The Mountain Decameron, and Other Missed Opportunities, 1830-1850#
In the course of the 1830s and 1840s, whilst there were occasional mentions of the sin-eater tradition recapping previous expositions, typically in the guise of articles on ancient or curious customs, they typically introduced no new information, stories or sources.
The main event, however, was the publication of The Mountain Decameron in 1836 by a new Welsh author, Joseph Downes, a fictional work that perhaps added “poetic license” elements to the tradition.
The British Magazine, 1835#
The British Magazine and Monthly Register of Religious and Ecclesiastical Information, of, February 1st, 1835, Vol 7, pp399-401, repeats several of the fragments we have seen before, but perhaps raises them to the attention of a new audience.
ANCIENT USAGES AND CUSTOMS IN NORTH WALES.
(From a MS, book of a Bp. of St. Asaph, written about a century ago.)
This attribution is an odd one: a list of Bishops_of_St_Asaph turns up no names I recognise, but the first quote below appears to come more or less directly from the manuscript ascribed to Pennant in Popular Antiquities:
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 meat, bread, or drink, (if the family be something poor,) but more especially candles, whatever the family is; and this night is called a wyl nos, whereby the country people seem to mean a watching night. Their going to such a house they say is i wilio corph, i.e., to watch the corpse; but wylo signifies to weep and lament, and so wyl nos may be a night of lamentation. While they stay together on these nights, they are either singing psalms or reading some part of scripture.
Whenever anybody comes into the room where a dead corpse lies, especially the wyl nos, and the day of its interment, the first thing he does he falls upon his knees by the corpse and saith the Lord’s prayer.
Was there, perhaps, an earlier manuscript, by the said Bishop of Asaph, that Pennant drew upon, unattributed (as far as I have found) by him? Or is this a misattribution by the authors of the British Magazine article?
The Bishop of Asaph’s Manuscript
A manuscript that is possibly the one referred to here later appeared in Archaeologia Cambrensis Vol 2 Iss 6, April, 1885, p151-5, under the title “Extracts from a MS. of an ancient date giving some customs and usages in North Wales”.
The next fragment is more directly familiar to us from Pennant’s own Tour In Wales (Part 2):
Pence and halfpence, in lieu of little rolls of bread, (which heretofore generally and by some are still given on these occasions,) are now distributed to the poor, who flock in great numbers to the house of the dead before the corpse is brought out. When the corpse is brought out of the house, and laid upon the bier, and covered before it be taken up, the next of kin to the deceased, widow, mother, daughter, or cousin, (never done by a man,) gives cross over the corpse to one of the poorest neighbours two or three white loaves) of bread and a cheese with a piece of money stuck in it, and then a new wooden cup of drink, which some will require the poor body that receives it immediately to drink a little of. When this is done, the minister (if present) saith the Lord’s prayer, and then they set forward towards church. And all along, from the house to the church-yard, at every cross way, the bier is laid down, and the Lord’s prayer renewed ; and so when they come first into the church-yard, and before any of the verses appointed in the service to be said.
Announcing “The Mountain Decameron”#
In late May, 1836, “trailers” started appearing for a new work, at the time still in preparation: Joseph Downes’ The Mountain Decameron.
Here, for example, is a post teasing the arrival of the work as published in the Morning Post of Saturday 21 May 1836:
A writer new to the world of literature, but possessed of a faculty of great power and entire originality, is on the point of producing a work of fiction, called “The Mountain Decameron.” The editor of the first critical journal in this kingdom has pronounced the author to he a man of “rare genius.” In selecting North Wales as the scene of his romance the writer has opened a field hitherto strangely neglected, but one which abounds in the grandest elements of fiction, whether as regards its magnificent landscapes, its striking customs, its traditionary lore, or the strongly marked character of its inhabitants.
A couple of weeks later, on Saturday 04 June 1836 a similarly styled note appeared in the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Glamorgan, Monmouth, and Brecon Gazette:
The forthcoming work, called “The Mountain Decameron, is likely to enrol its writer as one of the most potent masters of fiction. The scene is Wales, a land abounding in the highest materials of romance, but till now unaccountably neglected. The common nomenclature of its topography involves themes of deep mystery and overpowering interest. There is the Fynnon Waedog (Bloody Well) — the Panty Gwaye (the Hollow of Woe) — the Maen Achwynfan (the Stone of Weeping)–the Lysan Gwad Gwyr (the Plant of the Blood of Man). What terrible mysteries do these more than half unveil, and by a single name!
On the same day, Saturday 04 June 1836 the Morning Herald in London announced the release of the work:
This day is published, in 3 vols, post 8vo. THE MOUNTAIN DECAMERON.
A ROMANCE of NORTH WALES.
By J. DOWNES, Esq. Richard Bentley, New Burlington-street.
To be obtained of all booksellers.
A week later, Saturday 11 June 1836, the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Glamorgan, Monmouth, and Brecon Gazette, posted an early review:
ROMANTIC LEGENDS OF WALES.
A new Romance, under the title of “The Mountain Decameron”, from the pen of a most original and powerful writer, has just appeared. It is remarkable, that whilst England and Scotland have found such numerous, and, in several instances, such able and delightful delineators, Wales, which has remained, more than any other portion of the Empire in its ancient state, and which abounds with so many interesting legends and traditions congenial with its picturesque and magnificent scenery rendering it the very home of romance, should hitherto have remained without illustration from the pen of the novelist. At length, however, a master of fiction has arisen, who is likely to turn to account the rich materials existing in Cambria, and to render her mountains, her lakes, her valleys, and the strongly contrasted character of her inhabitants, as well known and admired as those of Scotland, when displayed by the genius of Scott and Burns.
This was followed in the same newspaper a fortnight later, Saturday 18 June 1836, by another mention:
Breconshire THE MOUNTAIN DECAMERON
The romance thus announced will assuredly win for its author a distinguished name among English writers of fiction. The daring nature of his conceptions, and the fearless power with which he animates them, cannot fail to produce a deep impression His scene, too, Wales, is, most strange to say, nearly unbroken ground in English literature. Yet who, alive to taste or feeling, can look without intense excitement on its lone cataracts, its cloud-capt rocks, its vestiges of departed greatness, its mighty wrecks of castles breasting stormy seas, its abbeys crumbling in olive-coloured glooms, and its wild and stirring legends?
Over in the John Bull magazine, on Sunday 12 June 1836, the editors are perhaps feeling overwhelmed by a sudden flurry of publications they feel the need to review:
The proverb says it “never rains but it pours.” If that proverb were ever applicable, this is the moment; when, after a dearth of novelty almost unprecedented in the literary world, there comes influx most overwhelming. We will first notice the periodical publications, and then glance at the numerous volumes, most of which we have as yet been unable to red, but the names and characters of which, as they have been reported to us, will, of themselves, occupy no inconsiderable space. … Why the publishers treasure all their stores till some given moment, and then send them out in this sort of torrent, we do not exactly understand—surely if these novels had appeared at intervals, the public would have had more time and better opportunity to read them. For ourselves, we repeat our incapacity to swallow so much “fancy bread” in one week— much less have the power of digesting it. We mention the names of the books, and will seriatim give accounts of them, when we have reading and breathing time.
The same column mentions, without further comment, “and The Mountain Decameron, by Mr. Downes, of Builth” in the list of publications too numerous have yet digested.
Joseph Downes’ “The Mountain Decameron”, 1836#
In Volume 1 of The Mountain Decameron, 1836, Joseph Downes sets the scene in his long preface to the work, but not before making a withering comment on the state of reading in the Principality:
There is in fact, and literally, no Reading Public in Wales, but the better educated part of the more secluded Welsh peasantry. The gentry of Wales dispute this, but they had better disprove it. Let them do so by attaching some importance to so invaluable a resource, one so innocent, so exalting, so vital to good morals as reading. Vermin hunting might still be the grand resource.
Facts are stubborn things. Seventeen Welsh periodicals circulate well among the humbler classes ! One, conducted with ability — and with great sacrifice by the spirited patrons of it, to the honour of their country — one acknowledged as worthy of support, by high critical authorities not Welsh — has at last ceased to circulate for want of that support from the gentry. Other orders, seventeen — the gentry not one : verbum sat. …
He then has something of a selfish moment:
[p17] Finally, in extenuation of what will perhaps be deemed presumptuous ambition thus announced, the writer begs it may be remembered, that he is pleading for no novelty in composition, which he conceits himself the inventor of, but merely a bona fide return to that honest, heartfelt, fearless tone of expression, which distinguished our glorious old dramatists — for a little indulgence to those flowers, even in prose, which Jeremy Taylor did not deem unworthy of even divinity, nor Bacon disdain to strew, even copiously, over philosophy’s rugged path.
Resigning the auctorial pompous periphrasis of the third person I shall entreat, ‘“beloved reader,” your indulgence for much quaintness, perhaps obscurity, certainly much ignorance of the outer world at least, which I feel assured that you will discover in these pages. Doubtless, if I be as ignorant of the heart and human character, as I am of the world and the worldly character, my authorship will be a woful failure.
Something, I hope, is to be allowed for the self-delusions of an almost literal hermit. Shut up or wandering among mountains for these many years past, conversing with few but the rudest people, I have not the advantage of literary or other refined society, to freshen my stagnating thoughts, or correct my erroneous ones ; to tell me where those thoughts are not duly elicited, or where it were more graceful to suppress them. I am my own adviser and my own critic, my own “pensive public,” and hence, perhaps, ought to be less-severely quizzed if I become, as in the previous lines — my “own trumpeter.” Nor do mountains alone constitute my solitude, but the misfortune of antedating old age by the loss of friends. The splendid streets of your huge metropolis, with their immense throngs of people, are to some few bosom-aliens among them, more deeply solitary than mountain-avenues, with their multitude of trees and moving flocks. For myself, I can say that the mighty “hum” of those crowds no more disturbs me, who neither share in the chase of their many interests nor swell the cry, than does the constant roar of the cataracts of my home country. Nor do I state this without a latent conceit that possibly such a recluse, addressing such an audience as the “Reading Public” may be regarded as a curious kind of monster. In such solitude, it is natural for the unguided mind (especially if in the old time enthusiastic) both to hope and despond to excess. I have however reached that stage of “life’s poor play” when a writer (and still more if he be a parent) has a darker fear than that of the critic “before his eyes” — Death. …
We then get elements of the framing tale:
[p23] EPISTOLARY POEM
To Dr. Edward Hogg, London.
[p24] I have also commenced fulfilling thy request (which I am aware was but a further mental recipe in disguise) to keep a sort of travelling Diary for thy amusement ; to transmit any traditions of a curious nature I might pick up from hoary chroniclers— any of those strange dramas of real life, and village life, often romantic beyond romance, which the obscurity of village annals eternally secludes from popular notice. You suggested also, that I should write some- thing in the shape of a Tour, and I told you — (mind, I perfectly remember that Thou art not more than one man, when I use the plural pronoun, and do not be puffed up therefore) — I told thee that I would do no such thing — I hated Tours (of Wales above all) — I hated Tourists ; that they come to mountains as gentlemen travellers ; “bring with them airs from” the — hell I had almost said — of pestilent London, and they attract fashionable travellers, all on the hunt for those pastoral and peaceful charms of landscape, which eternally keep yielding up the ghost — losing the very essence of their attractions at the mere presence of their pursuers, and their frivolous retinue of menial followers — the corruption of whose society is strangely rapid among the simpler Welsh folk. Wherein one may liken such lovers of primitive life to the anatomists of Pope’s simile, who,
“Following life in creatures they dissect, “Still lose it in the moment they detect.”
All this and more I remarked then ; but I have come to a sort of compromise between your imposition of a task, and my aversion. What if I try to mingle the Novel with the spirit of a Tour, to print the zest of travelling and petty adventures, in the “breach” of mountains almost meeting, the perils of the green bog, &c. ? This mere spirit will amalgamate with such narratives as Welsh domestic history is rich in; nor will you fail to receive some portion of that knowledge of the “natives” which books of travels teach, even from such gossiping and little didactic method ; knowledge possibly not the less pleasant for being only incidental.
[p29] Now, as to the travelling part of my Diary, distinct from the story-telling — I can truly assure thee that there is matter in abundance for rational curiosity, left in Wales, and, what is better, strong vestiges of what we may surely characterise as patriarchal life, if life as rudely simple, yet happy, as that recorded of very early times may be so designated. The secluded Welsh breeder of sheep and tender of cattle, leads a life of solitary wildness truly curious to the curious in man’s nature — one of pastoral peace, if not pastoral vagrancy, that leaves little to the imagination to fill up for that of an ancient man of woolly wealth, or a modern one among the Bedouin Arabs.
When you read of the picture of primitive modes of even Cambrian life being now wholly lost, of MacAdam and the schoolmaster having swept both Ignorance and Pastoral in their primitive character out of Britain, you may, I am very sorry and happy to say, suspend your belief. Tourists — bookmakers I mean — follow the routes of predecessors, and see with their eyes, and nothing beyond ; thence I believe it is that so little is known of the domestic lives and characters of the direct descendants of the Britons, our fellow countrymen. …
[p33] Such then being the kind of entertainment which for ten days I propose to provide for thee, I shall first ask, Art thou willing to take a cup of tea and a tale with us under some “romantic mountain forest-crowned” ? To sit at our tent’s mouth on some sunshiny sod, betwixt a hanging wood and water, “far from the haunts of men” (yet peradventure busier with man than ever), sung to by the woodlark or cuckoo, or plained to by the owl, possibly ? for our odd amateur-gypsy the Doctor, is fond of reading on into the night, by a very bright moon, or his little lamp when the night is sultry and still. If possible I will make you our guest, without endangering you by night air, or bivouac, or dewy greensward, by remitting you the very feeling of the hour, at the hour, by putting forth my writing tools, even by that lamp if day’s be “burned out.” (My own health has vastly improved under this novel regimen.) Although weeks or months may elapse before you receive these my dispatches, “written on the field” — of flowers, not of blood — still I prefer penning them on the spur of the occasion — (the spur of the scenic and pictorial beauty of landscape) to writing from mere cold recollection when the glow of the moment is gone for ever.
Moreover, be not surprised, if, after my taking leave of thee at night in this my most disorderly Diary, you find me (or us) by the place I date from next morning, to have taken a miraculous night journey, too long for aught but seven-leagued boots or the Chapel of Loretto to perform. Understand, in explanation, that this next day in the journal is not our next day, but the first agreable next day, as I shall observe the plan of selection both in the romances and our daily travels. We shall have stages dreary as well as pleasant ; and our storyteller, the Doctor, will have his intolerable tales as well as his tolerable. These unhappy stages or prosing tales, which I must suffer myself — far be it from me to inflict on thee. Hence my Diary will be any thing rather than one of ten continuous days. For example, I date this from the vicinity of the conflux of the Wye and Irvon, a grotesque nook of the latter near the end of its course, full of rocky ledges, making it a grand and rude channel, down which its whitening waters foam, and roar and tumble very nobly — but our travels will begin in North Wales.
The Last “Sin-Eater” in Wales#
Of perhaps most interest to us in The Mountain Decameron is the following tale, The Last “Sin-Eater” of Wales, which we can find in Volume 3, pp232-6 on the Eighth Day:
But a yet further introduction is needful, (ere entering on their story,) touching a curious superstitious practice not very long obsolete in Wales.
THE LAST “SIN-EATER” OF WALES.
A SKETCH, INTRODUCTORY TO THE FRAGMENTS OF THE LIFE, &c. OF JULIAN ACOSTA.
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 confessions during life, and bargaining for the burthens thus to be imposed on his already laden soul.
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.”
Fosbroke wrote Ariconensia, and was quoting Aubrey by way of Popular Antiquities. (Thus far, I have found no other mentions of John Kyrle mentioning the sin-eater.)
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.
In the following section, have we now stepped away from traditional beliefs and folklore and entered into the realm of the imagination of Joseph Downes?
A gentleman who lived a little before the time of this dark superstition becoming obsolete, gives us this brief account of what is believed to have been the last “Sin-Eater of Wales.”
“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 to gain that between Penyboat village and Machyulleth town. I was cautioned to ride far round this pitchy morass, 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. It forms a great brown-black triangle of land, without a tree, or any vegetation but patches of gorse. Yet the piles of mawn (all fetched away by persons on foot) diversified the dismalness with a sort of low walls, and between was gleaming of some water, from the many holes whence it is dug. Till the moon went down, which lit me a space. I could just distinguish these dismal pools and cuts like canals, by its glimmer. I never saw ought so dismal in my own country as this great turbary of hollow ground looked, a huge green-roofed pit, the pitchy mud thus betraying itself every where, as the large moon, looking red as blood in a foul fog stagnating all over it, took leave of it, and its brown grew browner, and that browner black, till the last to be seen was one horrid blackness, where nothing lived, and nothing was heard but the low roar of the sea washing it on two sides, like the hum of some great city. That deepvoiced murmur of the sea so sounding like a thousand voices, made it more shocking to look upon, the space between, as dumb as a great grave. More than once I thought a light glimmered in the very midst, but I took it for the Jack-a-lantern, if not something worse, for I had heard of Wreckers, and there had been a shipwreck, the weather wild, and even the day had been hardly light.
“At last, thanks to my stars, the good hard rock of a rough road rung to my horse’s hoof, and I saw a pleasant cottage taper instead of that will-o’-wisp of the black bog, which was as ghastly as the Canwyll Corph, the corpse-candle, carried by a figure of one (as these Welsh say) whose own burial will soon take place, in the spot it vanishes at. 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 whatever pains or penances in fire or “thick-ribbed ice,” or molten lead, or what beside monastic belief attached to the perdition of tormented souls, 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 for ever.”
This is the traveller’s account of this incident.
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.
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 dared by night; whether for the footing, or the great fear, or at least awe, which all felt of that recluse. One curious belief was current, that he was no other than “The Wandering Jew” — the man who spit on his Saviour, and cannot die — that fable familiar to so many countries.
Now as this traveller and the wretched being he stood in the dark and wind expecting, will be hereafter returned to, to avoid double description, this sketch may conclude, whose only purpose was to explain the character of a Sin-Eater of Wales, and the habits of one.
Reviews of “The Mountain Decameron”#
In the Sun (London), on Friday 17 June 1836, we get quite a comprehensive review:
MOUNTAIN DECAMERON-3 VoLs.
Bentley London, 1836.
The author of these volumes, a gentleman by name Downes, has, in treating of Welch scenery, manners, customs, legends, broken neatly, if not quite, untrodden ground. Hence his “Mountain Decameron” is full of life and novelty; and will come on the experienced novel-reader quite like a surprise. The stirring legends, and stern, domestic tragedies of homely Welch life, which form the staple of his volumes, would seem to have been penned on the spot, while the feelings which they called forth were yet fresh in the author’s mind—so vivid are the colourings in which he has pourtrayed them, and so impassioned and truth-like their character. Another recommendation of the “Decameron” is its utter absence of anything like literary tact or mechanism. Mr. Downes has nothing of the practised book-maker about him ; he does not wire-draw his incidents ; or indulge in melodramatic surprises ; but trusts to nature for effect, who—as she always does to those who place a lively faith in her impulses—carries him handsomely through. Our impression on reading these volumes, is that the author is a man of a vigorous and imaginative turn of mind, who thinks for himself, and writes from the promptings of his own heart. But though he possesses much of the poetical temperament, yet strange to say, he makes sad work with his poetry, mistaking mysticism for sublimity, quaintness for fancy, and affectation for feeling. Out of some ten or a dozen poems which are scattered throughout the “Decameron,” we have been able only to discover four good lines, which occur in some stanzas on the Ocean. In justice to Mr. Downes we subjoin them :
“What knells for broken hearts these waves have tolled! Eternal partings sob in this low roar ! Some hope of hearts which but that one consoled, Thy every night-storm blasts on every shore !”
The lines marked in italics appear to us eminently beautiful. But if our author’s poetry be indifferent, his prose is quite the reverse. It is bold, rough, and racy, and remarkable for the felicity of its epithets and metaphors. Thus, speaking of a wife who was constantly miserable because her bed was barren, Mr. Downes says of her, that she fancied her husband’s eye “turned coldly on her, and her unoccupied bosom.” A young, enthusiastic scholar in love with an artless Welch girl of good family is described as “feeding in solitude on the white beauty of her idea ;” and a seastorm is thus graphically painted :—“The echoes of the tremendous falls of the broad sea’s sweep, lashing the rock beach on the seaward side of the Great Orme, were like thunderclaps run into one another ; and the real thunder of the sky, shut up by clouds as by mighty folding doors hung with mourning, already came groaning from the distance.” In sketching scenery, our author evidently takes Crabbe for his model ; as the following extract which has all his force and literalness will show : “On each side, a marbled expanse of the finest sand stretches away yellowing in the gold light of a summer morning. No horrid depth of black mud (half smothering you in imagination with its mere look) here scowls on the retrocession of the sea. As we stand on the edge of the sea-river, a crowd of mountain tops is in lofty distance before us, rolled up yet in a night of their own, but grimly yielding to the broad morning laugh of the whole sea firmament, of June blue. Close beside us, all is home-felt beauty. The little ferry-house, the patter. ing of a sea at play with real green banks ; all that a quiet eye can desire, to transmit a sympathetic quietude to the heart, in the way of scenery, is here. Meadows, a little marsh ground, wild wood, and green sward heights, lowing cows, bleating lambs, singing bare-foot girls among them all, and that smiling, heaving, half sea, half river, are all that meet eye or ear.”
The review then continues, at some length…
Review of “The Mountain Decameron”, The Sun, (cont.)
The introduction of the “singing, barefoot girls” greatly assists the life and animation of this glowing landscape. But Mr. Downes has loftier qualities than those of a picturesque landscape painter. He is a man of deep and, at times, even original powers of thought, to which he gives fit utterance in eloquent and impassioned language. The subjoined apostrophe is put into the mouth of a philosophical Recluse, grey in years and disappointed in hopes, who is musing at night by a sea-coast abounding in ruins :
“If man be a worm, a grain of these sands, a nothing in the universe, man’s woes also are nothing. Does my heart bleed or quake for the coming ills of my country ? I know, I see, where will be its place presently in this dumb, eternal revolution of the kingdoms of the creation—with Balbec in the desert ? Is my blood boiling with some wrong inflicted on me by my brother worm ? I come to this eloquent wilderness of waves as to a solemn wood for meditation, and it tells me that I have only to fold my arms, smile at the injurious wretch, and wait; for he is already dying Time is bringing up my enemy to judgment. Mortality has already on his ghastly head the sable coif, the token of his death-doom being about to be read, and while I cry Revenge,’ behold, I am crying against ashes—a shadow—a nothing ! Why should I gnaw my own heart because I do not obtain the distinction which I fancy due to my gifts among men ? I think what man is ; I handle a dead bone, firm and unperished yet, and learn that even these brittle cancelli of its marrow-cells, have survived all the generations of mankind not born ; that the primeval giant-beast its owner, was in his living strength, while man was yet in his clod ; was breathing before that clay was breathed into by the spirit of his Maker ; ere it caught the fearful privilege to be; and started up—a heart !—a hand !—a tongue !—a brain !—to throb, to agonize ; to work good or evil ; to pour a burning eloquence ; to think through all God’s universe, and almost to pry around his throne. And then, ah then ! and soon, through clammy sweats and agony, to return whence it started ; to be mastered by a vile worm ; to lie mute as this half-animated polypus at my feet ; to swell the festering masses that crowd this grave I stand on.”
This is finely felt and finely expressed, though we fear the thought is of too elevated and abstract a character to please the watering-place readers of fiction. It is simply calculated to perplex them. Far more intelligible to such readers, and equally beautiful in expressions, are these reflections, which proceed from the same thoughtful Recluse, of whom we have just made mention. He is describing the duties which he owes to himself in the grey evening of his existence :
“My brother-men, good night. With you, and for you, I have lived, but now the evening of my life is stealing on me, with its cool, its damp, its shadows; I would fain now live a little to myself, awhile to nature, as, perhaps, soon to live to God, and in his presence. It is better to be prepared; to listen for the calling voice in the stillness of woods, than to be astonished with it, as by a thunder-clap, in the forgetful revels of cities. As on this Ystwith side, in this sweet valley, I observe preparations for the night ; the sounds of the day growing few, those few, faint and drowsy; the harmless man just finished folding his sheep, and no more to do ere he lie down, than look awhile at that beautiful sky, and listen the first owl’s voice ; his wife heard indoors, singing their child to sleep, where father, mother, and child will be presently sleeping together, under that wild flowered roof—so let me too look indoors. It is time to compose my agitated bosom after the stir of life’s day, to let contentious thoughts cease, and all fierce wishes be lullabied to quiet, to deep sleep. Oh, it is well—it is needful, this gentle, melancholy twilight to man’s life! This breathing, resting !space between two worlds—this soft break of the transition front the world of sun to the world of night—the grave.”
There are numerous other passages in the “Decameron” nearly, if not quite, equal to those we have quoted above—passages which show a deep insight into the workings of the human heart ; which abound in pure, healthy sensibility ; and convince us that the author is one who, even in his most abstract speculations, turns a trembling, ever watchful ear to “the still, sad music of humanity.” As regards the tales, they are, for the most part, of a stern, tragic cast, and occasionally repulsive in their incidents, like the fictions of Banim—and for this reason, that Mr. Downes, like the Irish novelist, does not draw on his own invention, but from the domestic annals of a semi-barbarous peasantry ; for such, in truth, were the Welch Indigetes up to the close of the last century. The best tale in the “Decameron” is, “The Tragical History of Marmaduke Paull,” which is throughout worked up with uncommon power. The description of the lone, impassioned lover’s feelings, when he discovers that he has formed an attachment to his own daughter ; of the fearful struggle in his mind when he makes the strange discovery ; of his resolution to commit suicide ; and of the mode in which he sets about it —namely, by waiting the approach of a raging sea, into a cavern half-way up the lofty Llandudno rocks ;—these Portions of the romance, which has the rare merit of being founded on fact, are unequalled by anything of the sort in the present day. Nor must we omit to notice the striking incident of the old Clergyman, who, when informed by the peasants who are grouped around him on the summit of the rock, that all human hope is vain, reads the burial service over the body of him who is at that moment breathing his last in the inundated cavern below We have already observed that Mr. Downes is a superior landscape painter; but his sketches have this additional recommendation, that they are remarkable for their strict accuracy, as in more than one instance, we ourselves can testify;. His allusions too, are rigidly local; and he hits off the Welch peasant, and small farmer, as none can do but he who is thoroughly conversant with their peculiarities. The great defect in his “Decameron” is that the tales are most clumsily and inartificalliy introduced; and that there are too frequent attempts at humour in the prefaratory part.
Another full length review, this time in the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Glamorgan, Monmouth, and Brecon Gazette of Saturday 18 June 1836, also includes several excerpts:
“THE MOUNTAIN DECAMERON.”
These volumes contain much that is clever and original. They profess to embody in a series of Tales the popular habits, customs, superstitions, and modes of thinking of the Welsh. We have no time for present analysis, and our extracts are taken almost at random, and have reference rather to that which is incidentally spoken, than to the staple commodity of the work.
The author laments in a note, and with some shew of justice, the indifference of the Welsh Gentry to their National Literature.
“With a thousand apologies to the higher orders of Welsh, it must be owned that this can the modern gentleman of Wales. The ruins that peep on his path, the dark hints of past tragic events, that, even in the common names of places, his familiar haunts, in the business of hunting and shooting, “implore the passing tribute of it in vain! The lightest, most tasteful antiquarianism, is heavy and vapid midst the excitement of the chase, or other excitements more fatal to health.”
The quotation then continues with the paragraphs relating to the fact theat there is “literally, no Reading Public in Wales” and that “Seventeen Welsh periodicals circulate” within the “humbler” classes, whilst gentry support not one.
There there follows several excerpts from the main body of the text that we have not yet remarked upon:
A few of the remaining superstitions of the Welsh are thus described:–
“The superstitions of Wales,” the Doctor remarked, “form no part of the popular poetry of our age; yet there exist many grandly imaginative. How few know any thing about our Cum Annwn, that is’Dogs of the Sky’, but which their office, as assigned, would warrant its to call the Bloodhounds of Souls! by earthly analogy. Sudden fires trail along the heavens at the moment of a dying person’s body and soul taking leave, and that light is no other than that fire which each of that terrible pack always has following after like a chain; and sounds like the yellings of an earthly hunt, may be heard in the dumbness of midnight, and which hunting is no less than the chase of the parting soul by these fiends of the sky, as it flies towards Heaven’s gate before them, the flight tor nothing less than eternal life or death! What superstition affecting mortal life and its brevity, and its briefer pains, can compare in terror, in wildness, or sublimity with this? with these howlings and huntings for immortal souls, these wildfires trailed by demon bloodhounds, across all the deep-blue Chase of the midnight heavens, and the issue of the dread hunting never revealed to the mourner, upgazing from the gate of the house of mourning ? The light borne in the hand of a spirit, moving the way a corpse shall soon be borne, and called the Canwyll Corph —Corpse Candle — is better known and a solemn fancy is that!
Here, then, we have a commentary form one of the characters in the story, mentioning several Welsh traditions, including the corpse candle.
As the excerpt continues, a banshee like character is also described:
“More terrible and forcible in mournful conception is the strange being that crosses the twilight path of the Welsh mountaineer, and which warns him by its mere presence, of a death in his house near at hand. The Cyoewraeth is the likeness of a woman, frightfully cadaverous of visage, bringing all the festering horror of a three weeks’ burial in its grim yet not utterly disfeatured loathsomeness, abroad into the world of life, divulging the foulest secrets of the grave! This form stands direct in some lonesome path of the startled person, tossing her long grisly arms in the air and wringing her earthy lengths of wasted hand, and— shaking down her already worm-beset hair over her eye-holes, and their sunken dead-light fixed upon his, steady as the basilisk’s on its prey, but gloomy— sets up such a cry of wild weeping, and utters two words only, so terrible i their power, that they for the moment arrest the moving blood in the veins of the hearer— the Welsh words signifying ‘Oh, my wife!’ or ‘Oh, my husband! according to the sex of the shortlived object of its fatal forewarning.”
Annwn— The bottomless abyss; Hell, in the ancient scuse, as the “bourn” of all spitis.
Meanwhile, the Morning Post keeps plugging away, as on Monday 20 June 1836:
The Mountain Decameron, a Romance of North Wales.—
The author of these volumes has, in treating of Welsh scenery, manners, customs, legends, &c., broken nearly, if not quite, untrodden ground. Hence his “Mountain Decameron” is full of life and novelty, and will come on the experienced novel reader quite like a surprise. The stirring native legends and stern domestic tragedies of homely Welsh life, which form the staple of his volumes, would seem to have been penned on the spot, while the feelings which they called forth were yet fresh in the author’s mind, so vivid are the colourings in which he has portrayed them, and so impassioned and truth-like their character. We have observed that Mr. Downes is a superior landscape painter, but his sketches have this additional recommendation, that they are remarkable for their strict accuracy, as, in more than one instance, we ourselves can testify.— Sun.
The English Chronicle and Whitehall Evening Post also provides a short review on Thursday 23 June 1836:
THE MOUNTAIN DECAMERON, by J. DOWNES.
—These three volumes, which have recently made their appearance under a name, consecrated by the Patriarch of all novelists, are dedicated to the illustration of the manners, customs, traditions, and superstitions of the true children of St. David in the Principality, and seem to have originated from an impression on the part of Mr. Downes, that his fellow-countrymen of Cymri blood, owe some debt to the land of Llewellen, for not having followed, ere now,the example set by the romance writers of Scotland and Ireland. Mr. Downes has accordingly with diffidence, but zealousy withal, and not feebly, taken up his staff to tread in the footsteps Of Scott and Galt, of Miss Edgeworth and Banim. The subject of his tales, he takes from humble life in Wales, and in his narratives he displays a strong taste for the mystic and awful, a delicate sense of the workings of the human affections, and, in addition, a graphic power of description. His style is sometimes obscure and inelegant, but in general its character is simplicity, with a touch of originality. If it were for no other reason than the latter, his fictions may be read with interest. He has interspersed occasional pieces of poetry through his volumes, some of which are in no common-place vein. He has also indulged in certain colloquial papers, the dramatis persona of which are Welsh Parsons and Brothers of the Angle, and in which he treats about every thing in the world et cetera. We should, however, recommend Mr. Downes not to introduce politics into such publications, especially where his information is not more accurate than to lead him to take “the Agitator” for “a private Roman Catholic Attorney from Ireland.”
An excerpt in The Glamorgan Monmouth and Brecon Gazette and Merthyr Guardian on 1st October 1836, p3, provides a sketch of the last sin-eater quoted directly from The Mountain Decameron.
THE LAST “SIN-EATER” OF WALES. A SKETCH. (From Mr Downes’ Mountain-Decameron.)
The quotation is essentially the complete description of the sin-eater, except for the final paragraph that exaplains its rationale for including in the complete text.
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 confessions during life, and bargaining for the burthens thus to be imposed on his already laden soul.
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.”
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.
A gentleman who lived a little before the time of this dark superstition becoming obsolete, gives us this brief account of what is believed to have been the last “Sin-Eater of Wales”.
“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 to gain that between Penyboat village and Machynlleth town. I was cautioned to ride far round this pitchy morass, 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. It forms a great brown-black triangle of land, without a tree, or any vegetation but patches of gorse. Yet the piles of mawn, (all fetched a way by persons on foot) diversified the dismalness with a sort of low walls, and between was gleaming of some water, from the many holes whence it is dug. Till the moon went down, which lit me a space, I could just distinguish these dismal pools and cuts like canals, by its glimmer. I never saw ought so dismal in my own country as this great turbarv of hollow ground looked, a huge green-roofed pit, the pitchy mud thus betraying itself every where, as the large moon, looking red as blood in a foul fog stagnating all over it, took leave of it, and its brown grew browner, and that browner black, till the last to be seen was one horrid blackness, where nothing lived, and nothing was heard but the low roar of the sea washing it on two sides, like the hum of some great city. That deep-voiced murmur of the sea so sounding like a thousand voices, made it more shocking to look upon, the space between, as dumb as a great grave. More than once I thought a light glimmered in the very midst, but I took it for the Jack-a-lantern, if not something worse, for I had heard of Wreckers, and there had been a shipwreck, the weather wild, and even the day had been hardly light.
“At last, thanks to my stars, the good hard rock of a rough road rung to my horse’s hoof, and I saw a pleasant cottage taper instead of that will-o’-wisp of the black bog, which was as ghastly as the Canwyll Corph, the corpse-candle, carried by a figure of one (as these Welsh say,) whose own burial will soon take place, in the spot it vanishes at. 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 whatever pains or penances in fire or “thick-ribbed ice,” or molten lead, or what beside monastic belief attached to the perdition of tormented souls, 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 for ever.”
This is the traveller’s account of this incident.
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.
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 dared by night; whether for the footing, or the great fear, or at least awe, which all felt of that recluse. One curious belief was current, that he was no other than “The Wandering Jew”— the man who spit on his Saviour, and cannot die—that fable familiar to so many countries.
A less than glowing review of the work in general appears in the October 1837 edition, p398-9, of volume 8 of The Gentleman’s Magazine:
The Mountain Decameron, by John Downes. 3 vols.
While we praise the power and skill with which many parts of these tales are written ; the picturesque delineations of nature, the transcript of manners, and the general conduct of the fable; we must protest against the groundwork of the histories themselves, which are founded on circumstances, as that of Ruth and Marmaduke, most improbable and unnatural; as love growing up between a father and daughter, ignorant of their sacred relation to each other— their unhallowed hopes— their disappointment and their death of despair. Nearly all the stories are of the same cast, containing descriptions of strong uncontrollable passions, desperate resolves, fearful vicissitudes, and violent and tragic terminations. The skill with which such tales are written only adds to the evil they are too apt to occasion; and the sympathies they excite are so powerful and distressing, as to act most disadvantageously on the mind. If Mr Downes will take up another line of fiction, and delineate the milder feelings,— the gentler and softer affections, the less harrowing afflictions,— and will build them round the more endearing events of life, he will, we are sure, draw from them more useful lessons, and form more permanently engaging works.
The review was reprinted many years later in Bye-gones dated March 29th, 1876, p36-6, where the author of the note also wondered as to what then happened to the author, Mr Downes. A reply in the April 19, 1876 edition, p47, provides the following answer:
WELSH DECAMERON (Mar. 29, 1876.)— It appears that Dr Downes died “on the Bank” in Builth in the spring of I860, and by his request was buried under some particular tree in Aberedw churchyard. He was a native of London, his father was the clergyman who officiated at the marriage of the late Duke of Sussex. Dr Downes was in the habit of going about the country, and living in a small tent, which he took along, and often his two sons accompanied him in these rambles. He was twice married, had two sons by the first and two daughters by the last wife. Dr Downes was a frequent contributor to the periodicals of the day. One of his sons is now in practice as a surgeon at 13, White-street, Southward. J.J. Brecon.
The Mountain Decameron – “a work of fiction”#
Much later, the following forensic take on several stories taking on a flokloric appearance published in the 1830s appeared in the March 29th, 1876 edition of Bye-Gones, p35-6.
In The Cambrian Quarterly Magazine and Celtic Repertory, for 1831, being the third volume of that periodical, occurs in page 248, this paragraph, namely,—“In the press in three vols., post 8vo., the Welsh Decameron, or Tales illustrative of Cambrian Life, Customs, &c. Report speaks highly of this work.” In pp. 467-86, of the same volume appeared an article on “Ceubren yr Ellyll, or the Bride of Nant Uwrtheyrn,” stated to have been selected from the Welsh Decameron, shortly to be published.” In a foot note to the heading of a poem entitled “A Bard’s-Eye View of Wales, by a Hermit Poet,” commenced on page 300 of volume four, it is asserted, “some of the following stanzas form a poetical preface to the Welsh Decameron, now in course of publiction”. In pp.25-36 of the same volume was inserted a “letter from an Amateur Gipsy,” professing to be from his “Tent in the Valley of the Pyscottwr, Caermarthenshire,” the signature appended to it being “the Rural Doctor.” In volume five, pp. 496-507, was added a “second letter of an Amateur Gipsy,” transmitted “from his cloister in the Abbey of Llanthony.” In volume four pp. 168—89, was published an account of “a Welsh Shepherd’s Tragedy, founded on fact,” taken “from the Journal of the Rural Doctor.” In pp. 220—22. there appeared a poem entitled “A Lyric Elegy” on “Conjux Ejus, the only words left of some inscription on an ancient sepulchral stone between Brecknock and Trecastle,” the name affixed to which is “J. Downes.” In pp. 433—55, there was inserted an article professing to contain “conversations of poets among the Mountains,” to which no name was attached. In volume five, pp. 524—45, there appeared a “Glamorganshire Legend, of the Lord of Dunraven Castle, by the Rural Doctor.” The author of this and the other forementioned articles, whether under the assumed designation of “A Hermit Poet,” “An Amateur Gipsy,” “The Rural Doctor,” or of J. Downes, I take to be, from internal and other evidence, one and the same person, namely, Doctor Downes, of Builth, Breconshire, who, in 1836, published in three post 8vo. volumes a work of fiction under the title of The Mountain Decameron. In the first page of the “Glamorganshire Legend” referred to above (vol. v. p. 524), he speaks “of the remote fishing village of Aber- ayron, Carnarvonshire,” on the promontory of Llëyn, meaning, I presume, Aberdaron, as Aberaeron is far south, some fifty miles distant, in Cardiganshire. In the second volume, p. 76 of The Mountain Decameron, the very same error is made where Llëyn is said to terminate “in the wild fishing village of Aberayron, off which lies the island of monastic ruins, Bardsey,” where again Aberdaron is evidently meant. If any reliance may be placed on what is affirmed in the passages which have been adduced, in reference to the “Welsh Decameron,” namely, that it was in the press in 1831, that the romance of “Ceuhren yr Ellyll, or the Bride of Nant Gwrtheyrn,” was selected from it, and that some stanzas from “Bard’s Eye View of Wales” formed a poetical preface to it, it will appear that it is a separate and distinct work from the Mountain Decameron of 1836, by the same author, since the selections alleged to have been taken from the former are not to be found in the latter. In 1848 there resided at Senny Bridge, near Brecon, a Mrs Downes, but whether she waa related to Dr Downes, of Builth, I have no means of knowing, nor can I tell what became of him after 1836, as I can find no mention of his name as that of the author of any new work subsequent to that year.
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, will be best explained by the following review of it, which was published soon after its appearance.
[Quoted review] Gent. Mag., vol. viii., New Series, pp 398 9 (Oct., 1837) LLallwg
The omitted paragraph is a direct quotation of the review appearing in Gentleman’s Magazine.
Advertising Break - Frampton’s Pill of Health for Both Sexes#
At this point, let us take a little break an observe the following advert, identified, through incorrect OCR, by a search on the phrase “sin eater” which returns this item from the Hampshire Independent of Saturday, February 17th, 1838:
FRAMPTON’S PILL OF HEALTH FOR BOTH SEXES.—
The unprecedented Sale of these Pills, arising from the earliest recommendation of the many thousands who have derived benefit from their use, render any lengthened comment unnecessary; they are not put forth as a cure for all diseases to which mankind is liable, but for bilious and liver complaints, with their many well-known attendants bilious and sick head-ache, pain and oppression after meals, giddiness [via OCR: prim and opprim. sins eater ditai nese], singing noise in the head and ears, drowsiness, heartburn, loss of appetite, wind. *spasms, &c.; they are acknowledged to be vastly superior to any thing ever before offered to the public, and for those of a full habit of body they will prove truly invaluable; while as a general Family Aperient for either sex they cannot fail to ensure universal satisfaction. Two or three doses will convince the afflicted of their salutary efforts. The stomach will speedily regain its strength; a healthy action of the Liver, Bowels, and Kidneys, will rapidly take place: and instead of listlessness, with pain, and jaundiced appearance, strength, activity, and renewed health, will be the result of using this Medicine, according to the directions accompaning each box.
Ask for FRAMPTON’S PILL OF HEALTH. and observe the name and address of “Thomas Prout, 229, Strand, London,” on the Government Stamp.
[Example of error in OCR with amusing consequences…]
A Lady Tourist, 1838#
A LADY TOURIST — ANECDOTES
In these dull days of frost and snow—when mails come not, and our printers are crying out for “copy” to fill up the accustomed four pages—we have been tempted to dip into a new publication by Miss Sinclair (a sister of the Member for Caithness), which is thus heralded into the world—
“Hill and Valley, or Hours in England and Walks. By Catharine Sinclair, &c. Dedicated the Travellers Club.”
It appears that Miss Sinclair made a tour in Wales in the summer of 1833, of which she kept miscellaneous journal, intended, of course, merely for private circulation. The book is essentially lady’s book, and if the “Travellers’ Club” be composed of the “rougher sex,” we doubt very much whether the compliment of the authoress will duly appreciated. From a principle of gallantry, however, it is to be hoped that her health will be duly toasted at all anniversary meetings, when the members exceed their daily pint of wine. Miss Sinclair a lively tourist, full light anecdote and small talk, affectionate to her correspondent (a “dear cousin”) and minutely observant of little traits of character, manners, and scenery, in which it must be confessed the lady-authors very often excel the regulars. Miss Sinclair lays down a maxim at starting, to which we cordially subscribe, that traveller should study his own country before he seeks to explore others.
There then follow various excerpts from the book, including this interesting fragment from a story appearing on p29 of the book:
The following is new to us:–
The Highlanders have a superstition, which I never could trace to its origin, that Satan gets possession of the first corpse laid in new cemetery ! The time when I heard of this was in 1830 at Blair; on which occasion the innkeeper happened to mention, that a new burying-ground had been prepared during some years without ever coming into use, on account of no neighbouring family liking to lake the precedence. ‘We are just waiting,’ added the worthy landlady, looking hard at me, ‘to see if, by good chance, some stranger dies in the place, who could be laid there at once.’ After that, I very nearly resolved to sleep without a pillow at Blair, in case of being Burked ; and it is remarkable that an English sportsman about that time fairly died there, when, alter his interment in the new cemetery, it was adopted into use.”
This is wonderful, if true. … We resume–
The Scotch have been always considered particularly provident about funerals; but a story which amused once, affords particularly strong evidence of this propensity, A poor woman in the village of -, had lent her neighbour the carpenter some money, but finding him quite unable to repay her, she obligingly consented to take the value of his debt in coffins for herself and all her children. They were accordingly each measured and provided without delay ; but she was heard often afterwards to complain that the children had quite out-grown theirs.”
The review also speaks of the good lady’s tours in Wales:
The fair tourist’s ramble among the “hills and valleys” of Wales does not appear to have furnished forth many adventures. She was delighted with the country-rich in all the magnificent and beautiful features of nature, and filled with simple and happy people. The Welsh language sounded to her nearly similar to the Gaelic that she often felt inclined to give the common Highland salutation in passing along the road, especially seeing the landscape around exactly on a similar pattern. “We hurried on from mountain to mountain in splendid succession ; and but for the women wearing their little hats like men’s, instead of the graceful plaid, might have supposed ourselves in Ross-shire.”
As an example of one of the rare stories from Wales, we hear (from p336-7 of the original work):
… Like all mountaineers, the Welsh are still tinged with superstition, but the following one is of the most earthy of those beliefs we have heard of—
“A strange popish custom prevailed in Monmouthshire and other western counties till very recently. Many funerals were attended a professed ‘sin-eater,’ hired take upon him the guilt of the deceased. By swallowing bread and beer, with a suitable ceremony before the corpse, he was supposed to free it from every penalty for past offences, appropriating the punishment to himself. Men who undertook so daring an imposture must all have been infidels, willing apparently, like Esau, to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage.”
That same fragment also appears in the Hereford Times of Saturday, May 5th, 1838, ascribed to the “Lady Tourist”.
Indecorous Customs, 1849#
The Hereford Journal of Wednesday, July 11th, 1849 also describes the following “indecorous customs”:
The irreverent practice properly condemned in the following extract from Southey’s Common-place Book, has prevailed at assize-sermons in both Worcester and Hereford Cathedrals. If, when the beautiful edifice at the latter city shall be re-opened for Divine Service, the Bishop, or rather the Dean as the Ordinary, shall abate a nuisance which prevents all seriousness in the worship, general approval will follow ; there will be no fear that those who effect so desirable reform will incur the fate which is spoken of in the following extract as threatened to Dr. Lake:—
“In the cathedral of York an indecent custom, not yet abolished in some other cathedrals, prevailed of walking and talking loudly in the nave during prayers, so that the congregation were often interrupted in their devotions. Dr. Lake, however, was a resolute disciplinarian, and resolved to break so indecent and profane usage; but the mob were so mnch exasperated by the attempt that, after breaking open the south door of the cathedral, they assaulted the residentiary his own house, and having stripped it of part of the tiles, would probably have murdered him had he not been seasonably rescued by Captain Honeywood, the deputy-governor of the castle.”— Whittaker’s Loidis and Elmete, p. 37.
To turn from Hereford Cathedral to the villages of the county, we heartily wish the practice of eating and drinking at funerals, described in the annexed extract, were abolished. The English loudly and justly condemn the frantic wakes of the Irish ; but is their own custom of eating dainty luncheons accompanied with Maderia and liquers to be commended? Lord Byron’s satire is painfully true:
“There’s deal of fun In mourning-coaches when the funeral’s done.”
We than get the well worn quotation from Aubrey:
“In the county of Hereford was an old custom at funerals to hire poor people who were to take upon them all the sins of the party deceased and were called ‘sin-eaters.’ One of them, I remember, lived in a cottage on the Ross highway. The manner was this: when the corpse was brought out of the house and laid on the bier, a loaf of bread was delivered to the sin-eater over the corpse, as also a mazar bowl (a gossip’s bowl of maple) full of beerm which he was to drink up, with sixpence of money; in consequence, whereof, he took upon himself, ipso facto, all the sins of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead. In North Wales the sin-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 times of the Presbyterian government; and at Dyndar, volens nolens the parson of the parish, the relations of a woman deceased there had the ceremony performed punctually 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 sin-eater; and in other places in this county, as also at Brecon, at Llangore, where Mr. Gwin, the minister, about 1640, could not hinder this superstition.” — Aubrey of Gentilisme, MS., quoted Kennet’s Par. Ant. ii. 276.
To the practice last mentioned of giving to the poor at funerals, we have no objection, except the fear of the distribution of the doles not being made “decently and in order.”
This was perhaps brought to attention by the release of the 1849 edition of Ellis’ edited edition of Brand’s Observations on the popular antiquities of Great Britain: chiefly illustrating the origin of our vulgar and provincial customs, ceremonies, and superstitions, as recalled later that year by the North & South Shields Gazette and Northumberland and Durham Advertiser on Friday, November 30th, 1849.
Anecdotes of death.
We learn from Brande’s Popular Antiquities that in the west of England the sixteenth century, and Wales probably at a later date, a class of persons, called Sin-Eaters, existed, who, in consideration of a certain dole of food or money, made themselves responsible for the sins of the dead, and undertook to console the survivors, by guaranteeing them at least security against being haunted by the spirits of the departed, who, it was supposed, could not rest, when some such exhibition of charity was not made to neutralise the effect of their sins.