9 Iss 199, February 26th, 1876, p198) that recalled another, as yet unmentioned reference to the sin-eater, in Joseph Downes’ Mountain Decameron.
This was, you might recall, a largely fictional work, although it did draw on Welsh legend and tradition. But it is referenced here not from direct experience of the original, but mediated via another work, Roscoe’s Wanderings and Excursions in South Wales.
Homestay, Newtown, Montgomeryshire : February 12, 1876.
Roscoe, in his Wanderings and Excursions in South Wales, quoting the author of the Mountain Decameron, locates “what is believed to have been the last Sin-Eater of Wales” differently from any mentioned in the Academy. I subjoin his remarks.
The following paragraph, taken from Roscoe, precedes the excerpt provided in the letter, and is also taken directly from the Mountain Decameron:
“So late as the earlier part of the last century, that strange character of a stranger superstition, known by the name of ‘The Sin-Eater,’ was not unknown in Wales. This was some desperate being, who (unless we suppose him an unbeliever), being past redemption, lost to all hope of salvation, did, for a slight reward, or to gratify the relatives of one lying dead, take on his own soul all the sins of the deceased by a formal act, sometimes receiving confession during life, and bargaining for the burthens thus to be imposed on his already laden soul.
But two short paragraphs from the Mountain Decameron that appear between the paragraph above and the paragraphs quoted in the letter are omitted:
Mr. Fosbroke, in an account of the town of Ross, quotes a letter, I forget by whom, (but I have an idea by Mr. Kyrle, the “Man of Ross,”) which describes a “Sin-Eater,” who “lived by Ross highway,” and is described as a “gaunt, ghastly, lean, miserable, poor rascal.”
which we might recognise as quoting Aubrey,
If we consider these persons as probably not less believers than those who employed them, it is not easy to imagine a condition of the mind more terrific, desolate, and desperate, than theirs; thus more and more removed from the hope of mercy with every death, and assurance of perdition doubly sure.
There then follows a direct quotation from the work, which we should probably now read with a more critical eye.
“A gentleman who lived a little before the time of this dark superstition becoming obsolete (the earlier part of the last century) gives us this brief account of what is believed to have been the last ‘Sin-Eater of Wales.’
As Silvan Evans might have asked, what gentleman?
If we place the sentence back into its original context, where the preceding lines refer to the tradition according to Aubrey, we might interpret the line “[a] gentleman who lived a little before the time of this dark superstition becoming obsolete (the earlier part of the last century) gives us this brief account” as moving us from the “historical” context and into the fictional world of Downes’ imagination.
“‘I got lost,’ says he, ‘near nightfall, after being landed by the ferry-boat from the Aber of Dovey on the Cardiganshire side of that estuary. A black turbary of great extent divided me from the road. I was cautioned to ride far’ round this pitchy bog, for no horse ever ventured among the peat pits, the whole being a quaking morass. In truth, its look was enough, under a black evening, to keep me off, even without peril of being swallowed, man and horse.
“‘At last, thanks to my stars, the good hard rock of a rough road rung to my horse’s hoof, and I saw a cottage taper, as ghastly as the Canwyll Corph, at a distance.
“‘The house was on a high point and turn of road, overlooking all those many acres of hollow ground.
“‘Just as I came up, hoping lodging, I heard sounds of wailing within, and soon, a woman came out into the dead night, late as it was, and cried a name to the top pitch of her wild voice, that seemed one I had heard weeping indoors. When I looked in, there lay a corpse of a man, with a plate of salt holding a bit of bread placed on its breast. The woman was shouting to the Sin-Eater to come and do his office— that is, to eat the bread, lay his hand on the dead breast, place the dead man’s on his own, after making a sign of the cross, and then praying for a transfer of all pains or penances from that pardoned dead man for ever, to him that more than dead alive, himself in his death of soul, but not of its pains, for ever and ever.’
Again, the story appears to claim an “authentic” source, the traveller, although he remains otherwise unidentified:
“This is the traveller’s account of this incident.
The account continues:
He had the curiosity to wait, and saw at last the motion of what seemed a foggy meteor moving toward their standing-point. After waiting long, he caught a far-out shout in reply to the woman’s long unanswered, till she kindled, on the high road’s point, the straw of her husband’s late bed—the usual signal of a death in the house.
And then we have the reference to the sin-eater:
“The Sin-Eater, he was told, lived alone in a hovel made of sea-wreck and nails of such, between sea-marsh and that dim bog, where few could approach by day, none dare by night, whether for the footing, or the great fear, or at least awe, which all felt of that recluse.”
As to the locale?
Persons acquainted with the district readily recognise the locality from the above description, others may do so when I state that the Cambrian Railway, between Machynlleth and Aberystwith, traverses the “black turbary of great extent,” and the high road from Aberdovey passes close by one of the railway stations on this line, called “Ynyslas.”
So there was a sin-eater at “Ynyslas”, a small village north of Aberystwyth, on the south bank of the Dovey (Dyfi) Estuary, opposite Aberdovey (Aberdyfi)?
As to the tradition, the correspondent presumes the tradition continues, *or at least the tradition of placing a plate of salt on the dead body, for he claims personal knowledge of it:
The custom of placing a plate of salt on the breast of a dead person is, I imagine, not obsolete in this county yet; at any rate instances have occurred within my own knowledge.
E. R. Morris.
In the following issue of the Academy, Vol 9 Iss 200, dated March 4th, 1876, p221, a letter appears from a certain gentleman of Oswestry who had also been minded to check the original source:
Croeswylan, Oswestry: Feb. 28, 1876.
My friend Mr. Morris, your latest contributor to the “Sin-Eater” correspondence, quotes the Mountain Decameron sketch of what is “believed to be the last sin-eater in Wales.” I presume Mr. Morris quotes at second-hand, or he would have seen that he has only unearthed old Aubrey’s “long, leane, ugly, lamentable poor raskal,” for, in the passage immediately before Roscoe’s quotation, the author says :— “Mr. Fosbroke, in an account of the town of Ross, quotes a letter, I forget by whom (but I have an idea by Mr. Kyrle, the ‘Man of Ross’), which describes a ‘Sin-Eater,’ who ‘lived by Ross highway, and is described as a ‘gaunt, ghastly, lean, miserable, poor raskal.’”
The gentleman of Oswestry, who we are probably not surprised to learn is Mr. Askew Roberts, then associates that quotation with on from Aubrey that appeared earlier in the debate, and suggests that all Downes’ does is reimagine it in his own way:
If your readers will refer to Mr. Fitzgerald’s letter on November 20, 1875, they will see that the “poor raskals” are identical; and Mr. Downes, the author of the Mountain Decameron (who dates his book “Builth, Breconshire, April, 1836”), does not profess to do more than pen a fancy sketch on Aubrey’s text, laying his scene in Cardiganshire.
He signs off with a nod to Silvan Evans’ and his apparently fruitless quest to track down evidence of a Welsh sin-eater:
I fear Mr. Silvan Evans is as far off as ever from catching the real Simon Pure!
In contemporary usage, at least according to the Merriam Webster dictionary](http://dictionary.sensagent.com/simon pure/en-en/):
Simon-pure , a. Genuine; true; real; authentic; – a term alluding to the comedy character Simon Pure, who is impersonated by another and is obliged to prove himself to be the “real Simon Pure.”
The character is originally introduced in A Bold Stroke for a Wife, an 18th century satirical play in which two Simon Pures appear on stage.
Over in Bye-Gones, which we might recall was edited by Askew Roberts, and also reprinted in The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard of March 10th, 1876, p7, the commentary surrounding the debate continued, with a follow-up to the summary of the February 9th, 1876, edition appearing in the March 8th, 1876 edition, p29:
The Sin-Eater in Wales (Feb. 9, 1876) Further correspondence has appeared in the Academy on this question, but no fresh light has been thrown on the alleged custom. On February 26th, Mr E. R. Morris gives from Ruscoe’s South Wales a quotation from the Mountain Decameron, in which “what is believed to have been the last Sin-Eater in Wales,” is stated to have lived somewhere between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth, but Mr Askew Roberts, in the last number, shows, by further quotation from the book itself, that this was only a fancy sketch, founded on Aubrey’s “leane raskal.” In another letter, replying to one by the author of the Blackwood article, Mr Silvan Evans deies that gentleman to make good his assertion that the superstition is “still surviving in North and South Wales.”
Whether or not Askew Roberts penned this himself, the editorial line is clear: the last sin-eater as described in the Mountain Decameron is a fiction, a “fancy sketch, founded on Aubrey”.
A month later, a very critical column regarding the “Welsh Decameron” appeared in Bye-Gones dated March 29th, 1876, p35-6, which reminded readers that:
The character of the Mountain Decameron as a work of fiction, its delineations of human nature devoid of credit, and its narratives of palpable improbabilities, …
See the earlier section on The Mountain Decameron and its reviews for the full article.
A Final Aside – Another Curious Figure#
As a final aside, a letter appearing in The Aberystwith Observer published March 11th, 1876, p4, seems inspired by the recent discussions about the sin-eater, and asks about another curious fellow, Twm Shone Catti:
TWM SHON CATTI.
To the Editor of the Aberystwyth Observer.
Sir.— I have been much interested by the letters which have appeared in your columns from the pen of the Rev. Silvan Evans on the subject of that suppositious personage, the “Sin Eater;” perhaps Mr. Evans or some other reader of antiquarian tastes may be able to inform me where I can find a reliable account of funny Twm, or as others prefer to style him “Thomas Jones, Esq., of Tregaron.” I am aware that a “life” of Twm has been published at Llanidloes and by a London firm, but both those books have assumed the form of Welsh novels, and it is occasionally difficult to sever the real from the imaginary. If any of your readers can help me to solve my perplexity, or assist me to genuine facts I shall be heartily obliged. I am, sir, LLIDIARDE-Y-FFYNON.