Introduction – Accounts and Stories#

Several months ago, I came across a story recorded for the Beyond the Border storytelling festival by Ceri Phillips.

The tale draws on the Welsh tradition of a “sin-eater”, a folkloric role that was new to me, yet one that I found particularly intriguing.

In trying to search for background detail, and lore, around sin eaters, my initial attempts were not as fruitful as I’d hoped they would be.

At least, not at first.

Until, that is, I stumbled into a debate from the last decade of the 19th century on the question of whether there was any evidence at all that regarding an actual practice of sin-eating? Was there any truth in the stories, or were they all just hearsay? And then I found an early debate from 20 years or so before that. And then another mention, twenty years earlier again.

Accustomed as we now are to near real-time chats via digital social media (a “synchronous” communications technology), the controversies played out over several weeks, mediated by letters to The Academy (“A Weekly Review of Literature, Science, and Art”, notable not least for the way it shunned anonymous authorship), The Western Mail and Eddowes’s Journal, and General Advertiser for Shropshire, and the Principality of Wales and that veritable precursor to both Reddit and Stack Overflow, Notes & Queries.

Whilst the names of most of the authors, or the real identities behind their corresponding “username” were known, it is notable that one of controversies was triggered by an article penned in Blackwood’s magazine by anonymous author whose identity was only revealed after the conclusion of public debate it was to trigger.

Remarks made during, and reported in the proceedings following, the meetings of various learned societies, from the Cambrian Archaeological Association and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, were also to play a part, often unwittingly and years after the fact, in seeding the debates.

As befits the medium – correspondence through letters published days, or more likely, weeks apart – as well as the lack of readily available digital archives, there is much repetition of content in the original missives. But we are more fortunate, and can avail ourselves of much, if not quite all, of the correspondence, and the authorities cited, through freely available (Internet Archive, National Library of Wales), as well as subscription (British Newspaper Archive), digital archives. And in collecting the correspondence together, we can cut down on the repetition presented, whilst also keeping a weather eye out for any slight errors in word or emphasis that might accrue from repeatedly copying what is ostensibly the same document from one letter to another. (Once again, digital technology comes to our aid, in the form of tools to support differencing, full text search and concordancing, and the finding of longest common subsrings.)

So here, from those digital archives – with texts bootstrapped from optical character recognition (OCR) versions generated from scanned electronic portable document format (PDF) documents, then corrected by hand – is a history of the correspondence mediated controversies surrounding the existence, or otherwise, of this legendary, or perhaps mythical, character;controversies that were aired in public across a wide range of local and national publications, regarding the actual existence, or otherwise, of The Sin Eater.

The exposition proceeds in a largely chronological way, not least because this will help us understand how arguments were developed and came to be understood. At certain points, this will necessarily involve repetition of certain quoted texts, as well as repetitions of theme: accounts of death and funeral customs are considered several times along the way, rather than being collated in a single thematic chapter. No apology is given for this: many stories embed repetition as a key structural component. The repeitition can help embed an idea or theme, and the human mind has a remarkable ability to recall slight changes in one exposition to the next. And as young children will know, there can often be a sense of comfort to be drawn from a familiarity with a text based upon repetition not just within a story, but of the same story told over and over again. Where differences are really noteable, or help us distinguish between different possible sources when the same stories are retold, I shall attempt to make an explicit note of them.

So we shall begin at the beginning, at least at my beginning of this strange story, with the introduction tale I heard Ceri Phillips tell. It sets the scene, in a storyteller’s way, that we will then try to track down in the archives. In doing so, we will perhaps also reveal some of the conceits and tricks of the trade that a storyteller, rather and a scholar, might employ in the pursuit of constructing a good story as opposed to a historical account…

Tony Hirst, Isle of Wight, December 2021-March 2022, September 2022.

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