The Road to Ludlow
The Road to Ludlow#
From Archaeologia Cambrensis, the official proceedings of the sixth annual meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Association at Ludlow in 1852, we might reasonably assume that Mr. Matthew Moggridge, Esq., himself learned of the tradition from “Aubrey”, writing in the Lansdowne manuscripts, as held by the British Museum, via Hone’s Year Book, p. 858.
A query raised following the meeting by one of those in attendance, Mr. Jelinger C. Symons in Notes & Queries also revealed by way of response a reference to the same quote appearing in Brand’s Antiquities, vol. ii. p. 247., edit. 1849.
So in our attempt to track down the origins of the story of the sin-eater, let us begin with those two sources before broadening our search to other possible references to the tradition in the years prior to 1852.
Hone’s Year Book, 1832#
The year book of daily recreation and information by William Hone, originally published weekly from January 1831 to January 1832, in 52 numbers was published in a single volume in February, 1832 [Hone, 1832].
The publication of an Edinburgh edition was announced in The Scotsman on Saturday 18 February 1832
MR HONE’S YEAR BOOK COMPLETE.
This day is published.
By RICHARD GRIFFIN & CO. Glasgow,
And STILLIES, BROTHERS, 140, High Street, Edinburgh.
In one very large vol. 8 vo., with 114 Engravings, price 14s. in cloth
THE YEAR BOOK of Daily Recreation and Information, concerning remarkable Men and Manners, Times and Seasons, Solemnities and Merry-makings, Antiquities and Novelties, forming a complete History of the Year, and a Key to the Almanacks.
By W. Hone
N.B. Persons wishing for Odd Numbers to complete the YEAR BOOK will make immediate applicationto R. GRIFFIN & CO., as some of the numbers are getting scarece.
64, Hutcheson Street, Feb. 11, 1832
The full title of the book is more correctly recorded as The year book of daily recreation and information concerning remarkable men and manners, times and seasons, solemnities and merry-makings, antiquities and novelties: on the plan of the Every-Day Book and Table Book, or everlasting calendar of popular amusements, sports, pastimes, ceremonies, customs, and events incident to each of the three hundered and sixty-five days in past and present times; forming a complete history of the year; and a perpetual key to the Almanac; with 114 engravings.
This work drew on Hone’s previous works, The Every-Day Book and The Table Book. Whilst neither book contains a description of the sin-eater practise, the list of “topics to be covered” in the first edition of the Every-Day Book (started at the end of 1824), does mention that “sin-eater” will be one of the topics to be covered.
Hone’s Every-Day Book
The every day book : or, A guide to the year : describing the popular amusements, sports, ceremonies, manners, customs, and events, incident to the three hundred and sixty-five days, in past and present times was originally published weekly from Jan. 1825 to Dec. 1826 (105 numbers including indexes).
Reviews reprinted in the Inverness Courier of Wednesday 06 June 1832 described it in the following terms:
THE YEAR BOOK. “This is another delightful compilation by the ingenious Mr Hone, whose fame as an author promises to out-rival his reputation as apolitical martyr. His productions certainly combine the useful with the agreeable, far more effectively than any other compilations of the present day. They afford an infinite variety of curious information, without either prosing or pretension : and so happily are the materials put together, that the very highest critical authority of the present time, Dr Southey, has borne testimony to their merit. Conducted on the same plan as his other volumes, equally full of rare and curious matter, it is also in its multifarious details equally amusing—and therefore are we convinced that it cannot fail to be generally read and admired.”— Scots Times.
“This is very delightful Miscellany, full of Amusing Traditional anecdotes, Antiquarian research, Lively Observations, Prose and Poetry, together wiih a long Muster-roll of & ceteras.” Sun
In the Explanatory Address to the Readers of The Every-Day Book, which was originally published in serialised form, Hone describes the publishing model:
A number, or sheet of thirty-two columns, price threepence, will be published every Saturday till the undertaking is completed, which will be in about a year— a few weeks more or less. The Engravings in each will vary as to number: in some there may be only one or two ; in others, three, or four, or five — according to the subject. 45, Ludgate-hill, 31st December, 1824. W. HONE.
See for example this edition of 1878 which includes facsimiles of the title pages from the 1825, 1826, and 1827 editions. The list of topics, again without a corresponding entry, also includes mention of Sin eaters in either volume I or Volume II of the 1826 edition.
The address mentions a variety of topics to be covered by the work including corpse candles and sin eaters. However, no mention of the sin-eater appears in the work as published.
Hone’s Table Book
The Table Book, by William Hone, was originally published weekly, from January 1827 to January 1828 (55 no., including indexes), introduced by Hone in the following terms:
On the close of the Every-Day Book, which commenced on New Year’s Day, 1825, and ended in the last week of 1826, I began this work.
In the entry for July 19th, 1831, on pages 858-9 of The Year-Book, we find the following reference to “Sin Eaters”.
Sin-eating is the only that can be used to signify a practice which prevailed with our ancestors. Lawrence Howell, mentioned above, wrote a “History of the Pontificate”, in which he mentions a decretal epistle, attributed to a pope Alexander, in the second century, which, by an exposition of “They eat up the sin of my people,” Hosea iv. 8, implies that this passage signifies “the dignity of priests, who, by their prayers and offerings, eat up the sins of the people.” An usage called sin-eating undoubtedly arose in catholic times, and, however it may have been limited to the clergy in early ages, was afterwards continued and practised as a profession, by certain persons called sin-eaters.
This reference to Hosea iv. 8 was presumably picked up by the person responding to Symons’ letter to Notes & Queries; we also have an indication suggestive of catholic origins to the practise.
We then get a more direct statement regarding the folkloric character we are pursuing:
In a letter from John Bagford, dated 1715, printed in “Leland’s Collectanea,” there is the following account of a sin-eater. — “Within the memory of our fathers, in Shropshire, in those villages adjoining to Wales, when a person died, there was notice given to an old ‘sire’ (for so they called him,) who presently repaired to the place where the deceased lay, and stood before the door of the house, when some of the family came out and furnished him with a cricket (or stool), on which he sat down facing the door. Then they gave him a groat, which he put in his pocket; a crust of bread, which he ate; and a full bowl of ale, which he drank off at a draught.” After this, he got up from the cricket, and pronounced, with a composed gesture, ‘the ease and rest of the soul departed, for which he would pawn his own soul.’ This” says Bagford, “I had from the ingenious John Aubrey, esq., who made a collection of curious observations, which I have seen.”
Here, then, it would appear that we have another description of a visiting fellow in the Shropshire area in the last quarter of the 17th century (“within memory of our fathers”, from a basis in 1715) who arrives when a death is announced; who is paid groat (four pence); who sits on a small stool facing the door, eats some bread and drinks a “full bowl” of ale in one go; and who then stands, and with a particular gesture (though what sort of gesture we don’t know), makes a ritual pronouncement. Bagford claims this account comes from Aubrey, perhaps as a personal communication, who was collecting and writing in the latter quarter of the seventeenth century, or perhaps from Aubrey’s writings. But in either case: from Aubrey.
John Bagford (1650/51 – 5 May, 1716) was an English antiquarian, writer, bibliographer, ballad-collector and bookseller.
JOHN BAGFORD, BOOKSELLER AND ANTIQUARY MILTON MCC. GATCH https://www.bl.uk/eblj/1986articles/pdf/article12.pdf
The Year Book then quotes a written description of the sin-eater as provided by Aubrey:
Among the Lansdowne MSS., in the British Museum, are statements in Aubrey’s own hand writing, to this purport. — “In the county of Hereford was an old custom at funerals to hire poor people, who were to take upon them the sins of the party deceased. One of them (he was a long, lean, ugly, lamentable poor rascal), I remember, lived in a cottage on Rosse highway.
Which “Rosse highway” is not clear: is it the road out to Hereford, or to Monmouth? (See for example this map of Herefordshire by Morden, c.1700.)
Aubrey then describes the ritual:
The manner was, that when the corpse was brought out of the house, and laid on the bier, a loaf of bread was brought out, and delivered to the sin-eater, over the corpse, as also a mazard bowl, of maple, full of beer (which he was to drink up), and sixpence in money : in consideration whereof he took upon him, ipso facto, all the sins of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead.”
Aubrey then reviews other places where the practice is said to occur:
Aubrey adds, “This custom, though rarely used in our days, yet, by some people, was observed even in the strictest time of the Presbyterian government ; as, at Dynder (volens nolens the parson of the parish), the kindred of a woman, deceased there, had this ceremony punctually performed, according to her will : and, also, the like was done at the city of Hereford, in those times, where a woman kept, many years before her death, a mazard bowl for the sin-eater; and the like in other places in this county ; as also in Brecon : e. g. at Llanggors, where Mr. Gwin, the minister, about 1640, could not hinder the performance of this ancient custom. I believe,” says Aubrey, “this custom was heretofore used all over Wales.” He states further, “A. D. 1686. This custom is used to this day in North Wales.”
A reference is then made to what appears to be a commentary on, or attached to, the manuscript itself by Bishop White Kennett:
Bishop White Kennet, who appears to have possessed Aubrey’s MS., has added this note. “It seems a remainder of this custom which lately obtained at Amersden, in the county of Oxford ; where, at the burial of every corpse, one cake and one flaggon of ale, just after the interment, were brought to the minister in the church porch.”
Bishop White Kennet
Bishop White Kennet (10 August 1660 – 19 December 1728), vicar of Ambrosden, Oxfordshire, afterwards Bishop of Peterborough, and antiquarian who lived at the end of the 17th and start of the 18th century. He appears to have held possession of Aubrey’s papers relating to the sin-eater that now form part of the Lansdowne manuscripts.
Among his achievements, White Kennet was author of the Parochial Antiquities attempted in the History of Ambrosden, Burcester, and other adjacent parts in the counties of Oxford and Bucks, with a Glossary of Obsolete Terms published in Oxford, 1695. Is Ambrosden perhaps the same place as “Amersden”, where he came upon this ritual whilst preparing his own work? That said, I have found no description of such a ritual (so far!) in my reading of Parochial Antiquities, other than a quotation from Aubrey.
In terms of provenance of the White’s papers, which included Aubrey’s manuscript, and their route into the Lansdowne amnuscripts, the *Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, entry for Kennett, White offers the following: “Many of Kennett’s manuscripts, which once formed part of the library of James West, president of the Royal Society, were purchased in 1773 by the Earl of Shelburne (afterwards Marquis of Lansdowne), with whose collection they passed, in 1807, to the British Museum. They are now numbered 935–1041 in the Lansdowne collection.”
Aubrey, quoted in White Kennet’s Parochial Antiquities, 1818
A footnote to the 1818 edition of White Kennett’s Parochial Antiquities attempted in the History of Ambrosden, Burcester, and other adjacent parts in the counties of Oxford and Bucks, with a Glossary of Obsolete Terms (“A New Edition in Two Volumes, Greatly Enlarged from the Author’s Manuscript Notes”, edited by Bulkeley Bandinel quotes Aubrey, and also includes a further observation about the giving of doles as a current tradition.
In the county of Hereford was an old custom at funerals to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the sinns of the party deceased, and were called sin-eaters. One of them I remember liv’d in a cottage on Rosse high-way. The manner was thus : when the corps was brought out of the hous, and laid on the biere, a loaf of bread was delivered to the sinne eater over the corps, as allso a mazar bowle (a gossips bowl of maple) full of beer, which he was to drink up, and six pence in mony, in consideration whereof he took upon him ipso facto all the sinns of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead. In North Wales the sinne eaters are frequently made use of; but there, instead of a bowl of beer, they have a bowl of milk. This custom was by some people observed even in the strictest time of the presbyterian government. As at Dyndar, volens nolens the parson of the parish, the relation of a woman deceased there had this ceremony punctually performed according to her will. The like was done in the city of Hereford in those times, where a woman kept, many years before her death, a mazar bowl for the sinne-eater; and in other places in this county, as allso at Brecon, at Llangors, where Mr. Gwin the minister, about 1640, could not hinder this superstition. Methinks doles to poor people, with mony at funerals, have some resemblance of the sinne-eating. Doles at funerals were continued at gentlemen’s funerals in the west of England till the civil warrs ; and so in Germany, at rich men’s funerals, doles are in use, and to every one a quart of strong and good beer. Aubrey of Gentilisme, MS.
This giving of doles is now observed in most country funerals in cake to all the better part, and bread to all the poor people.
Leland’s Collectanea, 1774#
Regarding the “letter from John Bagford” in Leland’s Collectanea, it first seems to appear in the second edition of Joannis Lelandi antiquarii De rebvs britannicis collectanea, edited by Thomas Hearne, and published in 1774, as “A Letter to the Publisher, written by the ingenious Mr. John Bagford, in which are many curious Remarks relating to the City of London and somme things about Leland, p. LVIII-LXXXVI.
Thomas Hearne (1678-1735) was an English diarist, scholar and antiquary from Berkshire.
On p. LXXVI, we have the comment regarding the “old Sire”:
Letter from John Bagford
Within the memory of our Fathers in Shropshire, in those Villages adjoyning to Wales when a Person dyed, there was notice given to an old Sire, (for so they call’d him,) who presently repair’d to the Place where the deceased lay, and stood before the Door of the House, when some of the Family came out and furnished him with a Cricket, on which he sat down facing the Door. Then they gave him a Groat, which he put in his Pocket, a Crust of Bread which he eat, and a full Bowle of Ale which he drank off at a draught. After this he got up from the Cricket, and pronounced with a composed Gesture, “The safe and rest of the Soul departed, for which he would pawn his own Soul”. This I had from the ingenious John Aubrey Esq; who made a Collectìon of curious Observations, which I have seen, and is now remaining in the Hands of Mr. Churchill the Bookseller. How can a man think otherwise of this, than that it proceeded from the ancient Heathens?
The letter is signed off as follows:
I wish you a long Life, vigorous course of Health, and all imaginable encouragement of your learned and indefatigable Studies, (which I am glad have been so generously and so publickly taken notice of by the University of Oxfordd) and am, Sir, Your very humble servant Charter-House Feb, 1714|15. John Bagford.
So we can date this observation back at least to c. 1714.
We also note that the letter has a little more detail regarding the current whereabouts of Aubrey’s papers – and is now remaining in the Hands of Mr. Churchill the Bookseller – as well as a comment regarding the deeper history of the story: How can a man think otherwise of this, than that it proceeded from the ancient Heathens?
John Leland was an English antiquary who lived and worked during the first half of the sixteenth century.
Who, then, is “Mr. Churchill the bookseller”?
Perhaps it could be Awnsham Churchill, (1658-1728), of the Black Swan, Paternoster Row, London and Henbury, Dorset, MP, publisher and son of a bookseller (William Churchill, also of Dorchester) (History of Parliament), which states “Churchill was distantly related to the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill), but preferred to carve out a strongly independent Whig career.”
Did Churchill the bookseller perhaps pass mention of the tradition to the Duke of Marlborough, as mentioned in the account of the Shrewsbury Chronicle of Friday 03 September 1852 of Mr. Moggrdige’s observations on “The Sin Eater”:
Matthew Moggridge, Esq. said the Duke of Marlborough was the person he had alluded to. He sent for Dr. Bowles during his sickness, and when the Dr. arrived he found that the Duke was already dead, and the plate and the salt was placed on the body. Far be it from him to desire that anything he should advance should not be combated, for all he wished was to get at the truth.
and who we consider might be George Spencer-Churchill, the 5th Duke of Marlborough, collector of antiquities and books, who died on March 5th, 1840? Or was the tradition simply part of a wider tradition?
The History of Parliament biography of Churchill continues:
Despite his strongly Whig sympathies, Churchill remained on friendly terms with his Tory kinsman George Churchill: he was the first to break the news of the admiral’s death to the Duke of Marlborough, who thanked him for the ‘kind concern’ he had shown, and he was appointed an executor of George’s will. Awnsham had nevertheless always shown a reluctance to approach Marlborough for patronage, preferring the independence his trade gave him.
so we know that they were on good terms.
From Aubrey to the British Library#
At this point, let us try to make a note of the likely path taken by Aubrey’s manuscript, from the time he died until the time it made it to the British Library.
Lansdowne MS 231/3 (1568-1637) British Library: Western Manuscripts Lansdowne MS 231/3 1568-1637 3. Remains of Gentilism and Judaism, collected by John Aubrey, Esq., and addressed to his friend Edmund Wyld, of Geasly Hall in the county of Salop, Esq. fo. 101. Some of these are printed in his “Miscellanies.” They relate chiefly to the old English popular customs and traditions.
Hone’s Year Book suggests “Bishop White Kennet, who appears to have possessed Aubrey’s MS”, and before that we have Bagford’s letter claiming prior to that the papers are “now remaining in the Hands of Mr. Churchill the Bookseller”. The Dictionary of National Biography then suggest the papers passed from White to antiquary and MP, James West and thence to William Petty (1737-1805), 2nd Earl of Shelburne, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne. And from Lansdowne, they were purchased with a parliamentary grant by the British Library.
Which gives us the following:
Aubrey (d. 1697) — Churchill, 1714 — White Kennett (1714-16?, d.1728) + annotation — (James West) — Lansdowne, 1773 — British Library 1807.
The Lansdowne papers are still held by the British Library today, as the Lansdowne Manuscripts Collection.
We have now also pretty much chased our way back to Aubrey.
John Aubrey (12 March 1626 – 7 June 1697) was English antiquary and natural philosopher in the latter half of the seventeenth century.
We might also note that there is a transmission of elements of the sin-eater ritual via Bagford, perhaps via direct personal communication, or perhaps just via Bagford’s reading of Aubrey’s manuscript.
How, then, did Hone come across Aubrey’s comments? We should note that Hone appears to have been familiar with the term sin-eater in December 1824, where the term is mentioned as one of the items to be covered in his forthcoming (at the time) Every-Day Book.
One possibility is that he learned of it from “Brand’s Antiquities”, which we saw cited one response to Symon’s letter to Notes & Queries, specifically, Brand’s Antiquities, vol. ii. p. 247., edit. 1849.
We know that Hone was familiar with an earlier edition of Brand’s work, citing from it liberally right from the very start of his Every-Day Book of 1826. For example, even on January 1st, column 6, “The late Rev. John Brand, in his ‘Popular Antiquities’ edited by Mr. Ellis, observes…”
Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities, 1777#
Observations on the popular antiquities of Great Britain: Including the Whole of Mr. Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares — often referred to as Popular Antiquities — by John Brand, was first published in 1777 and reprinted again in 1810. These editions contains no explicit reference to a “sin eater”, although Chapter II of Bourne’s work, and Brand’s observation on it, do cover traditions Of Watching with the Dead
Here’s what Mr Bourne has to say, in Chapter II:
Of Watching the Dead
Watching with the Corps was an antient Custom of the Church, and every where practised. They were wont to sit by it, from the Time of its Death till its Exportation to the Grave, either in the House it died in, or in the Church itself. Agreeable to this, we read in St. Austin, That as they watched his Mother Monica
[Psaltenum arripuit Euodius, & cantare caepit psalmum, cui respondebamus omnes domus : Miserecordiam & judicium cantabo tibi Domine. Aug. Lib. 9. Confes C. 12.]Euodius took the Psaltery and began to sing a Psalm which the whole Family answered with that of the Psalmist David, I will sing of Mercy and Judgement unto thee, LORD, I will sing. And we are told,
[Ad ecclesiam antelueana hora qua defunctus est, corpus ipsius portatum est : ibique eadem suit nocte, quam vigilaviamus in pascha. Gmg. Turon. de Gloria; Confes. C. 104.]That at the Death of St. Ambrose, his Body was carried into the Church before Day, the same Hour he died. It was the Night before Easter and they watched with him there.
How unlike to this antient Custom of watching is the modern one, of locking up the Corps in a Room, and leaving It there alone ? How unlike to this decent Manner of watching, is that watching of the Vulgar, which is a Scene of Sport and Drinking and Lewdness? Watching at that Time with a dear Friend, is the las Kindness and Respect we can shew him ; and how unfriendly is it, to change it into Negligence and too great Resignation? How unchristian, instead of a becoming Sorrow and decent Gravity, to put on an unbecoming Joy and undecent Pastime,
Brand commented as follows:
Our Author, for what Reason I know not, has omitted the vulgar Name given here to this watching with a Corps. It is called the Lake-wake ; a Word plainly derived from the Anglo-Saxon Lie or Lice, a Corpse and a Wake, a Vigil, or Watching. It is used in this Sense by Chaucer, in his Knight’s Tale :
Shall not be told for me.
How that Arcite is brent to Afhen cold,
Ne how that there the Liche-wake was yhold
All that Night long.
Thus also I read in the Article Walkin in the learned
[* By the late Mr. Ruddiman, as is generally supposed.]Glossary to Douglas’ Virgil, “Properly Like-wakes (Scotch) are the Meetings of the Friends of the Deceased, a Night, or Nights before the Burial.”
I am not satisfied with either of the Quotations he has given us in Proof of the Antiquity of the Custom: They are indeed something to the Purpose ; but in the last cited Passage, one would be inclined to think from the Words of the Original, that the Watching was on Account of its being the Vigil of Easter-Day.
Brand also comments on some contemporary customs:
I find in Durant a pretty exact Account of some of the Ceremonies used at present in what we call laying out or streeking
[*To Streek*, to expand, or stretch out. from the Anglo-Saxon SlCJiecaBy. extendere. See Benson's Anglo-Saxon Vocabulary in verbo.— A *Streeking-Board* is that on which they stretch out and compose the Limbs of the dead Body.]in the North
There is then a longer footnote that refers to Pennant’s Tour in Scotland:
Quinetiam Sanctorum Corpora, manibus erestis supinisque excipere – occludere oculos-— ora obturare — decenter ornare– lavare accurate et linteo funebri involvere, &c.
Durant. de Ritibus, p. 224.
Mr. Pennant, in his Tour in Scotland, tells us, that on the Death of a Highlander, the Corps being stretched on a Board, and covered with a coarse Linen Wrapper, the Friends lay on the Breast of the Deceased a wooden Platter, containing a small Quantity of Salt and Earth, separate and unmixed; the Earth an Emblem of the corruptible Body; the Salt an Emblem of the immortal Spirit.— All Fire is extinguished where a Corps is kept ; and it is reckoned so ominous for a Dog or a Cat to pass over it, that the poor Animal is killed without Mercy.
Brand then continues:
Mention is made of the closing the Eyes and Lips —the decent washiing — dressing — and wrapping in a Linen Shroud
[The Face Cloth too is of great Antiquity.— Mr Strutt tells us, that after the closing the Eyes, &c. a Linen Cloth was put over the Face oi the Deceased.— Thus we are told, that Henry the Fourth, in his last Illness seeming to be dead, his Chamberlain Covered his Face with a Linen Cloth. English AEra, p. 105]Of which Shroud Prudentius, the Christian Poet, has these Words:
Condore nitentia claro
Praetendere lintea mos est.
— Hymn. ad Exequias Defunct.
The Interests of our Woollen Manufactories have interfered with this antient Rite in England.
Another contemporary custom is also described as part of Brand’s oberservations, this time from Northumberland:
It is customary at this Day in Northumberland, to set a Pewter Plate, containing a little Salt
[Salem abhorrere constat Diabolu, et ratione optima nititur, quia Salr aeternitatis est et immortatalitatis signum, neque putredeine neque corruptione infestatur unquam, sed ipse ab his omnia vendicat. Depriv. Rel. &c. p154. Confided in reference to this symbolical Explication, how beuatiful is that Expression, "Ye are the Salt of the Earth."]upon the Corps; as also a Candle in some Places. — The learned Moresin tells us, “That Salt is the Emblem of Eternity and Immortality : It is not liable to Putrefaction itself, and it preserves Things that are seasoned with it from Decay.” — He gives us also his Conjecture on the Use of a Candle
[Lucerna, feu Candela mortuis cadaveribus semper apponitur in domibus et templis, quamdiu fspra terram sunt— aa hinc ducto more, oculo, vel Lucerna incensa veteres AEgyptii vitam significabant, unde veteres foliti sunt lucernas ardentes sepulchris imponere, hac saltem ratione significantes se mortuorum quamdiu possent vitas producturos. Deprav. Rel. Orig. p. 89.]on this Occasion: “It was an Egyptian Hieroglyphic for Life, meant to express the ardent Desire of having had the life of the Deceased prolonged.”
Brand’s Popular Antiquities, edited by Ellis, 1813#
A new edited edition of Popular Antiquities, in two volumes, was first published in 1813, with extensive additional notes by the editor, Henry Ellis. This edition went on to be republished many times, including the 1849 edition as cited in Notes and Queries.
So what did Brand, or at least, his editor, Mr Ellis, have to say about “the sin eater”?
The following appears on pp. 246-8 of the 1849 edition:
The following is extracted from Bagford’s letter relating to the antiquities of London, printed in Leland’s Collectanea, i. 76. It is dated February 1, 1714-5:
“Within the memory of our fathers, in Shropshire, in those villages adjoyning to Wales, when a person dyed, there was notice given to an old sire (for so they called him), who presently repaired to the place where the deceased lay, and stood before the door of the house, when some of the family came out and furnished him with a cricket, on which he sat down facing the door. Then they gave him a groat, which he put in his pocket ; a crust of bread, which he eat ; and a full bowle of ale, which he drank off at a draught. After this he got up from the cricket and pronounced, with a composed gesture, the ease and rest of the soul departed for which he would pawn his own soul. This I had from the ingenious John Aubrey, Esq., who made a collection of curious observations, which I have seen, and is now remaining in the hands of Mr. Churchill, the bookseller. How can a man think otherwise of this, than that it proceeded from the ancient heathens ?”
Aubrey’s collection, here mentioned, was most probably the Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaism, still preserved among the Lansdowne MSS., whence the following remarks on this subject, in Mr. Aubrey’s own hand, have been extracted :
“In the county of Hereford was an old custome at funeralls to hire poor people, who were to take upon them the sinnes of the party deceased. One of them (he was a long, leane, ugly, lamentable poor raskal), I remember, lived in a cottage on Rosse highway. The manner was, that when the corpse was brought out of the house, and layd on the biere, a loafe of bread was brought out and delivered to the sinne eater, over the corpse, as also a mazar bowle, of maple, full of beer (which he was to drink up), and sixpence in money; in consideration whereof he took upon him, ipso facto, all the sinnes of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead. This custome alludes, methinks, something to the scapegoate in the old lawe, Levit. xvi. 21, 22. ‘And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goate, and confesse over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited ; and he shall let the goat goe into the wilderness.’
This custome, though rarely used in our dayes, yet by some people was observed even in the strictest time of the presbyterian government, as at Dynder (volens nolens the parson of the parish), the kindred of a woman deceased there had this ceremonie punctually performed, according to her will : and also the like was done at the city of Hereford in those times, where a woman kept, many yeares before her death, a mazard bowle for the sinne-eater ; and the like in other places in this countie; as also in Brecon. [“E.g. at Llanggors, where Mr. Gwin, the minister, about 1640, could not hinder the performance of this ancient custome.”] I believe this custom was heretofore used all over Wales.” [MS. Lansd. 226, fol. 116. In another page Aubrey says : “A.D. 1686. This custom is used to this day in North Wales;” where milk seems to have been the substitute for beer.]
Bishop Kennett has added this note to Aubrey’s MS. : “It seems a remainder of this custom which lately obtained at Amersden, in the county of Oxford, where, at the burial of every corpse, one cake and one flagon of ale, just after the interment, were brought to the minister in the church-porch.”
The material adds little to what we have already learned. However, the corresponding section of the 1813 edition is essentially the same (although the edition differs not least in page numbering), so we can date the material, and its expression, relating to sin-eaters in the 1849 edition of Brand’s Antiquities to the first edition of that edited version of thirty six years earlier.
As to how this commentary material, which did not appear in the original 1777 edition, made its way into the edited version of 1813, we note that the editor, Henry Ellis, was principal librarian at the British Museum, which had acquired the Lansdowne manuscripts in 1807.
Although not directly related to the sin-eating custom, we also learn, via Pennant, on p140 of the 1813 edition, (elsewhere in other editions), a custom involving watching over the dead (Wyl nos) the night before a funeral:
“In North Wales,” says Mr. Pennant’s MS. to often quoted in the former Volume of this Work, (speaking of the Manners of the eighteenth Century,) “the Night before a dead body is to be interred, the friends and neighbours of the deceased resort to the House the corpse is in, each bringing with him some small present of Bread, Meat, Drink, (if the family be something poor ;) but more especially Candles, whatever the Family be : and this Night is called wyl nôs, whereby the country people seem to mean a Watching Night. Their going to such a House, they say is, i wilior corph, i. e. to watch the corpse ; but wylo signifies to weep and lament, and so wyl nôs may be a night of lamentation : while they stay together on that night they are either singing Psalms, or reading some part of the Holy Scriptures.
“Whenever any body comes into a Room where a dead Body lies, especially the wyl nôs and the day of its Interment, the first thing he does, he falls on his knees by the Corps, and says the Lord’s Prayer.”
“Mr Pennant’s MS.”
The manuscript referred to “Mr Pennant’s MS.” is perhaps the one that was eventually published in the Rhyl Journal of November 22nd, 1884, and republished in Archaeologia Cambrensis Vol 2 Iss 6, April 1885, p152-5. Extracts from it will be considered in a later chapter.