The First Controversy, 1875#

The response to the article in Blackwood’s Magazine, and in particular the mention of “the sin-eater”, begins with the Vol 8 Iss 182 edition of The Academy, dated November 6th, 1875, p. 478:

AMONG curious customs and superstitions noticed in an article in Blackwood on the “Legends and Folk-lore of North Wales” there is one the singularity of which is heightened by the statement that it still survives in North and South Wales and the Border. At a funeral, “a hireling who lives by such services has handed over to him a loaf of bread, a maple bowl full of beer or milk, and a sixpence, in consideration of which he takes upon him all the sins of the defunct, and frees him or her from walking after death.” The scapegoat is currently called a “Sin-eater.”

An Initial Response, Silvan Evans, 1875-11-13#

In the following issue (Vol 8 Iss 183, November 13th, 1875), the first piece of correspondence appears, from a certain D. SILVAN EVANS, on p.506. Silvan Evans had presumably picked up notice of the item in the previous edition of the Academy:



Llanymawddwy Rectory, Merioneth: November 8, 1875.

In the ACADEMY of November 6 (p. 478) I find an extract from an article in Blackwood on the “Legends and Folklore of North Wales,” referring to a singular custom said to be still surviving in North and South Wales. It is alleged that at a funeral “a hireling, who lives by such services, has handed over to him a loaf of bread, a maple bowl full of beer or milk, and a sixpence, in consideration of which he takes upon him all the sins of the defunct, and frees him or her from walking after death;” and this functionary, it is added, is currently called a “Sin-eater.” The earlier portion of my life was spent in South Wales, and I have lived upwards of a quarter of a century in North Wales, but I have never heard of the strange custom here alluded to, either as now existing or as having existed at some former period. I have not been indifferent as to the customs and legends of the land of my birth, and my profession often brings me in contact with funerals; but I have never found a trace of such a custom, and I have but little hesitation in saying that it is altogether unknown in the Principality. If the writer of the article will give me the name of any locality where the superstition flourishes, I will at once visit the place and institute enquiries on the spot. At the same time he will, I hope, favour me with the Welsh equivalent of “Sin-eater,” for I am interested in Welsh words as well as in Welsh customs and legends.


At the time of writing, Daniel Silvan Evans was an ordained priest and scholar, author and editor of several Welsh language works including an English and Welsh dictionary. He was also just at the end of his term of editing Archaeologia Cambrensis (1871-1875), the journal of the Cambrian Archaeological Association, which may be recalled as the venue for Matthew Moggridge’s observations on the sin eater in 1852.

The letter expresses a certain amount of doubt as to the veracity of the “alleged” tradition, based on the author having lived for a quarter of a century in the principality in an occupation that “often brings me in contact with funerals” and having “never found a trace of such a custom”.

Silvan Evans then goes on to request further information on sources and locations and offers to visit the location to pursue further investigations. He also asks for the ‘Welsh equivalent of “Sin-eater”’ as one “interested in Welsh words as well as in Welsh customs and legends”.

A reprinted version of Silvan Evans letter to the Academy also appeared The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, published on November 19th, 1875, p7, introduced as:

LEGENDS AND FOLKLORE OF NORTH WALES.- The following letter has appeared in the Academy. “Llanymawddwy Rectory. Merioneth November 8th, 1875. In the Academyof November 6th, (p 478) I find …

and in The Aberystwith Observer, p4, dated November 20th, 1875:

THE Rev Silvan Evans, B.D., has written the following letter to the Academy :— Llanymawddwy Rectory, Merioneth November 8th, 1875. In the Academy November 6th, (p 478) I find …

Response to Silvan Evans, Historical Evidence, 1875-11-20#

The next issue of the Academy, Vol 8 Iss 18 dated November 20th, 1875, pp. 529-30, has a response that recaptures much of the evidence that we are familiar with. It is restated here to provide a concise benchmark for the state of understanding we might have expected from the participants from this point in the debate.


Professor Evans has “never heard of the strange custom here alluded to, either as now existing or as having existed at some former period.” May I be allowed to point out what appears to be the original passage from which the writer of the article drew the authority for his statement, and apparently its very words ? It occurs in a work so well-known as Brand’s Popular Antiquities (Bohn’s edition, 1849, vol. ii. 246-248), where the following is cited from Bagford’s letter, dated February 1, 1714-5, in Leland’s Collectanea, i. 76 :—

“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.”

The following words of Aubrey’s own are then quoted :—

“In the county of Hereford was an old custome at funeralls to hire poor peopie, who were to take upon them the sinnes of the party deceased. Ono 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 bowlo, of muple, 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… . 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. I believe this custom was heretofore used all over Wales.” (Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaism. Lansdowne MSS. 226, fol. 116.)

In a note the same writer adds that at Llanggors, Brecon, about 1640, Mr. Gwin, the minister, “could not hinder the performance of this ancient custome.” And he says in another page of the MS. cited: “A.D. 1686. This custom is used to this day in North Wales.”

While these statements very clearly affirm the former prevalence, in North Wales and the Border, of the superstitious practice in question, they do not, of course, go to show that, in the words of the article, it is “still surviving” in those localities, as well as in South Wales. The writer, however, of the interesting compilation in Blackwood has little to tell us about surviving North Welsh superstitions, and less that is new. Some of those mentioned (e.g., that about pigeon’s feathers, and the Bible and key or sieve spell to find’a thief) are common in various parts of England and Scotland; others, like the Canwyll Corph (Corpse Candle), are more or less satisfactorily referred to in well-known works— as in the Choice Notes from Notes and Queries, and in the old Cambrian Quarterly Magazine; other remarkable superstitions, again, alleged to be still living, such as that of the Mallt y Nos, or Mam y Drwg (Mother of Mischief), are not mentioned.

I venture to remark that the popular superstitions of Wales still await a student, acquainted with the Welsh language, and content, instead of seeking folk-lore from books, to collect it at the firesides of the people, in the out-of-the-way villages and secluded glens where it lingers longest.
David Fitzgerald.

There is a second piece of correspondence, immediately following (p530), that adds a further reference to Hone’s Year Book:

Croeswylan, Oswestry. In reference to the strange profession of “Sin-Eater,” mentioned by the writer in Blackwood and doubted by your able correspondent, the Rev. Silvan Evans, let me refer him and your readers to a well-known work, Hone’s Year Book, on col. 858 of which will be found some records of the practice both in Wales and on the borders. One of the illustrations dates from Herefordshire, in which county, if I am not mistaken, the writer in Blackwood resides.
Askew Roberts.

Askew Roberts, you might recall, was the original editor of Bye-Gones, launched in 1871, the hyperlocal Notes & Queries of its time for Oswestry and the border counties of England and Wales.

We also get a first hint here that Askew Roberts, at least, has a good idea about whom the author of the article might be.

In Bye-Gones of November 24th, 1875, p329-30, we have a note that ‘[t]he following letter has appeared in the Academy. “Llanymawddwy Rectory, Merioneth: November 8th, 1875. …’ that quotes Silvan Evans’ letter to the November 13th edition of the Academy along with Roberts’ own reply from the November 20th edition, as well as an excerpt of several paragraphs from that work.

Askew Roberts’ letter to the Academy is also republished in The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, published on November 26th, 1875, p9, along with the elaboration of the reference in Hone’s Year Book.

The Blackwood Author Replies, 1875-11-27#

A week after the first response to Silvan Evans’ letter in the Academy, and two weeks after that letter appeared, in Vol 8 Iss 185 dated November 27th, 1875, p555, the anonymous Blackwood author goes on the defensive in their response – their retort - to the Reverend, addressing him almost as if he were a poorly read schoolboy who hadn’t done his prep:

THE SIN-EATER. November 20, 1875.

Mr. Silvan Evans’s ignorance of the superstition of the “Sin-eater” as connected with Wales and the Border counties surprises me the more as he has been for some years editor of the Cambrian Archaeological Journal; and during those years, if I mistake not, the second series of that valuable work has been carefully indexed.

The author then instructs the naughty schoolboy as to where to look for the answer:

If he will turn to Ser. II., vol. iii. pp- 330, seq., he will find that at the meeting of the Cambrian Archaeologists at Ludlow in 1852 Mr. Moggridge cited a case of this superstition as having occurred within five years at or near Llandebie in the hill-country of Carmarthenshire.

The patronising tone continues with an explanation of how the answer should be interpreted, explaining any delay in responding to Silvan Evan’s initial letter as a result of a last minute search for a more contemporary example (which by implication Silvan Evans should have found if her weren’t so lazy), but which the author, in fact, doesn’t find either:

That which can be pointed to within a generation back may be said, speaking broadly, to “survive” or linger still; and I have only delayed writing these remarks in the hopes of hunting up a paper where, early in the present year, I found a notice of a still later case.

To reinforce Silvan Evans’ suggested laziness, the anonymous correspondent points out that several other boys managed to do the homework all on their own:

Other of your correspondents have relieved me of the necessity of referring to instances of the “Sin-eater” custom cited by Leland, Aubrey, and others, as having occurred between 1686 and 1715 in three or four Herefordshire parishes, in Shropshire, in the villages adjoining Wales, at Llangorse, near Brecon, and elsewhere in North and South Wales.

In adopting his superior tone, the author then responds, mockingly it seems, that they can’t speak Welsh and never pretended to be able to. And that while their education may be lacking in this respect, the implication in tone is that they still knows how to do their homework properly.

I regret that my ignorance of Welsh precludes me from giving Mr. Evans the Welsh equivalent for the term. My article in Blackwood pretends to no such knowledge, though I regret, as a Borderer, that my education herein is imperfect.

The Blackwood author then tries a rheterical trick of suggesting they will be more than pleased if further contemporary evidence comes to hand, (suggesting by omission that they have already provided more than enough such evidence anyway), and they will happily then provide it to the Academy themself.

Should I be able to trace the custom to a still later date than 1848 or 1852, no one will be better Pleased than myself to communicate the fact to the Academy.

In signing off, the author continues to maintain their anonymity:

The Author of a paper on “LEGENDS AND FOLK-LORE OF NORTH WALES in “Blackwood’s Magazine” For November.

Commentary Elsewhere, November-December, 1875#

On December 1st, 1875, p331, the readers of Bye-Gones were kept up to date with how the debate was proceeding (the date reference in the title is a reference back to the previous mention of the topic in Bye-Gones):

The Sin Eater (Nov. 24, 1875)

In reference to this subject the writer in Blackwood states in the Academy of Nov. 27 that the Cambrian Archaeologists at Ludlow in 1852 had the matter before them, when “Mr Moggridge cited a case of this superstition having occurred with five years at or near Llandebie, in the hill country of Carmarthenshire.” (See Cam. Arch, Jour. s. 11, v. iii, p.330)

In the Aberystwith Observer of December 11th, 1875, p3, a Welsh language column appeared from which the following is taken:


Cyfeiriasom yn un o’n llythyrau at gyhuddiad pwysig a ddygwyd yn ein herbyn yn yr Academy sef fod y fath fôd a sin-eater gyda ni yn ein claddedigaethau. Mewn atebiad i’r Parch. D Silvan Evans, dywed y cyhuddwr i’r achos fod dan sylw y Cambrian Archaeologists yn Ludlow, yn 1852, pan ddywedoad un Mr. Moggridge i’r achos ofer-goelus hwngymeryd lie, o fewn pum mlynedd, yn neu gerllaw Llandebie, sir Gaerfyrddin. Wrth ein cyhuddo, dywedwyd fed yr arferiad yn Nghymru yn bresennol, ond pan ofynir am y prawf eir yn ol i bellafoedd 30 mlynedd. Y mae 30 mlynedd yn y cyfnod hwn yo fwy nag oedd dau gant o flynyddau ganrifoedd yn ol. Ond er iddo ddychwelyd i 1847, nis gallasai ddweyd wrthym pa un ai yn neu gerllaw Llandebie y cymerodd yr amgylchiad lle pa un ai yn Llandilo fawr, Cwmdwr, Pontarddulais, neu rywle arall. Ond er iddo nodi amser a lle, yr ydym yn ei sicrhau ef, Mr. Moggridge, a phawb eraill, na chymerodd yr amgylchiad le yno o fewn cof y trigolion hynaf. Y mae arferiad mewn rhai lleoedd yn Nghymru cyn cychwyn a’r corff oddiwrth y ty fyned a chwrw a theisienau i’r gwyddfodolion, cyn casglu i gynnorthwyo yn y treulio i gladdu; ao y mae yn dra thebyg i’r doethawr Moggridge dybied mai arferiad ffol ei genedl ei hun oedd hyny. Difyr iawn ydyw gweled ambell hynafiaethydd arwynebol a chyflym yn trafod rhai pynciau. Rhaid bod yn ofalus iawn gyda phethau sydd yn dal cysylltiad agos a chymeriad cenedl. Perthyna lluaws o ffaeleddau i ni fel Cymry, a thröwn ein cefnau yn ewyllysgar at y fflangellwr, ond ni chymerwn ein sarhau am bethau na pherthyn i ni, a hyny gan genedl sydd a phob llecyn o’i gwlad yn gysegredig i ofergoeleddd.

Via Google Translate, we get the following attempt at a translation:


We referred in one of our letters to an important accusation made against us at the Academy in that we have such a sense of sin and eater in our burials. In reply to the Rev. D Silvan Evans, the accuser states that the case was under consideration by the Cambrian Archaeologists at Ludlow, in 1852, when one said Mr. Moggridge to the over-zealous cause where, within five years, at or near Llandebie, Carmarthenshire. In our charge, it was said that the practice in Wales is present, but when the test is called for it will go back to a maximum of 30 years. 30 years in this period is more than two hundred years ago. But although he returned to 1847,

the 1847 date presumably refers to the “within five years” period dated relative to 1852

he could not tell us whether in Llandilo, Cwmdwr, Pontarddulais, or elsewhere, the event took place in or near Llandebie. But though he did specify a time and place, we assure him, Mr. Moggridge, and everyone else, the circumstance did not take place there in the memory of the older inhabitants.

Here, then more negative anecdotal evidence.

The column then goes on (albeit from what is perhaps a rather dubious translation) to offer a possible explanation:

It is customary in some places in Wales before the departure of the body from the house to take beer and cakes to the essentials, before collecting to assist in digestion; and it is very likely that the scholar Moggridge assumed this to be the custom of his own nation.

There is then a defence of the Welsh people and their traditions:

It is very interesting to see a few superficial and fast antiquaries discussing some topics. Great care must be taken with things that hold a close connection to the character of a nation. Many failings belong to us as Welshmen, and we turn our backs eagerly to the scourge, but we are not to be insulted for things or belonging to us, and that is by a nation whose sacred land is sacred to superstition.

Two Letters from “Rheidiol”#

Although archival copies of the Western Mail do not appear in the digital archives (scans for July to December 1875 are missing from the National Library of Wales newspaper archive collection), a note in Bye-Gones of December 22, 1875, also reprinted in The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, dated December 24th, 1875, p9, contains an excerpt of a letter to that publication of December 16th, 1875, from a certain “RHEIDIOL” that also claims not to have witnessed or found evidence of the tradition, despite having been a collector of folklore in the area:

THE SIN EATER (Dec. 1, 1875.)- The Western Mail, Dec. 16, contains a letter signed RHEIDIOL, Twmbarlwn, on this subject, in which, after narrating the facts already stated, the writer proceeds to say :- I lived at Llandebie many years ago, and I am well acquainted with the history of that parish and its customs and traditions, and from time to time I attended fuuerals, but I never heard of such a thing. I am well acquainted with Welsh lore in almost every parish in South Wales, which I collected for the late Sir Thomas Phillips, Bart., and I never heard of its existence. The Welsh peasant may be a little superstitious, but he is far too intelligent to believe in such a thing as a Sin Eater. This is simply a fling at the Welsh nation. I hope, for the credit of the Cambrian Association, that they have better foundation for the papers read at their meetings than the Sin-Eater.”

A second letter from the same correspondent appeared in The Aberystwyth Observer of December 18th, 1875, p3:


To the Editor of the Aberystwyth Observer.

SIR.—The old saying is very true “if you want to hear news you must go from homo.” Now we have received a strange piece of news, that we have a “Sin Eater” in connection with funerals in Wales. Some years ago, I was employed by an eminent antiquary to collect old Welsh legends, traditions and customs. I have made researches in almost every parish in South Wales but I never heard of the “Sin Eater.”

We are told this custom prevailed at Llandebe, in Carmarthenshire.

I went to reside in that village in 1850; and I lived there for six years. My avocation brought me in contact with all the parishioners I knew them well, and I am well acquainted with the history of the place, its customs and traditions. I attended many funerals, but this Sin Eater never cropped up; and I never saw cakes distributed at funerals.

The Welsh people are, it is true, in some localities a little tainted with superstition, as to ghosts &c., but they are not so superstitious as the importations who cross the “Severn Sea” to South Wales they are too well acquainted with their Bibles as to believe in such a thing as a “Sin Eater.”

We are told that this was maintained at the Cambrian Society’s meeting held at Ludlow in 1852; if such trash as this be accepted by antiquarians as facts, their knowledge of the Principality must be very limited; and I pity their ignorance of Welsh history and traditions.

I thank the Rev. Daniel S. Evans, of Llany-Mawddwy, for calling attention to this rank libel on Welshmen.

I am, sir, yours faithfully,


Who Was “Rheidiol”?

At this point, the identity of “Rheidiol” is not clear, but we do have various snippets of information about them:

  • their address: Twmbarlwn;

  • they resided in “Llandebe” (Llandebie) from 1850 to 1856;

  • they were “employed by an eminent antiquary to collect old Welsh legends, traditions and customs”.

We also note that they “attended many funerals”, which may be as a result of their profession or their standing in the community.

Mr Moggridge Returns: A Meeting of The Anthropological Institute#

Elsewhere, on December 14th, 1875, at a meeting of The Anthroplogical Institute, with Colonel A. Lane Fox, President, in the Chair, a paper was read by M. J. Watnovsz, F.R.A.S “On the Belief in Bhutas—Devil and Ghost Worship in Western India The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 5, 1875, pp408 onwards.

The collected volume 5 edition of the Journal covers the period February 9, 1875-January 25, 1876, so we might assume it was published in early 1876.

Notes from a discussion following the reading of the paper are also recorded from p423. Notably, they feature a response from a certain Mr Moggridge, whom we might assume to be the same Mr Moggridge that spoke on the subect of the sin-eater at the sixth meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Association meeting in Ludlow over twenty years earlier, in 1852:

Mr. Moggridge said : Mention was made of superstitious observances in our own island. I may, therefore, be permitted to bring to your notice a curious custom that not long since was still extant in South Wales and some of the adjoining counties, that of the Sin-eater. More than two centuries ago a well-known writer, Aubrey de Gentilésisme gives a full account of this observance in Herefordshire, where he was fortunate enough to “interview” the Sin-eater himself.

Moggridge went on mention another, more recent tradition, which he associates with a sin-eater, but which he distinguishes as a slightly simpler ritual:

Among the mountains of South Wales I find a similar ceremony prevailing down to almost our own times. When a person died, the Sin-eater of the district was called in. On his arrival he received a plate, on which he poured some salt. Upon the salt he placed a piece of bread, laid the plate on the chest of the defunct, muttered words of charmed power while bending over the corse, then eat the bread, whereby he eat up and appropriated to himself all the sins of the deceased, received two shillings and sixpence for his services, and quickly retired from the pitying gaze of are present, who regarded him as one utterly and irremediably lost.

It is also remarkable how closely those reported words match the words ascribed to Moggridge back in 1852 as reported in Archaeologia Cambrensis, October 1852, Vol 3, Issue 12, p330-332: “When a person died, the friends sent for the sin-eater of the district, who on his arrival placed a plate of salt on the breast of the defunct, and upon the salt a piece of bread. He then muttered an incantation over the bread, which he finally ate—thereby eating up all the sins of the deceased. This done he received his fee of 2s. 6d., and vanished as quickly as possible from the general gaze; for, as it was believed that he really appropriated to his own use and behoof the sins of all those over whom he performed the above ceremony, he was utterly detested in the neighbourhood— regarded as a mere Pariah— as one irremediably lost”. Had Mr Moggridge perhaps recently re-read the report of his comments to the Cambrian Archaeological Association and rehearsed those same words once again?

Whatever the case, Mr. Moggridge seems to continue to hold firm in his belief of the existence of the tradition and in the authority of Aubrey.

Whether or not Mr Moggridge had been reminded of the sin-eater tradition from the Blackwood article, or the correspondence running in the Academy is not clear. Certainly, he did not contribute to the correspondence in the Academy, and I haven’t found evidence of him publicly commenting on it elsewhere, although as we shall see, he does appear to have corresponded privately with Silvan Evans at the start of the following year.

Moggridge’s comments were followed up by comments from another participant, a certain Mr Jeremiah, who did reference the Academy correspondence, picking up on the question raised by Silvan Evans regarding a possible Welsh word for “sin-eater”:

Mr. Jeremiah said: I was very much interested in the paper just read. With reference to the alleged custom of sin-eating in Wales, mentioned by Mr. Moggridge, I would remark that the discussion raised by the Rev. D. Silvan Evans in the Academy (November 5, 1875) appears to have gone adrift for want of the Welsh word for Sin-eater. The discussion arose, as all must be aware, from a statement made by a writer in Blackwood’s Magazine for last month, in an article on the Legend and Folk-lore of North Wales,’ where he says, in reference to a funeral custom, that the “Scapegoat … is currently called a ‘sin-eater.’” Dr. Evans demanded the Welsh equivalent, which the author of that article could not give, in consequence of, he says, “my ignorance of Welsh.” (Academy, Nov. 27, p. 555.)

Mr Jeremiah then suggests that the answer is to be found in William Bingley’s North Wales; including its scenery, antiquities, customs, and some sketches of its natural history, published in 1804, which is referenced in the context of the sin-eater debate for the first time:

Had he referred to Bingley’s “North Wales,” vol. ii. p. 278, he would have seen a way out of his difficulty, and a clear answer to the query put by Dr. Evans; and Mr. Moggridge will also see, I think, that the custom was not known as sin-eating, although the original meaning may have been of that nature. Bingley says, “It is usual in several parts of North Wales for the nearest female relation to the deceased, be she widow, mother, sister, or daughter, to pay some poor person of the same sex, and nearly the same age with the deceased, for procuring slips of yew, box, and other evergreens, to strew over and ornament the grave for some weeks after interment, and in some instances for weeding and adorning it on the eves of Easter, Whitsuntide, and the other great festivals for a year or two afterwards. This gift is called Diodlys, and it is made on a plate at the door of the house, where, at the same time, the body is standing ona bier. It had its name from a custom, which is now discontinued (1804), of the female relative giving to the person a piece of cheese with the money stuck in it, some white bread, and afterwards a cup of ale. When this previous ceremony is over, the clergyman, or, in his absence, the parish clerk, repeats the Lord’s Prayer, after which they proceed with the body to the church.”

From this, Mr Jeremiah appears to be suggesting that there is a Welsh word for a particular eating related death ritual, but that it does not describe sin-eating:

It appears, then, that the custom means simply a “gift of ale or beer,” and not sin-eating.

Mr Jeremiah also referred to Pennant’s Tours in Wales, which is the first citation I have found of this work in the context of discussions around the sin-eater:

Pennant’s (in his “Tours in Wales,” vol. iii. p. 159, edition 1810) account is slightly different. He says: “Previous to a funeral it was customary, when the corpse was brought out of the house and laid upon the bier, for the next-of-kin, be it widow, mother, sister, or daughter—for it must be a female—to give, over the coffin, a quantity of white loaves in a great dish, and sometimes a cheese with a piece of money stuck in it, to certain poor persons. After that they presented, in the same manner, a cup of drink, and required the person to drink a little of it immediately. When that was done they kneeled down, and the minister, if present, said the Lord’s Prayer, after which they proceeded with the corpse, and at every crossway between the house and the church they laid down the bier and knelt, and again repeated the Lord’s Prayer, and did the same when they first entered the churchyard.”

Mr Jeremiah suggests this also refers to the Diodlys tradition, and the misascribed sin-eating tradition:

This custom, and that of the alleged sin-eating, are conclusively one and the same, viz. that of Diodlys.

Several other remarks appear then to have been made — “Mr Edkins and the President also made a few remarks” – presumably including a vote of thanks to the reader of the paper, but what the remarks were is not recorded.

This appears to have been Mr Jeremiah’s only contribution to the sin-eater debate unless he appears elsewhere under a pseudonym.

Silvan Evans Responds to the Evidence, 1876-02-05#

After a short break in correspondence, presumably as he attempted his researches, Silvan Evans wrote again to the Academy a month into the new year with a missive that appears in Vol 9 Iss 196 published February 2nd, 1876, p125-6.

Republished Elsewhere

The same letter is repbublished more or less in its entirety in the Aberystwith Observer dated February 12th, 1872, prefaced with the following introduction:

The following letter from the Rev. Professor Evans, of the University College of Wales, appears in the last number of the Academy, and, the subject having attracted considerable attention in tho Principality, no apology is needed for reproducing the communication at length.

Silvan Evans opens with a restatement of his belief that the tradition of the sin-eater does not exist in Wales:

Correspondence: The Sin-Eater, by Prof. D. Silvan Evans


Aberystwyth : Jan. 29, 1876.

At the risk of exposing my “ignorance” still further, and thereby causing additional surprise to the writer of the paper on the “Legends and Folklore of North Wales” in Blackwood’s Magazine, I venture to reiterate my doubts as to the existence of the sin-eater in any part of Wales. Like every other country, the Principality had, and still has, her superstitions, but that of the sin-eater does not appear to be among them.

Silvan Evans backs this up by explaining that despite his best efforts, he has still not been able to find anyone who has knowledge of the tradition:

Since the appearance of my former letter in the ACADEMY (November 13), I have made all the enquiries I could into the subject, with the view of ascertaining whether such a personage has, or ever had, “a local habitation and a name” among us. I have spoken to many and corresponded with several persons who are known to have paid attention to the customs and traditions of the country; and the sum of their communications is, without any exception, that the superstition of the sin-eater was as novel to them as it was to me.

Silvan Evans then starts to pick up on some of the points raised in the Blackwood’s author’s previous correspondence, admitting that if he had ever been aware of Moggridge’s claims, he had forgotten them, and making the reasonable claim that he should not be expected to be “minutely acquainted with everything that appeared in that journal some twenty years previously” even if he had been the editor of it:

The writer points to Llandebie as the place where the custom prevailed as late as 1847, refers me for confirmation to a statement made by Mr. Matthew Moggridge at the annual meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Association held at Ludlow in 1852, and is “surprised” that I, who became connected with the Archaeologia Cambrensis in 1872, should not be minutely acquainted with everything that appeared in that journal some twenty years previously. Whether I ever read the account of the Ludlow meeting I cannot now say; but if I did, every trace of Mr. Moggridge’s revelations had been effaced from my memory when I wrote my letter.

Silvan Evan’s then recaps the Blackwood author’s summary of Moggridge’s original claims:

The writer tells us that “at the meeting of the Cambrian archaeologists at Ludlow in 1852, Mr. Moggridge cited a case of this superstition as having occurred within five years at or near Llandebie, in the hill-country of Carmarthenshire.”

before suggesting that this is a completely false summary, in so-doing demonstrating his correspondent that he has now engaged with that source, having had it raised to his attention, and being a competent researcher found that Moggridge made no such claim:

Mr. Moggridge said no such thing, and it is hardly fair to make him responsible for sentiments which he never expressed. The description of the sin-eater, given by Mr. Moggridge, is taken from Aubrey; and the following are his words in reference to Llandebie, as reported in the Archaeologia Cambrensis, the organ of the Association :—

“In Caermarthenshire, not far from Llandebie, was a mountain valley where, up to the commencement of the present century,

which is to say, up to the start of the 19th century, to whit, the late 1700s,

the people were of a very lawless character. There the above practice was said to have prevailed to a recent period,

But the practice was “said to prevail” by whom?

And what period does Silvan Evans think this refers to? As the tradition was “said to have” prevailed, then perhaps it prevailed in “a recent period” relative to the context described by whomever said it, and who was perhaps that same someone who had been speaking about “the commencement of the present century”.

and going thence to those parts of the country where, from the establishment of works, and from other causes, the people had more early become enlightened, he

he being Moggridge,

found the more absurd portions of the custom had been abandoned, while some still remained. Thus near Llanon, within twenty years, the plate, salt, and bread were retained ; near Swansea (and, indeed, very generally), only the plate and salt.”

Silvan Evans then attacks the Blackwood’s author’s logic:

Out of this statement the author of the article makes “five years”! and by that process brings the custom down to 1847.

Which is to say, five years previous to Moggridge’s paper of 1852.

Mr. Moggridge, in a letter dated the first day of the present year,

(I have not been able to find a copy of this letter published anywhere)

tells me that he does “not remember anything that gives a date,” and adds that “the only written account” of the sin-eater “from personal knowledge is that of Aubrey, ‘de Gentilisme.’”

So, here we have an affirmation from Moggridge that the only written source he was aware of was Aubrey, and perhaps was not aware of any specific dates associated with when the tradition was extant.

Silvan Evans then tries to find evidence of dates associated with eyewitness testimony, starting with his reading of Aubrey, who we might recall was writing about the sin-eater in 1686.

Aubrey, if I may rely on the extracts given in the ACADEMY, does not say that he was eyewitness to the performances of the sin-eater in any part of Wales, and therefore, according to Mr. Moggridge, no one speaks of it from personal knowledge as having prevailed at any time in the Principality; and it will be borne in mind that I am writing of the Principality and not of the English counties.

Here, any references to the tradition outside the Principality of Wales are explicitly discounted. Furthermore, mo mention or reference is made of any oral evidence Mr Moggridge might have otherwise had access to, or not.

Failing to find such reports of direct evidence, Silvan Evans returns his focus to Llandebie, referring to correspondence he had recently received from one John Rowlands, schoolmaster and “one time librarian to the late Sir Thomas Phillipps” who had similarly never been witness to any eyewitness testimony:

But let us return to Llandebie, the locality in which it is asserted that the custom prevailed within the last thirty years. Mr. John Rowlands, a highly intelligent schoolmaster, author of a small volume of Historical Notes published about ten years ago, and at one time librarian to the late Sir Thomas Phillipps of Middle Hill, wrote to me on December 14 last in these words :—

“I opened the Llandebie School in the year 1850, and I lived there for many years. I knew all the parishioners, and the history of the parish; its legends, customs, and traditions. And during the time I was there I attended many funerals, but never heard of the ‘sin-eater;’ in fact people there never give cakes at funerals. I know almost every parish in South Wales; I collected all the legends, and made notes of the old customs for the late Sir Thomas Phillipps. If such a custom had prevailed I should have heard of it. I have no hesitation in writing that it is a glaring untruth.”

As Silvan Evans points out,

Letters to the same effect appeared in the Western Mail, which circulates very extensively in the Principality, in the Aberystwyth Observer, and, I am told, in some other papers; but no one in reply has put in a plea in favour of the sin-eater.

These letters, by “Rheidiol”, are presumably by that same Mr. John Rowlands.

Silvan Evans also received correspondence from the current vicar of Llandebie:

The Rev. Rees Evans, Vicar of Llandebie, has favoured me with the following letter in answer to my enquiries, and I must crave indulgence on the part of your readers for inserting it without abridgment :—

Revd. Rees Evans, it seems, was well famliar with the area:

“I duly received your letter of the 22nd ult., which contained such extraordinary statements in reference to a superstitious custom supposed and alleged to be prevalent in this parish, viz., the employment at funerals of a strange person called the ‘sin-eater.’ I have been the vicar of this parish for the last fourteen years, and I have known this neighbourhood well for the last twenty-five years; but I never heard till I received your letter of such a personage as the ‘sin-eater.’

Intrigued by Silvan Evans’ enquiries, and digging into the claims made originally by Mr Moggridge, Rees Evans conducted his own research:

“However, with the view of arriving at the truth or falsehood of the statements made by Mr. Moggridge at Ludlow in the year 1852, which appeared subsequently in the Archaeologia Cambrensis, and with the view of satisfying my own mind on the subject, I have during the last three weeks instituted searching enquiries in every part and hamlet of this parish, as to the probability of there having ever existed here such a functionary as ‘sin-eater’ and the result of my investigation in the matter is this :—

In short, he also failed to find evidence of the sin-eater:

That such a custom as that alluded to in your letter never prevailed, at least for several centuries, in this parish and neighbourhood.

This understanding was based on his solicitation of local knowledge and opinion:

That is the candid opinion of all classes of persons with whom I had long conversations while investigating the matter in question for you. One intelligent old man, an octogenarian, whose ancestors had lived from time immemorial in this parish, told me that such a custom, in his opinion, could not have prevailed here at least for the last two hundred years, or he would have heard of it from his father or his grandfather, who lived to a great age. Therefore, from all the enquiries that I have made, my candid opinion is that the statements which were made by Mr. Moggridge cannot be substantiated by any reliable authority or proved by any credible evidence.”

As an aside, we might note that in an 1876 work on Historical notes of the counties of Glamorgan, Carmarthen and Cardigan:, the entry for Llandebie, starting on page 54 has no mention of any particular traditions or local customs peculiar to that location, let alone a mention of the sin-eater.

Silvan Evans picks up the correspondence once again:

Such are the results of my enquiries, and yet we are asked to believe that the sin-eater carried on his nefarious profession in the neighbourhood of Llandebie until within a little more than a quarter of a century.

He also distinguishes between the tradition of the “plate and salt” and the ritual of the sin-eater, and, seemingly contra Moggridge, does not see the former as evidence a sin-eater tradition.

The plate and salt mentioned by Mr. Moggridge as being still seen in some parts have no connexion, or at least no necessary connexion, with the sin-eater, and much more satisfactory reasons are given for their employment. They are not uncommon, I understand, among Roman Catholics at the present day.

All the evidence, it appears, owes to Aubrey, who had no direct evidence of it of his own.

The whole story of the sin-eater appears to rest on the shoulders of Aubrey, and, as we have just seen, he does not state that he saw any performance of the custom among the Welsh people. Those who only retail his statements need not detain us.

Silvan Evans then further raises doubts about trusting Aubrey in general:

I leave it to others to judge what amount of credibility is due to so credulous a person as Aubrey in any case in which superstition plays a part.

based on other apparently wild claims he appears to have made:

If we put implicit belief in what he says about the sin-eater, whether in England or out of England, I do not see how we can consistently refuse his evidence as to ghosts, spectres, witchcraft, and similar subjects, about which he is so eloquent.

Finally, Silvan Evans’ signs off with another dig at the Blackwood’s author, wondering at how the only people who seem to have found evidence in support of the sin-eater tradition are those who don’t speak Welsh and don’t know the country:

In conclusion I would remark that if the custom under notice ever existed in Wales, it is somewhat strange, if not “surprising,” that the discovery of it has been exclusively confined to those who are ignorant of the language of the natives, and are but slightly acquainted with the country.


Meanwhile, Elsewhere, February, 1876#

As the correspondence in the Academy picked up once again, a column on Old Welsh Legends and Poetry, penned by Lady Verney, appeared in the February, 1876, edition of the Contemporary Review, pp396-416, which made passing mention of the sin-eater tradition (p403) without attributing a source:

There is a strange superstition concerning the “sin-eater.” which remains in some secluded places, perhaps the echo of the idea of substitution for sin in the Jewish scapegoat. He presents himself, professionally, at the moment of death, puts a plate containing bread and salt on the breast of the corpse, mutters an incantation, and proceeds to eat the bread, thereby “eating up the sins of the dead,” and especially preventing him, or her, from “walking” after death. The man who exercises this tremendous power is a sort of pariah, detested in the neighbourhood, and does his work for half-a-crown, and sometimes even goes as low as sixpence in his demands.

The sum of sixpence, and the terms walking and scapegoat (if not “Jewish scapegoat”) all appear in the Arch. Camb. write-up of Moggridge’s comments at Ludlow. Although the quoted phrase “eating up the sins of the dead” does not appear, “eating up all the sins of the deceased” does. It thus seems likely that Lady Verney’s source was the Arch. Camb report.

In passing, we note that Lady Verney also describes a cursing ritual that is perhaps reminiscent of the cursing ritual at St. Aelian’s well.:

Another instance of the extraordinary power which, it is supposed, can be exerted by very ordinary individuals, is accomplished by throwing oneself on one’s knees and repeating the Cursing Psalms, when the dreadful wishes of David for his enemies are made to cling to the person thus prayed against. “The devil can quote Scripture” indeed. This Pagan and devilish use of the Bible, and the change of name, not of nature, which has taken place in many an ancient local deity, may still be met with in Brittany, where there was a Celtic goddess of Hate, now transmogrified into “Notre Dame de la Haine.” If three Aves are uttered at nightfall in her chapel near Treguier, winged with the proper directions against the hated person, “death happens irrevocably within the year to him or her.”

Over in Bye-gones, the running commentary continued in the February 9th, 1876 edition, p15:

The Sin-Eater in Wales

The discussion on this subject, commenced in the Academy, and continued in that and other papers, was fully given in Bye-gones towards the close of last year. Our readers will remember that the discussion arose on a challenge by a well-known and able Welshman, the Rev. D. Silvan Evans, to the write of an article in Blackwood, on the Folk Lore of Wales, to prove his assertion that ever such a personage as the “Sin-Eater” existed in the Principality. One or two replies appeared, referring to Aubrey, as the original authority that such an office once existed; and the writer of the article expressed his surprise that Mr Evans, whose connection with the Archaeologia Combrensis was well known, should not be aware that Mr Moggridge had stated at the meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Society in 1852, that the custom had prevailed at or near Llandebie, Caermarthanshore, within five years of that date. The substance of this we gave in Dec. 1, 1875, and on Dec. 20 a letter from the Western Mail written, as we are no informed, by Mr John Rowlands who had been a schoolmaster at Llandebie for many years, commencing 1850, and who denied the exitence of the practice in his time, or within the memory of the oldest inhabitant. In the Academy, Feb. 5, 1875, Mr Silvan Evans goes fully into the matter, and gives as the result of his enquiries, a total denial of the practice as far as Wales is concerned; in the course of which he publishes a letter from the Vicar of Llandebie, who confirms all Mr Rowlands previously said. Mr Silvan Evans concludes that the “whole story of the Sin-Eater rests on the shoulders of Aubrey,” and he declines to place any faith in “so credulous a person in any case in which superstition plays a part.” Mr Evans also explains that his connection with the organ of the Cambrian Archaeological Society commenced twenty years after the date of Mr Moggridge’s connection.

The same review appeared in Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard dated February 18th, 1876, p7.

The Blackwood Author Snaps Back, 1876-02-12#

In the Academy, Vol 9 Iss 197, published February 12th, 1876, p144, a passing mention to Lady Verney’s article:

In the Contemporary Review … Lady VERNEY, in an interesting paper in the same periodical on Welsh Legends and Welsh Poetry, repeats the disputed statement as to the functions of the Sin-eater, and supplies some instances of witchcraft with a rationalistic explanation.

In the same issue, Vol 9 Iss 197, published February 12th, 1876, p147, the anonymous Blackwood author responses post-haste to Silvan Evan’s letter in the previous issue, opening their missive with a baiting and mocking tone (truly are these two Victorian gentlemen trolling each other!):


February 8, 1876.

I crave Mr. Silvan Evans’s pardon for the hasty assumption that the editor of an Archaeological journal would possess or have access to a complete set of the past volumes, in which case he need not have denied in his first letter to the ACADEMY having ever heard of the Sin-eater in Wales, seeing that he now admits that if “he ever read Mr. Moggridge’s revelations at Ludlow, they had been effaced from his memory” when he first wrote.

Having mocked Silvan Evans for not checking his back issues of Archaeologia Cambrensis rather earlier, let alone remembering what they contain, our petulant anonymous author now suggests that even having read Moggridge’s account, he still doesn’t get it.

To me he does not seem even now to have fully refreshed his memory; as after quoting a portion of Mr. Moggridge’s remarks at the Ludlow meeting in 1852, and calling Mr. Moggridge as a witness, at this distance of time, that “he does not remember anything that gives a date,” he takes me to task for making “five years!” out of that statement, and by that process bringing the custom down to 1847.

Did he not read the whole report?!

Had Mr. Evans turned over a leaf and read the last words of Mr. Moggridge on the occasion referred to, he would have found that they were to the effect that “he believed people were thoroughly ashamed of the practice: one case, he was informed, occurred four or five years ago; but he believed it was extinct now.

Taking “having been informed” relative to the the date of Moggridge’s original comments, or to a contemporary communication to Mr Moggridge around that time, any occurrence “four or five years ago” would be dated around 1847.

As regards the locale:

Perhaps, had I not wished to be succinct, I should have given Mr. Moggridge’s own words for the mountain valley in which, when he brought forward the subject in 1852, the practice was said to have existed till recently. But “at or near Llandebie” is a wide statement,

— the original Arch. Camb. reference gives Moggridge’s words as “In Caermarthenshire, not far from Llandebie, was a mountain valley…”

and though the present vicar and the quondam schoolmaster may never have heard of the “Sin-eater,” I am still disposed to believe that there must have been some foundation for Mr. Moggridge’s statement.

Who cares if no-one there has heard of the sin-eater? That isn’t at all relevant as far as the Blackwood author is concerned.

Only last night, in the Introduction to Murray’s Handbook to South Wales, 1870 (the editor of which I am unacquainted with, although I have an impression that he was a medical man of eminence, connected with Monmouthshire Iron Works), I came upon this paragraph in p. xxvii: “The superstition of the sin-eater is said to have lingered until very recently in the secluded valley of Cwm-Amman in Caermarthenshire.”

If this is claiming another authority, it is specious one: the text in the Handbook to South Wales appears to be taken in large part directly from Arch. Camb. report.

As to geography:

I refer to the Ordnance Maps, and find Cwm-Amman to lie not far distant from Llandebie, on the Garnant branch of the Swansea Valley Railway.

It is not clear what point the author is trying to make here. That there is evidence of a sin-eater tradition in Cwm-Amman, and that Cwm-Ammon is close to Llandebie? (It might be worth recally that the title of Moggridge’s remarks to the meeting at Ludlow was “Custom of the Sin Eater in Cwm Ammon Valley”.)

The author then cites another contemporary source, Lady Verney’s column on Old Welsh Legends and Poetry in that month’s Contemporary Review:

Lady Verney, in the current number of the Contemporary, refers to the same superstition,

an account which, we have seen, is probably based on her reading of Archaeologia Cambrensis, or a report closely based on it,

and if the whole story does really trace back to Aubrey,

which it thus far appears to,

it is at least singular that there should lie in wait for such enquirers as that pleasant antiquary, and his later fellow craftsman, Mr. Moggridge, deliberate fiction-mongers to practise on their credulity and to spread abroad a lie which Welshmen feel it a point of national honour to repudiate.

Which is to say, why would people have wound up Aubrey in the late seventeenth century, and the Moggrdige 150 years later, just to slight the Welsh?

You have to wonder if the author is just wildly ranting and waving their arms around at this point!

The author then takes another tack and seems to try to justify the existence of sin-eating in Wales based on practices elsewhere:

I scruple to take up your space, or I might show that such a superstition is not widely removed from others which, in many nations, have simulated the vicarious sin-bearing of the Levitical scape-goat. Grotius on 1 Cor. iv. 13 traces one such in Caesar’s account of the Gauls, B. ix, 6.

Gauls… Wales… close enough…

That is coming near to the Welsh, though doubtless it would be treason to say that they are either ignorant or superstitious.

So - the Welsh have a sin-bearing tradition not totally unlike a Gaulish tradition, but to say such a thing might be to slight the Welsh as supersituous or ignorant for sharing similar beliefs, perhaps because the ancient Gauls were considered to be ignorant and superstitious?


Mr. Silvan Evans’s parting shot at the discoverers “who are ignorant of the language of the natives, and but slightly acquainted with the country,” shall not draw me from my incognito, or I might show him that by parentage, ancestry, property, and interests, I am connected with two counties of South Wales, and that I have travelled frequently over most of the Principality, although I have failed to acquire its language.


As a postscript, the Blackwood author appears to give authority to Aubrey in Welsh matters based on where his far descendants live, and also seems happy to accept that plates and salt do not necessarily imply sin-eating or a Roman Catholic tradition?

P.S.—It occurs to me to add that the much-abused Aubrey was great-grandson to the owner of property in Brecknockshire and Glamorganshire; and that the “plate and salt,” which have no connection with “sin-eating,” are not confined to Roman Catholics.

At this point, you might imagine some readers imploring Silvan Evans “don’t feed the troll”, whilst others were anticipating how withering, or weary, his response might be.

Silvan Evans Restates His Position, 1876-02-26#

Having held off replying for one week, Silvan Evans picked up his pen to respond, yet again, in the Academy of February 26th, 1876, p197-8.

Republished Elsewhere…

The same letter was reprinted in the Aberystwyth Observer of March 4th, 1876, p2).

The opinion of the editor as to the validity of claims regarding the existence, or otherwise, of the sin-eater tradition in Wales is clearly evident.

The Rev. Professor Silvan Evans, B.D., of Llanymawddwy, has contributed another letter to the Academy in disproof of the absurd statements which have been forthcoming respecting the alleged functions of the imaginary “Sin-Eater”

Silvan Evans opened with, a patient - perhaps condescending, perhaps resigned – tone, such as one might use when addressing an obstinate and truculent toddler:

The Sin-Eater, by the Rev. D. Silvan Evans and E. R. Morris.


Llanymawddwy : Feb. 12, 1876.

The question between the writer in Blackwood and myself is a simple one,

— you dunderhead! –

and I regret to find that in his letter in the Academy of to-day he mixes up with it a good deal of irrelevant matter, leaving the point at issue just where it was.

Which is to say, “I’m going to try to explain this to you again, if you can just focus on the matter at hand”

He stated in his article that the custom of the Sin-Eater prevails in North and South Wales at the present day;

– which is quite a simple thing to understand. But when I suggested that’s not correct –

when I challenged that statement and asked for proof,

  • you moved the goalposts –

we were told that by the present day he means some thirty years ago;

As to the locale where this tradition was supposedly respected:

and when pressed for the locality

– you copy Mr. Moggridge –

he goes under the aegis of Mr. Moggridge to Llandebi “in the hill-country of Carmarthenshire.”

– That is the evidence you gave, and that’s the evidence I challenged –

When persons appeal to certain tribunals, they should not complain if they are sent to appear before the tribunals of their choice.

– So I checked in and around Llandebie –

Llandebie was named, and Llandebie was accepted: enquiries were made on the spot by competent persons;

  • and nobody thereabouts has ever heard of a sin-eater, or can recall ever having heard of a sin-eater –

and those who will take the trouble to read my last letter will see with what success, The Sin-Eater is as little known there as probably he is in Nova Zembla.

– You then try to move the goalposts again –

Now the writer shifts his ground and moves, under the enlightening guidance of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in South Wales, to Cwm Amman, about seven miles from Llandebie.

– You then cite another spurious authority, who was simply repeating the claims you have already appealed to, citing a slightly different location, in a yet more recent publication –

The compiler of that volume, whether ever “connected with Monmouthshire Iron Works” or not, states nothing about the Sin-Eater from personal knowledge, or from the personal knowledge of any informants, but quotes almost the identical words of Mr. Moggridge at Ludlow, with a slight variation as to the locality.

– As if that weren’t enough, you try to point to yet another restatement of the same old, same old, as further corroborating evidence –

Lady Verney, in the February number of the Contemporary Review, simply relates the same story over again, without any corroboration of her own.

– Something doesn’t become true just because you keep saying it over and over again. –

A false story does not become truth by repetition, and these repetitions add nothing to our knowledge, and therefore it is simply waste of space to retail them.

– As to your claims that I didn’t read the whole of the Arch. Camb. report of Moggridge’s remarks at Ludlow by not turning the page over, I did. And I read them properly… –

The writer complains that I did not turn over a certain leaf in the Archaeologia Cambrensis, where he intimates that Mr. Moggridge told the archaeologists at Ludlow that the practice of sin-eating was carried on at Llandebie until within five years of that time (1852). The leaf had been turned over and read before I wrote my last letter; I turn it over again, and on it read the last utterances of Mr. Moggridge as follows :—

– I’m not sure you did though, so I’ll repeat them here –

“Mr. Moggridge said— Far be it from him to desire that anything he should advance should not be combated, for all he wished to get at was truth. He thought that the gist of what fell from Mr. Allen was that there was no immediate connexion between the custom of Sin-Eater and the plate and the salt. Starting from the Carmarthenshire valley, he found the most horrible portion of the custom dropped; and the rest still retained; and as he advanced still further he found that less remained. Mr. Aubrey, from whom he quoted, and who was a man of high character, said that the custom had existed both in Herefordshire and Shropshire. Mr. Aubrey told them he went to a cottage in Herefordshire, where he saw a man whom he described as the Sin-Eater; and he (Mr. Moggridge) found, in the very district where Mr. Aubrey had seen it in its most horrid perfection, that the more odious part of the custom had been removed, but portions thereof still remained. He thought that the plate and salt were of eastern origin. There was only one thing more that he need trouble them with, and that was as to whether the custom was extinct. He believed that people were thorough] ashamed of the practice; one case, he was informed, occurred four or five years ago, but he believed it was extinct now.”

At this point, Silvan Evans has himself perhaps made an slight error in judgement. Whilst there is no mention of Llandebie, there is mention of a Carmarthenshire valley. However, whilst the anonymous Blackwood author might argue for these to be bradly referring to the same location, Moggridge admits that “the most horrible portion of the custom dropped” there. Which is to say: if the tradition had been there, it was no longer; but what evidence was there that the most horrible portion had ever existed there?

These are Mr. Moggridge’s last words at Ludlow, and I fail to find a syllable in them referring to Llandebie;

As to references to the sin-eater in other locations, that was not the concern of Silvan Evans:

and if he refers to any place, it must be, as I understand him, to some part of Herefordshire, with which the writer appears to be more acquainted than I can pretend to be, and to which, as I have already distinctly stated, my remarks do not apply.

In particular, Herefordshire is not Wales.

Where Do the Welsh Sin-Eater References Come From?

At this point, let us just recap where the reference to the Welsh sin-eater tradition comes from. It appears to be all Moggridge.

From the title of his remarks ar Ludlow – Custom of the Sin Eater in Cwm Ammon Valley – to two quotations appearing in the Arch. Camb. write-up.


The custom of employing the sin-eater probably obtained in ancient times throughout a large portion of Wales and its Marches.

And secondly:

In Caermarthenshire, not far from Llandebie, was a mountain valley, where, up to the commencement of the present century, the people were of a very lawless character. There the above practice was said to have prevailed to a recent period,

But in neither case is any provenance for the claim provided.

Had Moggridge perhaps heard of the tradition in a Welsh context of the plate of salt, and/or perhaps the eating of food around the time of death, then associated this with the sin-eater ritual he learned of via Aubrey as occurring around the Welsh borders, and consequently reasoned (perhaps unjustifiably) that there were from the same origin, although only a partial relic of the (supposed) full ritual could be identified in Wales?

Silvan Evans then turns his attention to the matters of ritual under discussion:

Mr. Moggridge, and apparently the writer of the article, assume all along that the plate and salt are necessarily remnants of the alleged sin-eating practice ; and finding these articles employed in certain cases, they take it for granted that the “more odious part of the custom has been removed,” which amounts to begging the whole question.

Which is to say, given the salt, the assumption is the sin-eating part has been lost; rather than there only ever was just the salt.

Mr. Moggridge candidly admits that he never witnessed the “horrid custom” at Llandebie or elsewhere, but informs us that it “was said to have prevailed:” he does not mention his authorities, nor does he so much as hint what means his informants had of knowing the truth or untruth of the story.

This is surely a key question, as we have also identified.

At this point, it is not clear whether Silvan Evans is now referring to Moggridge as someone he has recently corresponded with, or with the “historical Moggridge”, contemporary to the 1852 Moggridge:

I can assure Mr. Moggridge that I mean no disrespect to him when I say that both the vicar and the schoolmaster have enjoyed more favourable opportunities than he is likely to have had of ascertaining the facts of the case, on account of their connexion with the locality and their knowledge of the vernacular. I value Mr. Moggridge’s opinions as opinions; but we are now in quest of facts; and opinions, from whatever source they may emanate, must not be mistaken for them. The question at issue lies within the domain of fact, and, therefore, capable of proof if the charge has any foundation on a more solid substance than “imagination all compact.”

Silvan Evans then redirects his comments back to the Blackwood author:

It is very kind, but slightly superfluous, on the part of the writer to “refresh” my memory respecting “the vicarious sin-bearing of the Levitical scapegoat.” It is useless to argue about what may, could, or should have occurred, when we are concerned only with what has actually taken place. It is needless to expatiate on the possibility of a custom, when its existence is denied.

He follows up this attack on the author’s desire to ponder fantasy rather than consider fact by turning the anonymous author’s barbed dig at the Welsh straight back on that same author:

The writer might have spared his sneering remark about: the “treason” of calling Welshmen “ignorant” and “superstitious.” The qualities denoted by these elegant stock-epithets, unfortunately, are not confined to the Principality of Wales; and one at least of these benighted barbarians

– that is, Silvan Evans, an ignorant, superstitious Welshman –

holds that it is treason against truth to make charges that cannot be substantiated against any nation, however “ignorant” or “superstitious” that nation may be.

The next claim has an element of frustration about it – “even if national honour does motivate this repudiation of the nonsense of a Welsh sin-eater tradition, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong!”:

The writer seems to assume that it is “a point of national honour,” rather than any higher motive, that induces Welshmen to repudiate groundless imputations. When “national honour” and truth go together, “national honour” is not to be condemned.

Silvan Evans is now in full on rhetorical mode, the barrister at the bar, waving his hand at the accused and looking at the jury:

The writer appears to feel rather uneasy on account of his incognito.

Ah, poor lamb. He’s getting defensive… (Also note, there is the very definite “he”. Does Silvan Evans know who his interlocutor is?)

He need not.

We’re all friends here…

It is perfectly immaterial whether he retains or doffs it;

He can have his anonymity…

but it shall not shield him from the consequences of making statements of questionable authenticity.

But that won’t stop us damning he as a spreader of fake news.

He vouchsafes to inform us that he is, “by parentage, ancestry, property, and interests, connected with two counties of South Wales”;

So he claims there is Welsh blood in his blood somehhere…

but he does not tell us that his ancestors ever furnished him with any information concerning the Sin-Eater,

But no family stories?

or that in his frequent visits to our benighted country he ever encountered that dread functionary.

And no tales to tell from his own visits to the home of his ancestors?

Such being the case, I confess to being a little hazy as to the relevance of long pedigrees and broad acres in two or more counties, fine things as they are, to the subject we are now discussing.

The barrister looks around the court in wondering fashion, arms outstretched, palms face upwards:

More to the point is the admission that, notwithstanding his frequent travels “over most of the Principality” he has “failed to acquire its language,”

Then stares directly into the eyes of the defendant, putting it forcefully to him that even with that heritage, he knows nothing of the language? Nothing of its customs?

that language being the very key to its customs, legends, and folk-lore. His travels, therefore, must resemble those of a blind man in quest of the beautiful.

The barrister looks around the court once again, in disbelief, before once again addressing the jury:

If the writer proves, as he states in Blackwood, that the superstition of the Sin-Eater is “still surviving in North and South Wales,” I shall at once confess my error,

Of course I shall. Not like him, as he turns and points at the accused…

and the “national honour” shall take its chance;

– for we shall surely stand by what we believe to be the truth.

but if he fails to do this,

– if he cannot make his case –

he ought, in justice to the country of his “ancestry,” to retract the groundless charge.

— He is a scoundrel!

And points at the defendant again…

He it is that has brought the accusation against it, and on him lies the burden of proof.

– I rest my case –

D. Silvan Evans.

As far as my readings to date go, there appears to be no further response from the anonymous Blackwoood author, and the major correspondence in the Academy associated with this sequence of correspondence comes to an end.

But the story doesn’t quite end there, for immediately following Silvan Evans was another letter, from another correspondent…