Throughout the 18th century, there flourished a wide variety of “antiquarian” societies, whose members sought to recover empirical evidence of the past, from artefacts to scholarly researched and cross-referenced facts in the classical texts of antiquity, much as a naturalist might seek to collect from evidence of particular species of insect, fungus or plant in the environment from both specimens as well as much earlier writings.
Remnants of the antiquarian way still exist today in the form of family history research and local history societies, where there is still some sense of trying to recover “facts” from the past (see, for example Antiquarianism and history, Roey Sweet, 2008 for an informal introduction).
Writing in Chapter 53, “Antiquarianism and History”, p. 516, of A Companion to Green And Roman Historiography, J. Marincola (Ed.), 2007 Benedetto Bravo identifies the role of the anitiquarian as follows:
By using the adjective “antiquarian” to discuss several forms of the study of the past as it was practiced in antiquity, we highlight implicitly the existence of a certain affinity between these forms and a major trend in European culture of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, namely research by antiquarii (“antiquarians”). Early modern antiquarians studied the antiquitates (“antiquities”) of the ancient world (pagan and Christian) and of the Middle Ages. By the term antiquitates they meant surviving ancient or medieval artefacts (vestiges of architecture, sculpture, coins, inscriptions, manuscripts, utensils) or institutions, customs, laws, beliefs, ancient or medieval technology – or both categories simultaneously.
The Founding of the Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1846-7#
In the first part of the 19th century, another new kid on the block was archaeology. The British Archaeological Association (BAA) was founded in December, 1843, shortly followed by the formation of the Archaeological Institute. (There is probably a story in there somewhere about whether this was a set up by a disenchanted splinter group.)
In January 1846, two Welsh clergyman, the Rev. Harry Longueville Jones and the Rev John Williams launched a richly illustrated journal of their own, Archaeologia Cambrensis (Arch. Camb.) (original issue, volume I, issue I).
In sending forth to the world this first number of the Archaeologia Cambrensis, we are desirous of making known to our numerous antiquarian friends and correspondents the deep sense we entertain of their spontaneous kindness, and, we may add, of the enthusiastic feeling with which they have participated in our arduous undertaking. We hope that we have struck a chord in the hearts of Welsh antiquaries that will resound not harshly in the ears of the Welsh public; and that, by describing and illustrating the antiquities of our dear native land, we shall meet with the lasting support and sympathy of all, who love those venerable and delightful associations connected with the very name of Wales. The many acts of courtesy which we have received from gentlemen, whom we have the honour of knowing only by name, are evidences of the interest with which the study of antiquities is pursued by all men of intelligent and cultivated minds; and they are to us auguries of good for the future.
The first article in the issue, authored by H. L. J. — which is to say, Harry Longueville Jones – provided context for the aims of the journal: “On the Study and Preservation of National Antiquities”. Other articles in that first issue included An Account of the Civil War in North Wales and papers on Heraldry and Holy Wells and many pages of correspondence.
In issue III, published July 1846, the following “Important Communication” opened the Correspondence section:
To the Editors of the Archaeologia Cambrensis.
GENTLEMEN,— I take the liberty of addressing you, not only as being one of your constant readers, but as being deputed by several of your friends and brother antiquaries to communicate to you our opinion upon a matter of no small interest to the common cause we advocate, — the study and preservation of the National Antiquities of Wales.
In the first place I should observe, that we highly approve of the efforts made by yourselves and the contributors to the Archaeologia Cambrensis, towards exciting and extending a love and knowledge of Cambrian Archaeology; and we make no doubt but that your efforts will, in the course of time, produce an excellent effect upon the whole body of Welsh antiquaries, as well as upon the public in general. We consider as a token of this, the great variety of communications concerning Wales which your pages have received, not only from correspondents within the Principality, but also from those in other parts of Great Britain, and even from the sister island. The value, too, of nearly all the papers you have printed, and the highly interesting information which your Work has been the means of divulging, show that the subject of Welsh antiquities is not merely as rich as you yourselves apparently anticipated it to be, but, we expect, will prove to be much more extensive and important, in a national and historical point of view, than the majority of British antiquaries are inclined to admit. We also would remind the Archaeological world, through your pages, that the correspondence, which you have published shows how warm an interest is taken in antiquarian subjects in places, where the very existence of such a feeling has been strongly denied ; and, were we called on for a proof of this, would appeal to Caernarvon as a remarkable instance; where to our knowledge several amateurs, and even indifferent persons, have been bitten with the antiquarian furor, and where a strong desire to cultivate the study of national antiquities now happily prevails. Your publication is entitled to much praise for having encouraged and concentrated this good feeling in that town; and we doubt not but that similar results have occurred, or may be expected, at other places.
Having praised the editors for publishing such a useful and informative journal, the anonymous correspondent goes on to suggest that the journal already plays an important co-ordinating role in the activity of the Cambrian antiquary community:
Next, we consider that the existence of a publication like your own, appearing at stated intervals, and making periodical additions to our stock of antiquarian knowledge, as well as appealing to our better feelings for the preservation of the existing monuments of Wales, is a positive good for the Principality, inasmuch as it gives us a common vehicle of communication, and tends to keep up that feeling of good will, which should ever prevail among men engaged in the same noble pursuit. We are convinced of the truth of the observation made by one of your contributors, that as antiquaries, we need some centre of communication, some kind of organization, so that we may act the more efficaciously by combining our common efforts, and by imparting to each other quickly and surely our mutual discoveries and opinions. Until the appearance of the Archaeologia Cambrensis we could hardly be said to have had any general antiquarian periodical, unless the Transactions of the Cymmrodorion Society be considered as such. Your Work, however, by coming out at short and regular intervals, and by treating the subject in a spirited manner, has excited the attention of most of the antiquaries of Wales, and, we are sure, has been approved of by a considerable majority of them.
With such a powerful medium of communication now in place, the correspondent continued, perhaps it could be used as the organ of a more formal organisation. (One wonders, at this point, if the correspondent is one of the founders, and whether this has been the plan all along…)
While discussing subjects of this kind, and in pursuing a similar course of reasoning, we antiquaries have said amongst ourselves, why not carry out the principle of the Archaeologia Cambrensis still further? If it really is useful to us as an organ of communication, and as “a bond of union,” (I think you called it so in the prospectus which you circulated, before it appeared,) why not take steps for making this co-operation of Welsh antiquaries still more effective? We do not doubt, Gentlemen, your full anxiety and determination to labour in the cause of national archaeology, but we feel inclined to lend you a helping hand, and we wish to propose to do so in a manner that we think you will be the first to approve of.
Indeed, based on the success of recently create English archaeological societies, perhaps there is an opportunity to launch a Welsh archaeological society?
Since so much good has been effected throughout England, generally, by the existence of Societies for “the Encouragement and Promotion of researches into the Arts and Monuments of the Early and Middle Ages,” and since the enthusiasm excited by these societies is still on the increase, why should we not establish a similar Society or Association for Wales, and form ourselves into a body of Archaeologists for the Study and Preservation of Welsh National Antiquities?
A point of contrast is noted, however, between how the “business model” of English societies (which is to say, topic-based or thematic social networks) – launch the society first, build the audience, then publish the magazine - and an opportunity afforded by the Archaeologia Cambrensis: tale the audience it has already built, and create a society (which is to say, a thematic social network) around that audience:
We are aware that some will urge against the idea, what they are pleased to call, our national apathy and slowness. They will say that other Welsh societies have been formed with not very dissimilar objects, and have become extinct, or else proceed so slowly that their existence is scarcely known to the generality of our fellow countrymen. But we would reply, that Archaeology is not now the dry and dusty, because speculative and theoretical, study which it once was. It is like Geology, it has taken firm hold of the national mind, and has numerous votaries in all parts, not of these islands only, but of the whole civilized world. The same objection, too, might have been urged against the formation of any new association in England ; for was not the old Society of Antiquaries already in existence when the others were formed? and yet, by which is the real work now principally doing, by the society at Somerset House, or by the others?
There is now what we might interpret as a dig at one of the two recently formed societies over in England:
But we have another and a better argument than these ; just as on the appearance of the Archaeological Journal, published by the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Journal of the British Archaeological Association, which is the organ of the other Society,
The “other Society”; which is to say the British Archaeological Association, in contrast to which the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland appears as if it might have been set up either as an initial splinter group, or as a rival association.
We also get a sense of the societies sought to grow, and retain, what we might interpret as their social network market share:
these publications caused the existence of a body of readers more than three thousand in number, —nearly all of whom are also members of one or other of those two societies, — so, the purchasers of the Archaeologia Cambrensis are of themselves quite numerous enough to form a very efficient Antiquarian Society, or, at least, to constitute the nucleus of one for North and South Wales.
About this point in the correspondence, at a page break, there appeared a sign-up sheet:
approve of the formation of a Society for the Study and Preservation of Welsh National Antiquities.
Cut this slip out, fill it up, and forward it, post paid, to the Editors of the Archaeologia Cambrensis, care of Mr. PICKERING, 177, Piccadilly, London.
The letter then remarks about potential problems in creating a new society, notably lack of engagement and contentious behaviours, whilst also suggesting something akin a combined ethic of “move fast and break things” and “ask for forgiveness not permission” in the form of Dr Johnson’s advice that “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible difficulties must first be overcome ;”:
On the advantage of forming such a body we need not dwell, since your pages have already borne testimony to it; but we would only hint at two perils to be avoided. First, the danger of inactivity and desuetude, which creep fatally upon all associations at one time or other of their existence ; and next, the danger of quarrels and rivalries springing up amongst the members, as we see to have been the case amongst our friends in England. However, Dr. Johnson, some where or other, has remarked, that “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible difficulties must first be overcome ;”
Taking this approach to heart, the correspondent proposes:
[A]nd, as this seems to be a good practical aphorism, we have adopted it, and, therefore, having consulted together, we beg to propose to you, and through your medium to our friends and brother antiquaries, the following scheme:—
That an Antiquarian Association be formed, to be called “The Cambrian Archaeological Association for the study and preservation of the National Antiquities of Wales.”
That it be a perfectly gratuitous Society, consisting of all persons whose taste and knowledge may induce them to unite for this purpose.
That the most eminent Welsh antiquaries and other personages, the natural friends and protectors of the antiquities of the country, be requested to put themelves at the head of this Society.
That a Council, with a President, Secretary, and other officers be appointed ; and that a code of regulations be framed, by common consent, for the guidance and government of the Society.
That whatever incidental expenses may arise, be left to be defrayed by the good feeling of those patrons of antiquarian pursuits who may be generous enough to come forward for that purpose.
And, lastly, that the Archaeologia Cambrensis be adopted as the official organ of the Society.
These propositions and hints, which are thrown out for the consideration of your readers and yourselves, we have no hesitation in saying, could be carried into effect quickly, easily, and at a very trifling expense. We re- quest you to turn the subject over in your minds, and to propose it for the consideration of your readers. — I remain yours faithfully,
London 1st June, 1846.
A WELSH ANTIQUARIAN
The editors then replied directly with the following statement, opening with something that we might read as akin to an acceptance speech:
TO OUR READERS.
We confess that, on reading the above, we feel not a little gratified at witnessing so much enthusiasm as is evinced by this writer in, what we cannot but style, “the good cause.” We beg leave also to return our best thanks to him and to our antiquarian friends, for their very flattering opinion of the merits, if there be any, of our humble endeavours. That such good results have been produced is owing, not to the Editors of the Archaeologia Cambrensis, but to the circumstance of the mine which they have ventured to drive a level into, turning out to be so much richer in Archaeological ore than some could be brought to believe. Our sole object in publishing this Work, at a very considerable sacrifice of time and money, has been to awakey a love of antiquities among our fellow countrymen; and we are quite ready to do any thing within the compass of our limited abilities for the furtherance of the common good. We have given the proposal of our correspondent our best consideration, and have taken the opinion of some judicious friends upon it. The idea coincides with our own wishes; and we therefore venture to offer to our readers the following plan for ascertaining the general feeling of Welsh antiquaries upon this matter.
Having accepted thanks, and praised those without whom it would not all have been possible, the editors then seek to build the potential community further:
We request all those, into whose hands these pages may fall, to have the goodness to discuss the matter with their antiquarian friends; and then to take the trouble to communicate their opinions upon it to us through the medium of the publisher. Letters addressed to the Editors of the Archaeologia Cambrensis, to the care of Mr. Pickering, 177, Piccadilly, will be put into our hands immediately, and will meet with prompt attention. For the convenience, however, of those who may wish simply to declare their approval of the plan in question, or of some such scheme, the particulars of which can be more fully explained when the sense of the Welsh antiquarian public shall be thus ascertained, we append a printed form, which (without pledging themselves to any thing) they have merely to fill up, with the names and addresses of themselves and of their friends, who may think favourably of the idea, and then transmit it to us, directed as above.
Speed is also of the essence in building the network, if it is to succeed:
We have only to add, that the sooner we are put in possession of the opinions of our friends and supporters on this subject, the greater facility shall we have of communicating with persons of influence, and of obtaining their aid to organize such a Society, if its formation be deemed desirable.
The next edition of the journal, Archaeologia Cambrensis, Vol 1 Iss IV, October, 1846, p.460-3, reported on the response to the “important communication” and the decision to pick up on the idea of the society given the support that has been pledged to date:
THE PROPOSED CAMBRIAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION.
We are now in a position to lay before our readers a List of names of those friends and patrons of Antiquarian pursuits, who have sent in to us their written approvals of the scheme proposed by one of our correspondents, (No. III. pp. 281, et sequent.) It will be seen that among them are comprised many of the most active of our Cambrian Antiquaries; and, we are happy to be able to state, that the reception they have given to the idea, started by one of their brethren has been exceedingly favourable. In addition to these gentlemen, we have received verbal assurances of support and encouragement, with regard to the proposed Association, from about twice as many others, who do not wish to put themselves forward in the scheme, until it shall have received public sanction. In very few quarters, have we found any discountenancing of the idea; and though reasons may be urged against the formation of the Association, we do not admit their validity, so as to alter our own notions upon the subject.
From the number of names we have received, and from the weight duly attached to them, we have no hesitation in declaring our own humble opinion that the Association proposed by “A Welsh Antiquary,” may be established with every prospect of success. Indeed, we have little doubt but that, if it be properly organized and carried out with energy by its members and officers, it will prove of great benefit to the cause of Antiquarian and Historical knowledge throughout Wales. The main difficulty in the way of its permanent success, will arise either from the apathy or the dissensions of the members; but we are not anxious to anticipate evils of this nature.
Having been proposed as the mediators of communication for the new society, the editors now call for the formation of the society, with all those who expressed support for it being enrolled as the first tranche of members:
Since the names returned to us, as Editors of this Work, are those of gentlemen who approve of the formation of a “Cambrian Archaeological Association for the study and preservation of the National Antiquities of Wales,” we can consider ourselves in no other light than as the organs of our friends and supporters, and as their servants to carry their wishes into effect. We recommend, therefore, that steps be taken towards the formation of such an Association before the commencement of the ensuing year; and that, as a preliminary one, all those gentlemen, whose names have been already received, be considered members of it, unless they shall before January 1st, 1847, signify their wishes to the contrary. As, however, no association can be formed without some specific set of regulations for its government, we further venture to recommend that the laws and regulations of the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, be adopted; at least, as a temporary code, until the members can have an opportunity of meeting and of deciding upon their own form of government. It is understood, however, that the Cambrian Archaeological Association, when formed, is to be of a gratuitous nature; we mean, without any subscription being required on the part of its members: and, we are of opinion that it may be made a perfectly efficient body, without any call of this kind upon the purses of its constituents. In this respect, therefore, the laws of the Archaeological Institute, even as temporary regulations, would have to be departed from, —though in the general principles of government they might stand good.
From the proposed adoption of the “laws and regulations of the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland”, is the Cambrian Archaeological Association perhaps another jibe at the British Archaeological Association from antiquarians in Wales?
As to its situatedness, the proposal also suggests that the society becomes an “ambulatory body” that holds meetings around the Principality, again similar in form to the Archaeological Institute:
As Wales does not possess any metropolitan city where the Association could have a permanent locality, it must of necessity become an ambulatory body, and must hold meetings at fixed periods in various places. We should be inclined to recommend that it should hold an annual meeting — something like that of the Archaeological Institute — at one or other of the chief towns of the Principality and the four bordering counties; and, to prevent local rivalries, that the county towns of those shires should be taken in succession, as places of assembling. As an act of courtesy to all the members at the starting of such a body, it would be desirable to choose some central town for the first place of meeting, where the members might congregate, appoint their officers, and transact their business. We do not, however, think that an annual meeting can be attended without some expense, and therefore, we should suppose that all members attending such meetings, would find it necessary to subscribe to some common fund for local purposes, —but not to any other than an inconsiderable amount. Local secretaries should also be appointed for each county, who might attend to the interests of the Association in their several districts.
The previous considerations are then described as mere suggestions, although there is perhaps little doubt that the editors expect them to meet with much resistance:
We throw out these hints with much diffidence; being merely such as occur to us when turning over in our minds the plans most suited to meet the views of our correspondents, and of Welsh Antiquaries in general. The main object of the Association is evidently that of forming Cambrian Archaeologists into something like an organized, and harmonious body, whereby they may be able to communicate to each other their observations, and to act together for the common cause, with greater rapidity and effect than if they remained isolated.
And to finish off, the editors then reiterate their happiness with the idea of the Archaeologia Cambrensis acting as the formal journal of the proposed society:
As Editors of the Archaeologia Cambrensis, we beg leave to offer our pages to the gentlemen who are desirous of constituting this Association, for the purpose of regularly publishing their reports, proceedings, and papers; and we would request of them the permission, in case they accept our proposal, to add to our title that of “Journal of the Cambrian Archaeological Association.” And further, as our Work has been the medium of making the proposed Association known to the public, we venture to request that whoever feels interested in the question will, without delay, correspond with the Editors on the subject, if there be anything to alter, amend, or add to, their suggestions. Gentlemen desirous of adding their names to the list of members may, if they please, make their wishes known to us; and we will add them to the list of those who approve of the Association. In the meantime, between the day of this present Number appearing and the publication of No. V., we will put ourselves in communication with the gentlemen who have already sent in their names, so that by January 1st, 1847, we hope to be able to announce that the Association is definitively formed, and to publish a list of officers, with the place and time of the first annual meeting.
There then followed an ‘Alphabetical List of Antiquaries who “approve of the formation of a Society for the study and preservation of Welsh National Antiquities”’.
In the next issue, No. V, January 1847, at p. 91 of the collected edition for Volume II, a preliminary set of REGULATIONS FOR THE GOVERNMENT OF THE CAMBRIAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION (Provisionally adopted until the holding of the First Annual Meeting appears. The remit of the association is described in the following terms:
The Cambrian Archaeological Association is formed in order to examine, preserve, and illustrate, all Ancient Monuments and Remains of the History, Manners, Customs and Arts of Wales and its Marches.
I, for one, can’t help thinking that the launch of the Archaeologia Cambrensis, followed by the “important communication” and the response of the editors, all seems a little too convenient. Was this, perhaps, a Welsh complement to the formation of the Archaeological Institute set up in competition to, or a reaction against, the British Archaeological Association?
But that is perhaps best left for another day, and another possible investigation; because for now, we must return to our hunt for the history of the sin-eater.
The Fifth Meeting, at Tenby, 1851#
At the fifth meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Association in Tenby, at the end of August 1851, at the evening meeting on Monday, August 25th, Matthew Moggridge, Esq., read the following observations “On the Preservation of Local Traditions” as described in Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1851-10: Vol 2 Iss 8, p. 326:
Having been engaged in the attempt to trace out ancient traditions, the origin of the names of places, and other things connected with the antiquities of the neighbourhood of Swansea, I was surprised to find how much information on these points has died out within these last few years. This process will go on in an increasing ratio. Traditions are no longer handed down from father to son, as in the olden time. Year by year we become more utilitarian; we occupy ourselves with the things not of the past, but of the present and the future. The spread of knowledge - of reading in particular— works towards the same end, and books take the place of oral communication. Let me not be understood to lament these changes, I only refer to them to show that we are living in a transition period, and that in another ten or twenty years, much of considerable interest, which may now be saved, will be lost for ever. I would therefore beg to suggest the organization of a regular plan for promoting inquiries on the above, or such other points, as to your Society may seem fit, through the medium of your members, and such other as may be disposed to employ a portion of their time in furthering this object.
At this point there is a footnote: Such a plan was organized by the Editors of this Journal some years back. They might have saved their time and their paper for any effect produced. Not a single reply was ever made to the questions they put forth— not a single effort made in furtherance of their recommendation !—EDD. ARCH, CAMB.
Moggridge’s observations then continue:
“Few places would I think be found where no one could be met with to carry out the plan, if it were undertaken by your Society; at any rate, if not universal, the information obtained would be useful as far as it went, and a spirit would be diffused throughout the country highly favourable to Archaeological pursuits, and tending to increase the members of antiquarian societies. Each party might take a parish or other definite district, (I am endeavouring to carry out the work over twenty miles round Swansea, but this is rather too wide a range,) and if the most fitting objects of research were suggested to the inquirers by printed forms, something like regularity and uniformity might be expected.”
Moggridge appears to be in a minority of one in raising such concerns and by proposing the members of the association set themselves the task of preserving knowledge from the oral tradition. For if any supportive comments were raised in reply to Mr. Moggridge’s observations at the end of his oration, none are recorded. Certainly, from the editorial footnote previously mentioned it appears that such researches were not generally of interest to the members of the association. There appears to be no related correspondence in the following issue either (Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1852-01: Vol 3 Iss 9).
Moggridge’s observations then concluded with some examples of the subject matter he was perhaps concerned about saving:
“In conclusion, I would quote, as exemplifying the object I have in view, one or two passages from a paper read before the Literary and Philosophical Society at Swansea.”—Mr. Moggridge then made a few extracts from the paper in question, and, in particular, mentioned as the origin of those “slangs” of land which are so often found in South Wales, mixed up with the estate of a distinct proprietor, the fact that it was at one time usual to gamble for small pieces of land.— “A similar custom to the last prevailed near St. Clear’s; but there it partook more of the character of wager of battle, the doughty champions being snails, who were to climb up a pole, the owner of the one who reached the summit first receiving the stakes.”
The Sixth Meeting, at Ludlow, 1852#
As eight o’clock struck on the evening of Monday, August 23rd, 1852, in the New Buildings at Ludlow, the Vice President of the Cambrian Archaeological Association, W. W. E. Wynne, Esq., M.P., called the sixth annual meeting of that learned association to order.
On behalf of the absent President, the Right. Hon. the Earl Cawdor, the Vice-President resigned the chair to the President elect, the Hon. R. H. Clive, M.P., who then presented his inaugural address.
The meeting as a whole was programmed through to Saturday morning, with daily excursions and meetings each evening. (The short excursion on Wednesday also allowed for a “morning” meeting starting at one o’clock that afternoon which included a paper “On the Deposit of Gold and Silver Coins in Wales” by Edward Rogers, Esq., Vice- President, who read a paper, followed by a short paper on Ludlow Church by R. Kyrke Penson, Esq.. The scene duly set, “[t]he Society proceeded to the Church, where the principal architectural details were pointed out by Mr. Penson. They afterwards proceeded to the Castle, and spent some time in the examination of the magnificent ruins.”
On the penultimate day of the meeting, the members gathered at the Feathers Inn at half-past nine in the morning for the Friday excursion. The half-timbered building, a 17th century coaching inn, remains there still, with its original studded plank front door and bay windows moulded with curved mullions and transoms and cast diamond glazing. A class 1 listed building , it is now known as the The Feathers Hotel and looks well worth a visit.
Their first stop was the Priory Church at Leominster, whence they arrived shortly after eleven o’clock. This is well over a 10 mile trip, so they must have had transport of some sort.
According to the Hereford Journal of Wednesday, September 1st, 1852, after Leominster, Kingsland and Aymestrey Churches were next visited, and from thence the party proceeded to Wigmore Castle and Church, which excited no little admiration. The excursionists then resumed their seats, and returned to Ludlow, via Aston Church, where the Rev. J. Burleigh James, the respected local secretary, directed attention to the tympanum in the Norman arch. The whole circular trip covered a 30 mile journey or so.
“The Sin-Eater”, As According to Moggridge#
The evening programme that day convened at half-past seven o’clock, with the President, the Hon R. H. Clive, M.P., in the chair. It commenced with the reading of a paper on the History of the Parish of Carno, Montgomeryshire by T. O. Morgan, Esq., of Aberystwyth, and dollowing a vote of thanks to Mr. Morgan, “enthusiastically accorded by the meeting”, an apparently short discussion on Municipal records of Ludlow.” Matthew Moggridge, Esq., reporting on the latest of his researches in the Swansea valley alluded to in the paper he read at the fifth meeting the precious year in Tenby, on “On the Preservation of Local Traditions”, then proceeded to make some observations the “Custom of the Sin Eater in Cwm Ammon Valley”.
Literally, “Amman valley”, in Carmarthenshire, about 12 miles north of Swansea, at the foot of the Black Mountain, the western most peak of the Brecon Beacons.
The Shrewsbury Chronicle of Friday 03 September 1852 reported Mr. Moggridge’s oration as follows:
The custom was this— formerly, when a party died in the district named, a person known by the name of the “Sin-eater” was called in, who placed upon the corpse a plate, with salt in it, and some bread over the salt; the “Sin-eater” then eat the bread, and was believed, by so doing, to have taken to himself all the sins of the deceased, and for which act he received fee of two shillings and sixpence. When he had accomplished his task he hurried off as fast as he could. The “sin-eater” was regarded as a man totally and irretrievably lost.
This, then, is one view of the tradition. It shares several of the elements of the tale told by Ceri Phillips: the location is the same (the foot of the Black Mountain, just north of Swansea); the period of the story is around the time of the Cambrian Archaeological Association meeting, befitting the end of the tradition. The ritual is similar, although the detail differs: no mention of any beer in Moggridge’s account, and with the soup replaced by bread and salt. And whilst there is no mention of a fee in Phillips’ scene setting, that the sin-eater was paid is evident in the story he went on to tell.
As our journey continues, we will see how some more of the detail included in Phillips’ tale does start appear in the folkloric research record, demonstrating not least how the art of the storyteller can weave in elements that make the story a more evocative one.
But for now, let us continue to hear what Mr. Moggridge Esq. has to say, at least according to the Shrewsbury Chronicle:
He had the authority of a clergyman residing at Stanton Lacy [Shropshire] for stating that portion of this custom had prevailed in that district until within very recent years. It did not go to the lamentable length practised Cwm Ammon, but merely comprised the plate and the salt. The custom prevailed not long ago Oxfordshire, and in Cwm Ammon it had existed until very lately. He found that about twenty years ago the plate, the salt, and the bread, were placed upon the dead at the latter place, but the “sin-eater” was not sent for ; and as they advanced towards Swansea the “sin-eater” and the bread were dispensed with, and the plate and salt only remained.
It is not clear who the “clergyman residing at Stanton Lacy” was, and there is no claim that the full tradition could still be found in Shropshire. If a more complete record of eyewitness testimony were available, if such it was, it may well have proved invaluable in helping settle debates about the existence of the sin-eater in that area that were to arise several decades later.
A Tale of Stanton Lacy
Whilst we do not know what stories the “clergyman residing at Stanton Lacy” might have told, various tales of another, rather coourful, clergyman of Stanton Lacy are recorded.
Another clergyman, also unnamed, appears to offer evidence of a related ritual a little further to the south, and still in current practice:
In Monmouthshire they had not only the plate and the salt, but also introduced the singular practice of making the figure of cross in the salt; and they frequently cut an onion or apple into four quarters, and placed one quarter each comer of the cross. He had recently received letter from a clergyman who resided in the neighbourhood, in which it was stated that the custom existed in that form even to the present day. He thought he had established the fact of this horrible custom having been in operation in this island, and they ought to thankful it was not now, for if there was one thing more disgusting than another it was this custom.
So now as well as the ingredients, we have a ritual action. And more varied foodstuffs, although the contrasting of the onion or apple does seem rather unusual. As to what else the recent correspondence may have revealed, we have no idea.
According to Moggridge, then, whilst the sin-eating practice was perhaps no longer taking place, he seems to claim that there is no doubt that it had once occurred, but that only vestiges of the ritual still now remained in the 1850s.
There then seems to have followed some discussion of the subject, as appears to be the norm from the other meetings and presented papers:
Thomas Allen, Esq. observed, that in reference to this custom he was able bear witness of it another county (Pembroke), at which their association met last year. When a poor person died, a plate with a heap of salt on it was placed on the body, and in the salt was stuck a lighted candle. He should like to ask Mr. Moggridge if there was any necessary connection between the custom he (Mr. Moggridge) had mentioned and the one just named by himself.
The role of the candle in Welsh funeral customs is now introduced as a perhaps part of a separate ritual. It is something we will surely further encounter, later in the tale…
The report then continues to elaborate on Mr. Allen’s (we presume) comments:
He could not exactly see it, but he did not deny it. Some persons might think it was rather Romish in its nature. He really did not quite see that there was any necessary connection between this custom and the introduction of the “sin-eater.” It was quite clear in the instances mentioned by Mr. Moggridge, that he had shown only a very slight connection between the two ; he did not feel sure to whether it was necessary to connect them. The popular notion in Pembrokeshire, with reference to the placing of salt on the bodies of the dead, was that it kept away the evil spirit. It was usual, after the candle had been lighted, for the friends of the deceased to watch through the night over the body, in order that they might, by their presence, keep off the evil spirit.
Here, Mr. Allen has introduced two further elements into the discussion. Firstly, the notion of watching over the body through the night; and secondly, the idea this might be some sort of “Romish” (which is to say, Roman Catholic) ritual.
He then returns to the possible role of the salt:
As regarded the salt, he thought it might be explained in this way — as an emblem of purification ; it might that the salt was for purification, and the candle for keeping the evil spirits away. This really was a subject, if any person took delight it, on which further light might be thrown; for those meetings were not only for the purpose of stating what they knew, but also to provoke discussion. He did not mean to discuss the subject now, but at a future time.
Whether or not Mr. Allen did return at a later date to the purifying role of salt, I haven’t (yet!) attempted to discover.
Another possible origin story for the role of the sin-eater is then introduced:
Rev. I. Burleigh James.— I think the originator of the custom is the scapegoat.
As well as the pressing consideration of whether the tradition is still extant:
Jelinger C. Symonds, Esq. would like to know whether or not this custom of sin-eating was extinct. If not, to send missionaries abroad would be a farce, while they had customs so disgusting at home.
As in many casual asides in the correspondence of he time, the missionary zeal, and colonial outlook, of many of the discussants, is plainly evident.
At this point, as befitted a society convened to study archaeology, and as such, relics of the past, the chairman felt the need to step in and remind the members of the historical focus of their discussions, whilst at the same time adding his own opinions as to current funeral customs into the debate:
The President hoped they were not entering into the history of present customs, but into the history of past events. It struck him that even at the present day when that melancholy event took place, the death of an individual, there was always a certain respect paid to the corpse : it was not closed in the coffin, but was left for a certain time for the inspection of friends ; the room was hung, the candles were lighted, and there was always a person in the room who remained during the time that exhibition took place. It was out of respect to the deceased that much ceremony took place, he could not regard it in any other light. It had been continued from time immemorial, and with every degree of respect he should entertain towards that custom there was nothing in it that he could exclaim against.
Mr. Symons, Esq., reassured the President as the focus of his attention, whilst also acknowledging the contemporary view of the President:
JELINGER C. Symons, Esq.- -Of course my impression was as to the custom of the “sin-eater”. Some part the custom appears arise out of respect for the dead.
Mr Moggridge then tried to regain control of the discussion:
Matthew Moggridge, Esq. said the Duke of Marlborough was the person he had alluded to. He sent for Dr. Bowles during his sickness, and when the Dr. arrived he found that the Duke was already dead, and the plate and the salt was placed on the body. Far be it from him to desire that anything he should advance should not be combated, for all he wished was to get at the truth.
From the context, we might assume that Dr Bowles was a medical man. As to the Duke of Marlborough, George Spencer-Churchill, the 5th Duke of Marlborough, collector of antiquities and books, as well as peer and politician, is a possible candidate, dying on March 5th, 1840, at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.
Moggridge then attempted to address certain of the questions raised:
He thought that the jist of what fell from his friend (Mr. Allen) was that there was no immediate and direct connection between the custom of the sin-eater and the plate and the salt.
(At this point in this particular telling, I can quite easily imagine Mr. Symons looking around to those sat beside him, spluttering silently to himself, and with his arms raised in despair, “but it was you who mentioned the salt in the first place!”)
Starting from the Cwm Amman Valley he found that the most horrible portion of the custom dropped, and the rest still remained; and as he advanced still further he found that less remained.
So for Moggridge, it is the eating over the body that is presumably at the heart of the tradition he is attempting to describe.
The next part of the report then reveals a gap in the earlier part of account in the Shrewsbury Chronicle:
Mr. Aubrey, from whom he quoted, and who was a man of high character, told them that the custom had existed both in Herefordshire and Shropshire.
As we shall shortly see, “Aubrey”, his reputation, and the account ascribed to him plays a foundational part in the folklore of the Welsh sin-eater, at least as far as the Victorian correspondents drew their evidence.
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 Aubrey had seen it in its most horrid perfection — that the more odious part of the custom has been removed, but the plate and the salt remained. He thought the plate and the salt was of eastern origin.
It is not clear what Moggridge’s findings were. If they were the findings of the “clergyman residing at Stanton Lacy”, that is in Shropshire (or Salop) rather than Herefordshire.
Mr. Moggridge’s final comments addressed the question that was surely on everyone’s mind:
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 thoroughly ashamed of the practice now; one case occurred four or five years ago, but he believed it was extinct in the Cwm Amman Valley.
So then, apparently the practice was extinct, and had, to Mr Moggridge’s knowledge at least, last been carried out around about 1845. However, it is not clear from this report at least where, or by what evidence, he might make this claim.
E. A. Freeman, Esq. enquired whether sin-eater was the term used in the district where the custom prevailed ?
Again, this question is one that we shall return to: if the tradition was a South Walian one, then might we not expect to find vestiges of it in the language (as well as the folklore) of the Principality?
We understand Mr. Moggridge to reply in the affirmative.
So the phrase, at least in its English form, was claimed to be a recognised one.
After some few observations from H. Hodges Hughes, Esq., and W. W. E Wynne Esq.
Whatever those observations were, they were seemingly not thought substantive enough to be reported by the Shrewsbury Chronicle.
The President moved a vote of thanks to Mr Moggridge, which was warmly accorded by the meeting.
And so we have it, the first part of tale. But already there are some pieces missing from that report: who were Moggridge’s clerical correspondents, what evidence did he have of sin-eating in the 1840s, and what was the account given by “Aubrey”?
To answer at least one of those questions, we need to look to another report of the meeting, this time on Volume 3, Issue 12, page 332, of Archaeologia Cambrensis, the Cambrian Archaeological Association, dated October, 1852).
Other News Reports#
As well as the Shrewsbury Chronicle, reports of the “The Cambrian Archaeological Association at Ludlow” also appeared in the Hereford Journal of Wednesday, September 1st, 1852 and
The Hereford Journal description of the first part of Friday evening’s meeting introduces the notion that the age of Christian enlightment was extinguishing the practise of sin-eating
T. O. Morgan, Esq., of Aberystwith, read paper upon “The Parish of Carno, Montgomeryshire,” which was followed by some remarks by the Rev. Basil Jones; after which W. Moggridge, Esq. delivered a very interesting discourse upon a custom which formerly existed in Wales, in connection with deceased persons, and which he had recently discovered was noticed in an old work, as being prevalent in the neighbourhood of Ross, in Herefordshire. The custom was this— when a party died, a person known by the name of “the sin-eater” was called in, who placed upon the corpse a platter containing a loaf of bread and some salt; the sin-eater afterwards ate the bread, and in doing so was supposed to take upon himself the sins of the deceased person. Happily, however, the light of a Christian age was rapidly banishing superstition from the minds of the people, and that custom had, he believed, now disappeared.
Thomas Allen, Esq. stated that there still existed custom in Wales of placing candle in salt, and burning it in the chamber of a deceased person, and made some very interesting remarks upon it, as connected with the custom of the sin-eater.
The Hereford Times, in its Saturday, September 4th, 1852 edition only gave scant mention of the J. O. Morgan’s paper on “The History of the Parish of Carno, Montogomeryshore”, but described at length the discussion on “The Municipal Records of Ludlow”, presumably based on local interest. For the most part, its report on the sin-eater discussion closely followed the one previously described:
M. MOGGRIDGE Esq., made some remarks upon a singular custom which formerly existed in Wales, in connection with deceased persons, and which he had recently discovered was noticed in old work, as being prevalent in the neighbourhood of Ross, in Herefordshire. The custom was this—when party died, a person known by the name of “the sin-eater was called in, who placed upon the corpse a platter containing a loaf of bread and some salt; the sin-eater afterwards ate the bread, and in doing so was supposed to take upon himself the sins of the deceased person. Happily, however, the light of Christian age was rapidly banishing superstition from the minds of the people, and that custom had, he believed, now disappeared.
Mr. Allen remarked that there still existed a custom in Wales of placing a candle in salt, and burning it in the chamber of deceased person. Was this in any way connected with the custom just described? It was a popular notion that the candle stuck in salt would scare away the evil spirit, and it was usual for the friends of the deceased to watch the corpse for a certain period.
The Rev. J. B. James reminded the meeting of the of this custom—the scape goat.
Mr. Symons wished to understand distinctly whether this custom still prevailed, and if so, what extent. It was to be hoped that, for the credit of religion in this country, the custom was extinct. To send missionaries abroad to convert the heathen when a state of things disgusting and abhorrent existed at home, was perfect farce. The mere practice of putting salt on the bodies of corpses to prevent decomposition was a distinct custom, and totally irrelevant to the subject of this discussion. The President considered that the object of the inquiry was that we might understand the and practices of the past. When a corpse lay state, there was always person appointed to remain with it during that exhibition. He viewed that only a mark respect to the deceased. He apprehended that, so far as explanation could now be given, may some way have arisen from practice.
Mr. Moggridge considered it to be an eastern custom, which he believed was now extinct. Mr. Freeman made some brief observations on the word “sin-eater” as used by Mr. Moggridge.
However, the report also includes the comments, not previously report, by Messrs. Hodges and Wynne:
Mr. Hodges, of Ludlow, surgeon, said that it was a common practice to place a pewter filled with salt upon a corpse. Pewter was known good conductor of heat, and the salt had cooling effect.
Mr. Wynne said believed it was used in Merionethshire to prevent decomposition of the body.
As we later try to ascertain the development, and provenance, of the development of the sin-eater history, this additional fragments may help us identify by what source various authors came to their conclusions.
The “Official” Account According to Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1852#
In many respects, the official record of the meeting in the journal of the Cambrian Archaeological Association follows that of Shrewsbury Chronicle, down to an exact match in some of the phrases, although it must be said, with some occasional omission.
So let us retrace our steps, and see what the official record in the following month’s Archaeologia Cambrensis, October 1852, Vol 3, Issue 12, p330-332 has to say on the matter and return to the start of the discussion. (We shall not tend use such an exhaustive approach in general, but it may well prove instructive in this case.) Mr. Morgan has been enthusiastically accorded a vote of thanks by the meeting for his paper on the History of the Parish of Carno, Montgomeryshire, there has been a short discussion on Municipal records of Ludlow, and Mr. Moggridge has taken the floor.
Mr. Moggridge then proceeded to make some observations on the custom of the sin-eater and said,— The custom of employing the sin-eater probably obtained in ancient times throughout a large portion of Wales and its Marches. 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.
In many respects, this is the same as the report in the Shrewsbury Chronicle, but with two notable differences: first, the report of “the muttering of an incantation over the bread”; and second, the description of the sin-eater as “utterly detested in the neighbourhood— regarded as a mere Pariah— as one irremediably lost” rather than just as “a man totally and irretrievably lost”.
Let’s see what other points of difference we can find in the accounts…
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, 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 found the more absurd portions of the custom had been abandoned, while some still remained.
Here we have mention of a particular place, Llandebie, midway between Dinefwr and Ystalyfera, as mentioned by Ceri Phillips in his story. But there is no mention here of who was “said to have claimed”* that the tradition had prevailed.
Moggridge then went on:
Thus near Llanon
[there is a Llanon just down the coast from Aberystwyth], within twenty years, the plate, salt and bread were retained, —near Swansea (and indeed very generally) only the plate and salt. In a parish near Chepstow
[in the county of Monmouthshire, on the Welsh borders]it was usual to make the figure of a cross on the salt, and cutting an apple or an orange into quarters, to put one piece at each termination of the lines.
Ah, this seems a little less unusual: an apple or an orange. Perhaps the Shrewsbury Chronicler misread their own handwriting, or the typesetter made an error in setting the type? We might also note that there has also been no mention of a certain “clergyman residing at Stanton Lacy”.
The “official” report then goes on to describe some of the other differences noted by Mr. Moggridge, including the evidence of the mysterious “Aubrey” mentioned, but not quoted, in the Shrewsbury Chronicle account:
There were other slight variations in those parts of the custom still extant, as indeed variations existed in old times when it prevailed in all its profane absurdity, an instance of which might be found-in the adjoining county, as mentioned by Aubrey in the Lansdowne MSS. at the British Museum. (See Hone’s Year Book, p. 858.)
Here, then, we have a citation, of a sort, for Aubrey – in the Lansdowne manuscripts — and a reference to chase: Hone’s Year Book, p.858.
On the hunt…
At this point, we must surely make a note to ourselves to try to track down Hone’s Year Book in general, and
page 858 of that tome in particular.
So how did Mr. Moggridge quote “Aubrey”?
“In the county of Hereford,” he says, “was an old custom at funerals to hire poor people who were to take upon them the sins of the party deceased. One of them (he was a long, lean, ugly, lamentable poor rascal) I remember lived in a cottage on Rosse highway. The manner was that, when the corpse was brought out of the house, and laid upon the bier, a loaf of bread was brought out, and delivered to the sin-eater over the corpse, as also a mazard bowl of maple full of beer (which he was to drink up), and sixpence in money ; in consideration whereof he took upon him ipso facto all the sins of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead.”
Despite being only a short paragraph, this brings in much new evidence that is also often called upon in the later controversies. In the first case, we have the personage of an actual sin-eater descrbed as “a long, lean, ugly, lamentable poor rascal”. We also have an address, of sorts: “a cottage on Rosse highway”. The process of the ritual is described, along with some of the implements: “a mazard bowl of maple”, and a first mention of beer, which we recall from Phillips’ story framing. The sin-eater’s fee is also reduced, to sixpence. And finally, a rather strange line: that the sin eater’s actions freed him or her [“the defunct”] from walking after they were dead. Does this invoke some other belief, that after death souls “walk” the Earth, as ghosts perhaps? Or does it relate to some sort of purgatory? To understand this better, we perhaps need to know a little more about “Aubrey”, and the times in which he was writing…
Some of Mr. Moggridge’s observations upon this quotation then follow:
Here the same end was sought to be attained by a slightly different form. The difference in the fee was somewhat striking, from whence it might be argued that a Caermarthenshire soul was worth five times as much as that of a Herefordshire man—unless indeed it was not rather to be accounted for by supposing that the stout Marcher had fewer sins to get rid of.
In respect of Mr. Allen’s comments regarding salt, we get a difference in tone regarding the extent to which Mr. Allen and Mr. Moggridge may appear to have differed in emphasis or opinion. Specifically, the Chronicle reports that ‘He [Mr. Allen] really did not quite see that there was any necessary connection between this custom and the introduction of the “sin-eater.” It was quite clear in the instances mentioned by Mr. Moggridge, that he had shown only a very slight connection between the two ; he did not feel sure to whether it was necessary to connect them.’ versus ‘He could not exactly see, but did not deny it’ in the formal record.
Mr. Allen observed that in reference to the custom of placing salt on a corpse he was able to bear testimony to its existence in another county (Pembroke), in which their Association met last year. When a poor person died, a plate with a heap of salt on it was placed on the body, and in the salt was stuck a lighted candle. He should like to ask Mr. Moggridge if there was any necessary connexion between the custom he had mentioned of the sin-eater, and the one just named by himself. He could not exactly see, but did not deny it. Some persons might think it was rather Romish in its nature. He did not see that there was any connexion between this custom and the introduction of the “sin-eater.” The popular notion, in Pembrokeshire, with reference to the placing of salt on the bodies of the dead, was that it kept away the evil spirit. It was usual, after the candle had been lighted, for the friends of the deceased to watch through the night over the body, in order that they might, by their — keep off the evil spirit. As regarded the salt, he thought it might be explained in this way—as an emblem of purification; it might be that the salt was for purification, and the candle for keeping evil spirits away. This was a subject, if any person took delight in it, on which further light may be thrown; for those meetings were not only for the purpose of stating what they knew, but also to induce a search for further information.
In the closing line, we also note a difference in the texts: but also to provoke discussion. He did not mean to discuss the subject now, but at a future time. in the Chronicle vs but also to induce a search for further information. in the (Archaeologia Cambrensis report.
The following comment appears in much the same form as it does in the Shrewsbury Chronicle account, except for the qualification that the scapegoat is as “mentioned in the Bible”:
The Rev. I. Burleigh James suggested as the origin of the custom the scapegoat mentioned in the Bible.
Mr. Jelinger C. Symons would like to know whether this custom of sin-eating was extinct. If not, to send missionaries abroad would be a farce, while they had customs so disgusting at home.
The President’s call to order and personal aside, as well as Symon’s response, are exactly as they appeared in the Chronicle report with one slight difference, minor punctuation changes aside: “such ceremony” rather than “much ceremony”.
The President hoped they were not entering into the history of present customs, but into the history of past events. It struck him that even at the present day when that melancholy event took place, the death of an individual, there was always a certain respect paid to the corpse; it was not closed in the coffin, but was left open for a certain time for the inspection of friends; the room was hung, the candles were lighted, and there was always a person in the room who remained during the time that exhibition took place. It was out of respect to the deceased that such ceremony took place,—he could not regard it in any other light; it had been continued from time immemorial; and, with every degree of respect he should entertain towards that custom, there was nothing in it that he could exclaim against.
Mr. Jelinger C. Symons said, of course his impression was as to the custom of the “sin-eater.”” Some part of the custom appears to arise out of respect to the dead.
The official report then turns to back to Moggridge’s response but omits the comments regarding the Duke of Marlborough (
"the Duke of Marlborough was the person he had alluded to. He sent for Dr. Bowles during his sickness, and when the Dr. arrived he found that the Duke was already dead, and the plate and the salt was placed on the body."). Was this to protect the reputation a former peer of the realm?
Moggridge’s response in the official record, as well as the final remarks, then largely follow the text presented in the Chronicle, with just a few minor differences in spelling (gist rather than jist, connexion rathe than connection, turn of phrase (no immediate connexion rather than no immediate and direct connection) and formaility (Mr. Allen as not qualified as a “friend”).
The only possibly substantive difference was in the currency of the practice which he believed “was extinct now” rather than “extinct in the Cwm Amman Valley”.
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 thoroughly ashamed of the practice; one case, he was informed, occurred four or five years ago, but he believed it was extinct now.
Mr. Freeman inquired whether sin-eater was the term used in the district where the custom prevailed?
Mr. Moggridge replied in the affirmative.
After some few observations from Henry Hodges, Esq., and W. W. E. Wynne, Esq.,
The last point to note is that in the official report, there was no mention of the vote of thanks. Whether this was by omission, or by design on grounds of formality, we might never know…
Following the Meeting#
In the aftermath of the meeting, it seems that one of the questioners at least was not satisifed with the evidence provided by Mr. Moggridge and turned to a social media site of the time, the recently launched Notes and Queries, for assistance.
William Thoms and Notes & Queries
Notes & Queries started life as a weekly period first published on Saturday, November 3rd, 1849, a Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogsts, Etc.
Its motto was selected by William Thoms, it’s editor from launch until 1872 – “When found, make a note of.”-— CAPTAIN CUTTLE. This will no doubt resonate with anyone who has an online social bookmarking habit or posted interesting “notes” or links or screenshots to their favouring social networking site.
Thoms himself was an interesting character, a clerk at the House of Lords from 1845, and then deputy librarian of the House of Lords from 1862 unil 1882.
To a certain extent, Notes & Queries might be thought of as an “social commonplace book” (see for example, Wikipedia: (Commonplace Book), or with a contemporary twist; for creating your own commonlplace book, with index, see for example A new method of making common-place-books, John Locke, 1706).
As the opening welcome to the first issue describes (p.1-3):
“WHEN FOUND, MAKE A NOTE OF,” is a most admirable rule ; and if the excellent Captain had never uttered another word, he might have passed for a profound philosopher. It is a rule which should shine in gilt letters on the gingerbread of youth, and the spectacle-case of age. Every man who reads with any view beyond mere pastime, knows the value of it. Every one, more or less, acts upon it. Every one regrets and suffers who neglects it. … But, on the other hand, it cannot be denied that reading and writing men, of moderate industry, who act on this rule for any considerable length of time, will accumulate a good deal of matter in various forms, shapes, and sizes — some more, some less legible and intelligible — some unposted in old pocket books — some on whole or half sheets, or mere scraps of paper, and backs of letters — some, lost sight of and forgotten, stuffing out old portfolios, or getting smoky edges in bundles tied up with faded tape. There are, we are quite sure, countless boxes and drawers, and pigeon-holes of such things, which want looking over, and would well repay the trouble. … We do not anticipate any holding back by those whose ” NOTES” are most worth having, or any want of “QUERIES” from those best able to answer them. Whatever may be the case in other things, it is certain that those who are best informed are generally the most ready to communicate knowledge and to confess ignorance, to feel the value of such a work as we are attempting, and to understand that if it is to be well done they y must help to do it. Some cheap and frequent means for the interchange of thought s certainly wanted by those who are engaged n literature, art, and science, and we only lope to persuade the best men in all, that we offer them the best medium of communication with each other. … To our readers therefore who are seeking for Truth, we repeat “When found make a NOTE of;” and we must add, “till then make a QUERY.”
For in the October 23rd, 1852 edition of Notes and Queries (Vol 6 Iss 156, p.390), the following letter appears in the Minor Queries Answered section from a certain Jelinger C. Symons:
Sin-eater. — Can any of your readers explain the origin of “the sin-eater,” and give instances of that horrid practice still subsisting in parts of England or Wales, as I am assured it does? It consists in the supposed transfer of the sins of a person recently dead to a man of reprobate character, who eats a piece of bread laid on the chest of the corpse, whereby he is believed to have released the dead man from the responsibility of his sins, and to have taken it on himself; he then receives half-a-crown for his services, and is driven or pursued from the house with execration.
This practice was the subject of an interesting paper by Mr. Muggridge (sic) of Swansea, at the last annual meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Association ; but its origin was not satisfactorily traced. The scapegoat, and the sacrifice of criminals in the arena at Athens, &c., have been suggested. Jelinger C. Symons.
The answer provided offers a biblical interpretation, yet also references the Lansdowne manuscripts referenced by Moggridge as the original source of his quote from Aubrey:
[The custom is generally supposed to have been taken from the scapegoat in Leviticus xvi. 21, 22. See a curious passage from the Lansdowne MSS. concerning a sin-eater who lived in a cottage on the Rosse highway in Herefordshire, quoted in Brand’s Antiquities, vol. ii. p. 247., edit. 1849.]
As was, and still is, customary, the question was picked up and reprinted from Notes and Queries, by several local newspapers, including the Shrewsbury Chronicle, Friday, November 5th, 1852, p. 3 (although it gives the page reference as p.237, not p.247), and The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian of 30th October, 1852, p.3, which uses the correct spelling of Mr Moggridge’s name, and sticks with the original reference to page 247.
If there were any replies made directly to the papers that reprinted the question, I haven’t yet found them. But there were two replies I found in Notes & Queries, December 4th, 1852,Vol 6 Iss 162, p541. The first takes an even harder biblical line than the originally offered answer:
In addition to your reference to the scape-goat, as accounting for the custom to which JELINGER C. SYMONS refers, it occurs to me that Hosea iv. 8. might be also quoted: “They eat up the sin of my people.” “They eat up,” that is, “the sin-offering of my people.” As the priest of old, by eating the sin-offering, declared in the clearest way that the sins of the guilty offerer had been transferred to the victim that was offered, so in some sort it came to be believed by superstitious persons, that the eating a piece of bread which had been taken off the body of a dead man, and offered to another in his behalf, transferred the sins of the deceased to the eater of the bread. Perhaps indeed the practice referred to may be rather traced up to the one great sin-offering of Him who was “made sin” for us, and who “took bread,” the night He was betrayed at the institution of the Eucharist. “The bread” became the representative of the victim on Calvary ; and from the sin-offering-eater, or “sin-eater,” being a regularly ordained priest — who might, for a consideration, say a mass for the dead, —laymen of “reprobate character” usurped his priestly functions, and took that honour to themselves. Some notion at least of the feast upon a sacrifice seems to be implied by the proceeding ” referred to by your correspondent.
ALEXANDER LEEPER. Dublin.
The second also provides a biblical reference, as well as resorting to classical antiquity:
In Whitby and Doddridge there is a note on 1 Cor. iv. 13. which gives some information on this subject. Whitby, from Phavorinus, states the custom referred to to be an Athenian one; but I see, in Pole’s Synopsis, that Grotius, in a note on the above passage, refers to Caesar, lib. vi., in proof that a custom of the same kind prevailed among the Gauls. See also Bos, Exercit. Philolog., p. 125., to whom Doddridge refers.
At this point, I suspect my classical languages will fail me if I try to pursue some of those references much further!