Second Controversy, 1895, Part I#

Following the report in The Times of Captain Hinde’s paper “On Cannibalism” presented to Section H - Anthropology at the Sixty-fifth Meeting of The British Association at Ipswich, September, 1895, a letter to the editor appeared in the issue of Wednesday, September 18th, 1895, from a certain Mr. N. W. Thomas, of Oswestry, taking issue the remarks made by E. Sidney Hartland reported therefrom.

Let’s review what Hartland was reported by the Times as saying:

Mr E. S.Hartland responding to Captain Hinde

Mr. E. S. HARTLAND said that in all probability the earliest form of cannibalism was that of the eating of deceased relatives. This practice extended over bhe greater part of the world, and many people would be surprised to learn that traces of it were to be found, not merely in Europe, but in our own islands. Not very long ago in Upper Bavaria, when a man died and had been laid out, a cake was made of ordinary flour. The corpse was placed before the fire, and this cake, called the corpse cake, was put upon its breast to rise. The dough, in rising, was believed to absorb all the virtues of the deceased, and the cake was afterwards eaten by his nearest relatives. In the Balkan Peniusula an edible image of the dead was carried in the funeral procession. When the body was buried the mourners ate this image above the grave, saying as they did so, “God rest him.” In Wales the practice of employing a “sin-eater” had only ceased within the memory of men still living. It was the custom for the nearest relative, usually a woman, to hand across the bier, or place upon the breast of the corpse, bread, cheese, and beer, which were eaten by the sin-eater, who pronounced everlasting rest to the departed. It was believed that the sin-eater by this means appropriated to himself all the sins which the deceased had committed during his lifetime.

A Letter to the Editor of “The Times”#

So what did Mr Thomas have to say in response to that in his later published September 18th, 1895?




In your issue of Monday Mr. E. S. Hartland is reported to have said, in the course of a discussion on cannibalism in the Anthropological Section of the British Association, that the sin-eater has only disappeared from Wales within living memory.

Since he appears to be familiar with Hartland’s peice in Folklore, he assumes that material provides the evidence for Harltand’s claims made at the British Association meeting:

If, as I imagine, Mr. Hartland’s evidence for this survival is presented to us in his article on the subject in Folklore for June, 1892, I venture to think it is wholly insufficiant. Mr. Hartland’s words are (p. 148), ” Mr. Moggridge specified the neighbourhood of Llandebie… as a place where the custom had survived to within a recent period.” These words are a paraphrase from the report of the Archaeologia Cambrensis, Vol. III., N.S., p. 330. The exact words used by Mr. Moggridge are as follows :-’ There (near Llandebie) the above practice (of the sin-eater) was said to have prevailed to a recent period. “

And with this evidence, he takes issue:

This evidence is originally at best second hand; it is unfortunate that Mr. Hartland has emphasized its value; in the article in Folklore, Mr. Moggridge’s evidence has the appearance of beiug the result of personal observation. Thuw at the outset Mr. Hartland’s evidence is weakened.

To aid the reader, Thomas points to the evidence previously amassed against the claimed tradition in the course of the first controversy:

But to any one who has considered the discussion in the Academy in the winter of 1870-76 it seems quite incredible that Mr. Moggridge’s evidence should be quoted at all. Canon Silvan Evans collected the evidence on the question. Among others, the vicar of the parish and the schoolmaster testified to the non-existence of the superstition. The vicar quoted an intelligent old man, an octogenarian, whose ancestors had lived from time immemorial in the parish. He said that such a custorm, in his opinion, could not have appeared for the last 200 years, or he would have heard of it from his father or grandfather, who lived to a great age. The vicar concluded that the statements which were made by Mr. Moggridge could not be substantiated by any reliable evidence.

The schoolmaster, Mr. John Rowland, who lived in Llandebie in 1852, when Mr. Moggridge spoke, was equally emphatic. He said he knew all the parishioners and the history of the parish, its customs, legends, and traditions, and during the time he was there he attended many funerals, but never heard of a sin-eater ; in fact, people never gave cakes at funerals in Llandebie.

Thomas then wonders if Hartland may be unaware of that earlier controversy, but I wonder, is his tone curious, or incredulous?

Is it possible that Mr. Hartland has never seen this discussion, or has he ignored it ? In the face of this evidence it seems to me impossible to assert that the sin-eater was known within living memory in the locality named.

Mr Thomas then refers to a letter from a Rev. T. Eynon Davies in 1882 to Christian World, apparently debunking Paxtod Hood’s description of the sin-eater:

In addition to this, in February, 1882, the Rev. T. Eynon Davies published a letter in the Christian World a propos of Paxton Hood’s “Christmas Evans.” Mr. Davies was Congregational minister in Cwmannan, near Llandebie, and said, “Some octogenarians whom I have questioned have never seen a sin-eater, neither have they heard their parents nor their grandparents refer to this custom.” There is, in fact, no evidence that he ever existed in Wales at all. All the stories go back to Aubrey’s “lean, long, ugly, lamentable,poor Raskel “; and he was at Ross, in Herefordshire, if we believe Aubrey, none too strong a witness.

I have still to track down a copy of the full letter to Christian World.

We then have a phrase very evocative of our own times — “false news” — lamenting that it may be understandable in the press, but not in the pages of an amateru (which is to say, professional) society.

If dissemination of false news is a crime in a newspaper, it is far worse in a member of the Folklore Society. The fiction of the ” sin-eater ” in modern times, stamped originally with the imprimatur of the Cambrian Archaeological Society, sealed 30 years later by the Folklore Society, has now received the august sanction of the British Association. Even the Celtic fringe does not deserve this treatment.,I am, &c.,

N. W. THOMAS., Oswestry.

“False News”#

On Thursday, September 19th, 1895, p4, in the South Wales Daily News, the indignant closing refrain of from the Times letter was remarked upon:

Welsh Gossip

A correspondent of the Times waxes wroth over the sin-eater fiction propagated before the British Association. Says he: “If dissemination of false news is a crime in a newspaper, it is far worse in a member of the Folklore Society. The fiction of the sin-eater in modern times, stamped orininally with the imprimatur of the Cambrian Archaeological Society, sealed 30 years later by the Folklore Society, has now received the august sanction of the British Association. Even the Celtic fringe does not deserve this treatment.”

The following day, in the Times of Friday, September 20th, 1895, p7, one reader doubts the claims surrounding the sin-eating practice, but swiftly goes on to provide an example of another peculiar funeral custom:


Mr. Elton B. Ede writes to us from Edenhurst, Heene, Worthing :- “Though the sin-eater in Wales may not have existed, the mention of him recalls an old practice -viz., smoking in church, which I remember my mother telling me she saw in Wales about 1850. “The Communion-table stood in the aisle, and the farmers were in the habit of putting their hats upon it, and when the sermon began they lit their pipes and smoked, but without any idea of irreverance. I have not seen this practice mentioned in any book, and though it is not desirable that it abould be revived, it seems a pity that it should be forgotten.”

The same letter that also reprinted directly in the Western Mail, p5 and Evening Express, p2,, September 21st, 1895, the Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald and North and South Wales Independent, September 27th, p5 and The North Wales Express, October 4th, 1895, p8.

It also appeared in Bye-Gones of September 25th, 1895, p176,with the additional closing line:

Some of the readers of Bye-Gones can carry their memories back to 1850. Can they confirm this ? W.O.

The Ede Letter, Answered in Notes & Queries, November 9th, 1895

In Notes and Queries dated November 9th, 1895, p366, the letter also appear in a note with some additionaly commentary:

Smoking in Church .—The following is a cutting from a recent number of the Times :—

“Mr. Elton B. Ede writes to us from Edenhurst, Heene, Worthing :— ‘Though the sin-eater in Wales may not have existed, the mention of him recalls an oldpractice—viz., smoking in church, which I remember my mother telling me she saw in Wales about 1850. The Communion-table stood in the aisle, and the farmers were in the habit of putting their hate upon it, and when the sermon began they lit their pipes and smoked, but without any idea of irreverence, have not seen this practice mentioned in any book, and though it is not desirable that it should be revived, it seems a pity that it should be forgotten.’”

I remember reading somewhere that it was a custom among ladies in South America to have chocolate brought to them as soon as the sermon commenced— a practice denounced by the bishop, who preached against it. He, however, had his cup of chocolate in the sacristy after the service. His persistence in denouncing it was followed by his being found dead in the sacristy after having drunk his cup of chocolate.

E. Leaton-Blenkinsopp.

Hartland’s Holding Position#

Meanwhile, Sidney Hartland was penning his initial response in a letter appearing on Tuesday, September 24th, 1895, p4:



Amid the hurry of the concluding meetings of the British Association I did not see Mr. Thomas’s letter in your issue of Wednesday last; and it is only to-day that I have had an opportunity of reading it. I am much obliged to him for calling my attention to the fact that the existence of the sin-eater in Wales has been questioned.

He then wonders why Mr. Thomas did not contribute to the correspondence around his (Hartland’s) article in Folklore and raise his concerns in a more timely fashion there:

I gather that he is a reader of Folklore. Had he challenged the statements in my article when it was published there, I should have been doubly grateful, since my only object is to elicit and preserve the truth; assuredly not to cast any imputation upon Welshmen I have never seen the discussion in the Academy, nor Mr. Eynon Davies’s letter in the Christian World to which Mr. Thomas refers; nor have I, until now, heard of any doubt being thrown upon the matter.

As to the controversy in the pages of the Academy, it seems that Hartland was unaware of them:

Unfortunately, I have no access here to the old numbers of the Academy. Will Mr. Thomas kindly add to my obligation by lending me those containing the discussion on the sin-eater, if he have copies of them? Meantime, I reserve all observations upon the evidence until I have seen them. I am. &eC.,

E. SIDNEY HARTLAND., Highgarth, Gloucester, Sept. 20.

Muddying the Waters — “The Mountain Decameron”#

Also in the Times of September 24th, 1895, p4, correspondent Z. pickes up on Ede’s briefly stated concerns and refers him to the mention of the sin-eater in The Mountain Decameron, apparently unaware that the description was a fiction:



With reference to the Welsh superstition of the sin-eater, the existence of which is doubted by Mr. Ede, those interested in the question may like to know that a full account of the superstition is given in “The Mountain Decameron,” by Joseph Downes, a now very rare book, published by Bentley in 1836, in three volumes.

On page 232 of vol. 3 there is the following heading - “The Last Sin-Eater of Wales, a Sketch,” &c.

The chapter that follows is most interesting and minute, and seemns to be a literal transcript of fact. It is not strange, however, that the oldest inhabitant now living should not have heard of “the sin-eater,” since Joseph Downe, writing in 1836, himself says in the sentence introductory to his sketch, “So late an the earlier part of the last century that strange character of a stranger superstition known by the name of ‘the sin-eater’ was not unknown in Wales.”

What follows is an account in quotation marks of “what is believed to be the last sin-eater in Wales,” taken apparently from the printed work of some traveller whom Downes does not name. It is too long for quotation, but should be read by any one interested in the subject, as details of place and incident are so vivid that the traveller’s experience can scarcely be doubted. I am, Sir, yours obediently,


During the original controversy, the readers of Bye-Gones were kept informed about the debate as it progressed, and with the opening salvos fired, it seems that a similar editorial line kicked in again. In the issue of Bye-Gones dated September 25, 1895, p177-8, a column appeared introducing this latest appearance of the sin-eater under the title THE STORY OF THE SIN-EATER IN WALES. The column reprinted the review in The Times of Mr Hartland’s comments made during the discussion following Captain Hinde’s paper, Mr Thomas’ letter taking issue with those comments, and Mr Hartand’s reply. Mr Thomas’ letter was followed by the following comment:

The subject was dealt with in Bye-Gones for 1874-5 and 1876-7, where much of the correspondence in the Academy was reproduced.

Hartland Incubates His First Fill Response#

In the Western Mail of Wednesday, September 25th, 1895, p7, E. Sidney Hartland also replied to the correpsondence received from Gwynfardd Dyfed that included the extended Moggridge references and quote from the Mopuntain Decameron:





I am greatly interested to see that your contributor, “Gwynfardd Dyfed,” has quoted an account of the custom of the “sin-eater” as witnessed not so very long ago in Cardiganshire. As my statement at the British Association, and, indeed, the possession by Wales of this curious and important relic of the past at any recent period (or at all, if I understand him: rightly), has been challenged by a gentleman who writes in the “Times,” “Gwynfardd Dyfed” will confer an obligation on me and on all students of Welsh antiquities if he will kindly give in your paper a reference to the work from which he quotes (including exact title, page, date, and place of publication), and also state his authority for the survival of the custom in Cwmamman to 1881, for it seems to me that this was denied in 1882 by the Rev. T. Eynon Davies in the “Christian World.”

I am &c.. E. SIDNEY HARTLAND Highgarth, Gloucester.

It seems that Mr Hartland has by this point managed to obtain sight of the Christian World letter *which I still have not!) but he is unable to identify source of the descriptions provided by Gwynfardd Dyfed.

A couple of weeks later, a response from Gwynfardd Dyfed appears in the Western Mail dated October 8th, 1895, p7, apologising for the delay in replying:



In reply to Mr. E. Sidney Hartland’s letter on this subject which appeared in our issue of September 25 last, “Gwynfardd Dyfedd” writes:– “I regret that, owing to my having been in a weak state of health recently, I have been unable before to give Mr. Hartland the additional information which he requires in support of the statements adduced in my article on the sin-eater in Wales.

He then gives his sources:

It gives me much pleasure to find that Mr. Hartland was greatly interested in my contribution to the scanty literature on the subject of the alleged prevalence in bygone days of this sin-eating custom in the Principality and on its borders. Students of Welsh antiquities may like to know that the works quoted from by me on the subject are as under:— Pp. 52, 53, and 54 of ‘Wanderings and Excursions in South Wales: With the Scenery of the River Wye,’ by Thomas Roscoe, Esquire, published in 1854 by Mr. Henry G. Bohn. York-street, Covent Garden;

That reference, relating to Fosbroke, actual points to the Mountain Decameron in the original.

Gwynfardd Dyfed also cites Cymru Fu, the Welsh version of *Notes & Queries, which in turn sourced material from Paxton Hood and Blackwood’s Magazine of 1875:

also pp. 92 and 166 of Part II, of ‘Cymru Fu - Notes and Queries Relating to the Past History of Wales and Border Counties,’ published in 1888 by Messrs. Daniel Owen and Co. (Limited), of St. Mary-street, Cardiff. In these notes in “Cymru Fu” the writers on this subject in turn draw their information from Paxton Hood’s Christmas Evans, and from ‘Blackwood’ (November, 1875). By consulting those sources as well, Mr. Hartland may come across more matter relating to this curious and superstitious custom, now obsolete. Possibly, do thorough investigation of the matter would result in much more about it being brought to light. If a few of the oldest people in the neighbourhood of Cwmamman, in Glamorganshire, were interviewed, surely some folk-lore respecting the sin-eater might be obtained.

He also contributes personal experience:

I have talked to several old Pembrokeshire folk about the practice, but they appear to know nothing of such a custom; they, however, tell me that the plate of salt is still used in a great many eases. This, too, has come within my own personal experience. It is a pewter plate that is mostly used, if one such can be got. One old lady, now deceased, used to keep a pewter plate which she was in the habit of lending out for the purpose. It was also customary in the same county to place coins upon the eyelids of oorpses to keep their eyes closed. Are the coins and the plate of salt all mere relies of the sin-eating custom, or does their use possess any real efficacy? This important question is one which the medical man could assist the antiquary by answering.”

Hartland’s First Defence, The Times, October 14th, 1895#

Another week later, on Monday, October 14th, 1895, p4, E. Sidney Hartland was to respond in the pages of the Times to Mr. Thomas’ original criticisms of September 18th, 1895.

Harland also penned a letter on Octor 14th, 1895, to The Academy, but it was not to appear in print there until November 11th, 1895. We will hold off discussing that letter until it appears in the publicly available chronology.

Since his earlier letter, he seems to have obtained copies of the arguments raised in the earlier controversy :


Your correspondent, Mr. N. W. Thomas, denies the existence of the sin-eater in Wales, basing his denial on the statements of Canon Silvan Evans in the Academy of 20 years ago and of the Rev. T. Eynon Davies in the Christian World of February, 1882. By the courtesy of Mr. Thomas and Mr. Woodall I have now been furnished with the correspondence containing these statements.

Hartland opens with a defense of his claims as to the existence of the sin-eater, beginning with Aubrey:

I will deal with the negative evidence presently. Let us first see what positive evidence of the existence of the custom can be found. The stories, as Mr. Thomas says, all go back to Aubrey. This is true, in the sense that Aubrey is the earliest writer to mention the custom and that he gives the fullest account of it.

He does not understand what Mr. Thomas’ issues are with such a notable source:

I do not know what grounds Mr. Thomas may have for casting doubt upon Aubrey’s testimony. He was a careful and enlightened inquirer into old customs.; he travelled about England and Wales with his eyes open ; his bona fides is not to be questioned ; and his description of the ceremony and the expressions he makes use of testify to his having something more as a foundation for his statement than casual gossip. He gives specific instances of sin-eating, not merely at Ross, as Mr. Thomas says, but also at Dynder, at Hereford, and at Llangors, in Brecknockshire, with particulars as to each. He does not, indeed, profess to have himself witnessed these instances.

Furthermore, that Aubrey’s reports were not all his own direct testimony should not detract from their value:

If we depended entirely for evidence of events and customs on the affidavits of eye witnesses, we should introduce a canon of evidence unknown to historical investigation, and should reject much that no reasonable man can doubt.

That said, Aubrey did appear to have been witness to certain events he described:

But he does seem to have witnessed it, or a ceremony similar to it in all points except the utterance of the ritual words, at Beaumaris or elsewhere in North Wales. Speaking of offertories at funerals he says (“Remains of Gentilisme and Judaisme” page 23) :-” These are mentioned in the Rubrick of ye Ch. of Engl. Comon-Prayer-booke: but I never saw it used, but once at Beaumaris, in Anglesey; but it is used over all the counties of North Wales. But before when the corps is brought out of Doores, there is Cake and Cheese, and a new Bowle of Beere, and another of Milke with ye Anno Dni ingraved on it, & ye parties name deceased, wch one accepts of on the other side of ye corps ; and this custome is used to this day, 1686, in North Wales.”

Or maybe he didn’t…

Whether we are to understand that Aubrey saw this himself or not, it is clear that he had made minute inquiries.

Pennant is then evoked as another source:

A century later Pennant describes the same custom (“Tours in Wales,” ed. 1783, Vol. III., page 150). Pennant was born and lived in Wales ; and we must suppoose that he is describing what he was perfectly familiar with by the reports of his neighbours and friends, if he had not himself witnessed it.

Hartland is also able to draw on contemporary evidence that turned up in the pages of Folklore following the publication of his paper there in 1883:

Coming down, to a more recent date, Miss Gertrude Hope,writing in Folklore (Vol. IV., page 392), describes the same ceremony as performed at Market Drayton as lately as the 1st of July, 1893. The details were given to her by an eye-witness, and she significantly adds - ” The minister, who had lately come from Pembrokeshire, remarked to my informant that he was sorry to see that pagan custom still observed. He had been able to put an end to it in the Pembrokeshire village where he had formerly been.”

He also claims to know of other Shropshire examples, although does not describe them, before drawing on another recent publication for evidence of related traditions elsewhere in England:

If necessary, I could give other cases from Shropshire ; and I ought not to leave quite unmentioned the superstition still current in Derbyshire, among a population probably still to a large extent of Celtic ancestry, that every drop of wine drank at a funeral is a sin committed by the deceased, in accordance with which belief wine is handed round first to the bearers and afterwards to the guests (see S. O. Addy, “Household Tales,” 1895, pages 123, 124). Mr. Thomas may, however, deny the relevancy of these; and considerations of space prevent my arguing the question at length here.

He then summarises his defence:

Confining myself, therefore, to Wales, I observe that we have explicit assertions, not merely by Aubrey, but also by Pennant, as well as the evidence of the minister at Market Drayton, that the custom had survived to recent years in Pembrokeshire. And since all the acts of the ceremony were identical with those of the sin-eater, and only the ritual words were wanting, they prepare us to believe Mr. Moggridge when he reports that words and all were used at Llandebie down to a few years before 1852, when his paper was written. The omission of the ritual words is to be accounted for by the presence of the clergy, who would doubtless regard them as blasphemous. The clergy, as Aubrey tells us, found the rite too deeply rooted to be successfully prohibited ; but in deference to them it is probable that in many places a compromise would be adopted. The acts would be retained, the words interpreting and completing them would be dropped.

Hartland then enumerates what he considers to be Mr Thomas’ counter-claims:

Now, what is the negative evidence ? It amounts to this :-

  1. Canon Silvan Evans, though accustomed from his profession to attend funerals, and though interested in folklore, never found a trace of the custom, nor has he found it mentioned in Welsh literature.

  2. He made inquiries of the vicar of Llandebie, who, together with Mr. Rowland, the schoolmaster, denied the existence of the practice in that parish. An intelligent octogenarian in the parish of whom the vicar inquired also denied it.

  3. The Rev. T. Eynon Davies also denied it in reference to Cwmammman, founding his denial not merely upon his own experience (not a very long one in 1882), but also upon the statements of octogenarians.

He is not convinced:

None of these denials can outweigh the positive statements already cited. The custom certainly existed entire in the 17th century at Llangors. Shorn of the ritual words, it maintained itself into the 18th century in North Wales, and down to a few years ago in Pembrokeshire. We may be sure it did not maintain itself ony in these places, especially having regard to the practices in Market Drayton and in Derbyshire.

He also goes on the offensive, casting doubt on Silvan Evans’ ability to reliably deny events at LLandebie that had occurred so many years previously:

It is unfortunate that Canon Silvan Evans’s inquiries at Llandebie were not set on foot until more than a quarter of a century after the alleged event. The lapse of time must affect the value of his negative results. More than this, however. His inquiries were made through the clergyman and the schoolmaster. The latter, indeel, was, we are told, an old resident; but the clergyman had only been vicar for 14 years, though he described himself as having known the neighbourhood well for 25 years, which may mean much or little.

He also casts aspersions on the methods that may have been used when gathering counter-claims:

We have no means of knowing in what form these gentlemen in turn put their questions. That may make all the difference.

And suggests that the people doing the investigating would undoubtedly have been lied to or deliberately misled:

In any case they are precisely the persons who would not be likely to discover the superstition, if it existed. The Rev. Elias Owen, Diocesan Inspector of Schools and one of the chief authorities on Welsh folklore, relates that once, being in a certain parish for the purpose of examining the school, he took the opportunity of asking the clergyman concerning the superstitions of the place, when he was met by the dignified repulse ” Our people are not superstitious, I am glad to say.” His inspection over, he asked the first class ” Now, children, can you tell me of any place where there is a buggan (ghost or bogey) to be seen, or of any one who has seen one ? ” Instantly every hand was stretched out, and every child had a story to tell. The fact is the people hide their superstitions from all such representatives of modern culture as clergymen and schoolmasters ; and it is by no means an uncommon experience that the existence of matters of the kind perfectly well known to the peasant is stoutly denied by that same peasant to the clergyman when he asks about them. The Roman Catholic priest, who has in the confessional a weapon much more powerful than the Anglican, is often baffled by his flock. The testimony of the Rev. C. F. Ryan, curate of Drangan, when before the magistrates on the Clonmel “witch-burning” case, is express, and is of the greatest weight on this point. The reason of the concealment comes out in his evidence. It is founded on the known hostility of such personages as the priest or the minister to the ancient superstitions.

Silvan Evans’ claims are thus brushed away with a swipe of the hand:

On the whole, then, with all respect to Canon Silvan Evans (whose services to Welsh learning are recognized by every one), his denials and the results of his inquiries do not countervail the positive evidence of the existence of the sin-eater in Wales - and the same remark applies with even greater force to the Rev. Eynon Davies, whose inquiries were made later still.

Whilst Hartland’s evidence is all pure fact, and provided without more elaborate justification or reasonong, which could certainly provided given Hartland’s “scientific” approach, presumably:

I have confined myself to the bare question of fact, and have given little more than an outline of the arguments which I could adduce if I had space for them.

He then refers to the book he published the previous year, in which we might recall Hartland had indulged in a certain amount of cannibal fetishism, and suggests that that work provides even more support for his claims:

The rite is discussed at length in the second volume of my “Legend of Perseus,” just published by Mr. David Nutt. Could I have advanced here the considerations there brought forward, I venture to think they would have strongly supported my conclusion.

Hartland closes with an ad hominem attack that Thomas is perhaps acting from a sense of Welsh nationalistic fanaticism just as the Irish are wont to do:

I fear that, consciously or unconsciously, the denial has its roots in a mistaken national or local patriotism, which perhaps peeps forth in Mr. Thomas’s vehemence and in his allusion to the “Celtic fringe.” We are accustomed to this sort of thing among the Irish, who so greatly resent Giraldus Cambrensis’s account of their forefathers (in the main, I believe, perfectly true) that they call any daring lie “a Giraldus.” It is fair, however, to Canon Silvan Evans to say that he entirely disclaims this very natural feeling, putting the question purely as one of alleged matter of fact.

But just to be clear, Hartland is, of course, not a racist!

My own numerous Welsh friends will not suspect me of any antipathy to their nation. or any desire to wound their susceptibilities in declining to accept Mr. Thomas’s verdict. I regard the sin-eater only as an interesting relic of immemorial antiquity ; and the last thing I should dream of would be to malke its possession the basis of any imputation against Wales or the Welsh.

Finally, Hartland explains any omissions in his account that draw on the Mountain Decameron, as referenced by that other letter of challenge to The Times penned by the pseudonymous Z., as well as the correspondent Gwynfardd Dyfed writing to the Western Mail, taking the position that he hasn’t seen it, cannot count on its validity, but whatever it claims, he is sure he can work it into his account:

I have written without reference to the account in The Mountain Decameron mentiuned by your correspondent “Z,” because I have not seen that book. It is probably the nameless authority recently cited by a contributor to the Western Mail. If so,and if the account be authentic (as to which I can offer no opinion), the performance of the ceremony at night, as there described, would explain why the custom in some places eluded clerical notice.

And with that, he signs off:

I am, &c., E. SIDNEY HARTLAND., Highgarth, Gloucester.


The following day, Tuesday, October 15th, 1895, p6, a comment appeared in the Western Mail, and was reprinted later that day in the Evening Express, p3, noting Hartland’s letter of response to Thomas, in The Times:


A column of the “Times” of Monday occupied with a letter from Mr E. Sidney Hartland. Highgarth, Gloucester, on the subject of “The Sin-eater in Wales.” The letter is written in answer to another correspondent, N. W. Thomas, who denied the existence of the sin-eater in Wales, basing his denial on the statements of Canon Silvan Evans in the “Academy” twenty years and of the Rev. T. Eynon Davies in the “Christian World” of Febuary, 1882. Mr. Hartland claims that neither of these denials can outweigh the positive statements he cites in the earlier portion of his letter.

In the Aberystwith Observer of October 17th, 1895, p2, you can almost see the editor’s eyes rolling:

NEWS AND OBSERVATIONS: ORIGINAL AND SELECTED. The “Sin-Eater” has been resurrected again. We thought that Chancellor SILVAN EVANS had finally laid him to rest some years ago.

On the same day, in the Western Mail, on page 3, another vicar joined the fray, calling on the editor to put a stop to the nonsense:




A natural interest in the place of my birth prompts me to ask you to give the death-blow, once for all, to the absurd figment which I find reproduced in the “Western Mail” of this morning viz., that “the superstition of the ‘sin-eater’ lingered even till 1881 in the secluded Vale of Cwmamman, in Carmarthenshire.” When the late Mr. Paxton Hood first gave currency to the report in his “Life of Christmas Evans”, I, as well as others, asked some of the oldest reesidents of the place, whose memory reached back over 70 years, as to the truth of it, and they had never heard of the custom, which was said to prevail in their midst up to 1881. The late Dr. Rees, of Swansea, also naturally concerned that such a barbarous custom should be said to be practised by his countrymen towards the end of the nineteenth century, made the same inquiries, with the same result. I am not claiming for the secluded place of my birth an undue degree of enlightenment in asking you to “scotch ” if it be hopeless to destroy entirely, the absurd idea which would place it on a level with the most heathenish villages of Central Africa. -I am, &c.

Vicar of Aberpergwm.

The editor, perhaps a little more circumspect, responded by way of an editorial comment at p4:

Editorial Comments

Quite a serious controversy has been waged in our columns, as well as those of the “Times,” on the subject of the “Sin-eater” in Wales. The function of this individual is alleged to have been to attend funerals and consume the sins of the defunct with cakes, washed down with nut-brown ale. It is alleged that sin-eating took place as late as 1852 at the village of Llandebie, in Carmarthenshire. The matter was investigated by Silvan Evans, the lexicographer, as well as the late “Giraldus” (who was resident there at the very time), and who but failed to discover any foundation for the story. Still, the evidence for the “Sin-eater” is not thus wholly got rid of, and equally extraordinary superstitions are to be met with in England and in other countries, so that no stone can reasonably be thrown at the Celt even if he did indulge these barbarous exercises, relics as they are of a dark and credulous age.

In the Llangollen Advertiser Denbighshire Merionethshire and North Wales Journal of October 18th, 1895, p7, the sentiments raised by the issue are acknowledged:


SOME heat has been engendered over the question whether the picturesque profession of the sin-eater ever had any real existence in Wales or is the creation of the antiquarian imagination. It is asserted by students of folk-lore that a custom prevailed according to which the friends of a deceased man either themselves ate food passed over his body or engaged a substitute to do so in their behalf, the belief being that the sins of the dead were in this manner transferred to the living persons who took part in the ceremony. Mr. Sidney Hartland and other authorities contend that the account given of this superstition by Aubrey, a seventeenth century writer, can be confirmed not only from the pages of Pennant but from a considerable mass of more recent evidence.

Hartland’s case, however, is considered far from compelling:

It must be confessed that the instances adduced by Mr. Hartland in his letter on the subject are hardly convincing. A few isolated cases of curious ceremonies in dispensing the cold meats and strong liquors provided at burials prove nothing except that funeral etiquette varies according to localities. Mr. Hartland admits that there are no modern instances of ritual words being used, so that the significance of the rites can only be inferred from the interpretation supplied by Aubrey, which may be conjectural.

The observer also refers to another antique Welsh text, the Cannwyll y Cymry by Rhys Prichard, published posthunously in 1681, that fails to mention the ritual:

There is no reference to the alleged superstition, so far as we know, in Vicar Prichard’s “Canwyll y Cymru,” though he severely condemns a number of magical practices.

The lack of evidence turned up by Silvan Evans is also remarked on, before a wry suggestion that the sin-eater is perhaps of more interest in the chase than the actuality:

Canon Silvan Evans, with a considerable experience of funeral and a learned interest in folk-lore, never came across any vestige of the custom, and other competent investigators have likewise failed. In the interest of romance it is to be hoped that the sin-eater will not turn out so disappointing as the famous inscription discovered by Mr. Pickwick, which proved, on fuller inquiry, to be nothing more than “Bill Stumps His Mark,” but his reality is clearly not yet established.

In The Times of Friday, October 18th, 1895, p2, the growing debate in the letters columns of The Times is recognised, and the additional information provided by the Western Mail correspondent “Gwynfardd Dyfed”, whose real identity is disclosed, is recognised:


Writing under date October 15 from Haverfordwest with reference to the letter on this subject by Mr. E. Sidney Hartland which appeared in The Times on Monday last, and in the last paragraph of which the writer suggested that the authorities for the statements in certain contributions on this subject which had recently appeared in the Western Mail had not been given, Mr. Frederick J. Warren (Gwynfardd Dyfed) says that in the contribution to the Western Mail of September 18 last he quoted portions of certain works not therein named. On September 25 a letter appeared in the same paper from Mr. Hartland asking him if he would furnish all the necessary particulars of the authorities cited. On the 8th of the present month he supplied this information through the same medium, and, as it would seem that Mr. Hartland did not see this second contribution containiug the authentications asked for, he now gives them as follows :- “Wanderings and Excursions in South Wales : With the Scenery of the River Wye,” by Thomas Roscoe, Esq., published in 1854 by Mr. Henry G. Bohn, York-street, Covent-garden ; also “Cymru Fu-Notes and Queries relating to the Past History of Wales and the Border Counties, publishd in 1888 by Messrs Daniel Owen and Co. (Limited), of St. Mary-street, Cardiff. In the notes in “Cymru Fu”, the writers on this subject in turn draw their information from Paxton Hood’s Christmas Evans” and from “Blackwood” November. 1875).

That weekend, a short column in the Weekly Mail of Saturday, October 19th, p11, remarked on Hartland’s letter to the Times at the start of that week:


A column of the “Times” of Monday was occupied with a letter from Mr. E. Sidney Hartland. Highgarth, Gloucester, on the subject of “The Sin-eater in Wales.” The letter is written in answer to another correspondent, Mr. N. W. Thomas, who denied the existence of the sin-eater in Wales, basing his denial on the statements of Canon Silvan Evans in the “Academy” twenty years ago and of the Rev. T. Eynon Davies in the “Christian World of February, 1882. Mr. Hartland claims that neither of these denials can outweigh the positive statements he cites in the earlier portion of his letter.

Mr. Thomas Responds#

The following week was a quiet one as far as correspondence goes, but it seems that Mr. Thomas, now writing from Eastbourne, was penning a response that was to appear in The Times of Monday, October 28th, 1895, p4.

The letter opens in a courteous enough manner, with Thomas explaining that his response will be focussed on one specific matter:


Sir,- Mr. Hartland’s letter raises several very interesting points which would require to be discussed at some length. I must, however, confine myself to the question mainly raised by my first letter-the evidence for the recent existence of the sin-eater.

He then explains his concerns:

As I should explain, did space permit, I do not regard analogical evidence as very satisfactory for two reasous-(1) Aubrey may have misinterpreted a ceremony which he saw (he does not tell us that the name sin-eater was used, I think); (2) the sin-eater, if he existed, may not unreasonably be regarded as the result of a misunderstanding of other customs.

And identifies what he sees as the source of Hartland’s evidence:

The evidence for the recent existence in Wales of this personage is the evidence of Mr. Moggridge-a story related by him at Ludlow, and derived no one knows where, at least second hand, perhaps third, fourth, or fifth hand.

He then identifies the sources who failed to find evidence of the tradition, stressing their credentials in terms of being able to collect folklore from local populations:

Against this we have the evidence of the vicar, the schoolmaster, and the Nonconformist minister-no doubt such a conjunction is enough to damn any cause; but we must remember that the schoolmaster was no tyro at folklore, he had collected legends and customs for Sir Thomas Phillipps. Even a clergyman and a diocesan inspector can elicit ghost stories in a strange parish. Much more can a local schoolmaster find a sin-eater.

The lack of evidence is further noted in published Welsh sources:

Secondly, no Welsh writer has ever mentioned the sin-eater, and no Welsh word for the name is known.

And finally, the lack of witnesses coming forward to say they have observed the tradition, is noted:

Thirdly, no one has ever been produced who saw a sin-eater or heard of him in the localities where he was said to have lived.

On the balance of probability then, Thomas suggests that even if Hartland’s claims are sound, there is no recent evidence of the sin-eating tradition in Wales:

Even if I accepted Mr. Hartland’s canon of evidence I should not think that probability lay on his side. Holding that folklore requires stricter evidence of customs, which an eye-witness might readily misinterpret, I hold to my position that the sin-eater has not existed in Wales in recent times.,

I am, &C., N. W. THOMAS., New College, Eastbourne.

This letter was later reprinted in the Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald and North and South Wales Independent of November 1st, 1895, p7, as well as in Bye-Gones of November 6th, 1895, p214-15, the latter also ending the reference with the following statement:

[The Times declined to publish a fuller reply to Mr Hartland, on the ground that the subject was not of sufficient general interest. –Ed.]

Presumably the editor at Bye-Gones was in some form of communication with Mr. Hartland.

Elsewhere, in the Welsh Gossip section of both the South Wales Echo of October 29th, 1895, p4, and p4 of the South Wales Daily News on the same date, as well as the Welsh Gleanings section of the Cardiff Times of November 2nd, 1895, p1, the following paragraph appeared:

Mr N. W. Thomas, New College, Eastbourne, writes to the Times pointing out that no Welsh writer has ever mentioned the sin-eater, and no Welsh word for the name is known. That no one has ever been produced who saw a sin-eater or heard of him in the localities where he was said to have lived.

Meanwhile in Y Cymro#

It is perhaps not sruprising that by this point, if not before, the debate had started to attract attention within Welsh speaking circles, In Y Cymro ((“The Welshman”), for example, an article appeared in the edition of October 30th, 1895, p12 referring to an “enthusisatic Welshman” (Mr. N. W. Thomas) who had written to the Times quoting Reverends Silvan Evans and Eynon Davies in his dismissal of claims suround the sin-eater in Wales, and Sidney Hartland’s response citing Aubrey and Pennant.

Welsh Translations

The translations, as provided, were generated from the original Wlesh using Google Translate. If you can provide me with a more natuaral translation, I would be very much in your debt.

The following day, on October 31st,1895, p4, Y Cymro published another column on the matter. The definition given for the sin-eater was taken from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, with a comment to the effect that since there appears to be no Welsh word to describe the ritual, an English text had to be consulted. Hartland’s lack of knowledge about the Welsh is remarked upon.


The “expanded and corrected” twelfth edition at least, of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, published in 1891, included an entry for the sin-eater.

Perhaps of greater concern was that a Welsh work on Welsh traditions, Hynafion Cymreig, published in Carmarthen in 1823, just a few short miles from the supposed loction where the sin-eater tradition was claimed to be practised, also had no name for the tradition and made no mention of. That food rituals were evident around funerals was not challenged. That they did take place should not be considered as surprising, helping mediate expressions of sympathy at a family funeral, just as food surely played a role in mediating the spread of joy at a wedding.

Perhaps inspired by the Y Cymro article, editorial staff over at the Evening Express also quoted Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in their edition of October 31st, 1895, p4:

Gathered from Gwalia

Apropos to the discussion on the sin-eater, the following from “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” may not be without interest:— “Sin-eaters— Persons hired at funerals in ancient times to take upon themselves the sins of the deceased that the soul might be delivered from purgatory. Notice was given tc. an old sire before the door of the house, when some of the family came out and furnished him with a cricket [low stool], on which he sat down facing the door; then they gave him a groat, which he put in his pocket; a crust of bread, which he ate, and a bowl of ale, which ho drank off at a draught. After this he got up from the cricket and pronounced the ease and rest of the soul departed, for which he would pawn his own soul.”

Seemingly now on a roll, there was now no let up at Y Cymro, where the edition of November 2nd, 1895, p14, where the tone was increasingly one of chagrine at claims made by Englishmen against the morality of the Welsh, claims that not even the righteous Mr. Prichard, poet, and author of the Cannwyll y Cymry, published over three centuries earlier, had managed to discover.

The commentary in the Welsh language Y Cymro is picked up a few days later in the Merthyr Times and Dowlais Times and Aberdare Echo of November 11th, 1895, p5. The note begins with a brief summary of the tradition, as given by Moggrdge:

Notes and Comments

WAS the ancient custom of Sin-eating ever prevalent in Wales ? The Sin-eater was one who “ate” the sins of a dead man, and so delivered his soul from purgatory. The practice seems to have varied in its details. Mr. Matthew Moggridge, in 1852, described to the Cambrian Archaeological Society what he alleged to be done within the memory of people then living in the neighbourhood of Llandebie, in Carmarthenshire. The Sin-eater, he says, placed a quantity of salt on the bosom of the dead man, and a small piece of bread on the salt. Then, with loud lamentations, he ate the piece of bread, and so took into himself, as it were, all the sins of the deceased. The sum of half-a-crown was given him by the mourning relatives, and he ran away as soon as he could out of sight, for he was hated by all, and looked upon as a lost man.

That account had provided the basis for Hartland’s more recent exposition; but could it be trusted, for example, given the claims in Y Cymro that a Welsh publication from the supposed area where the tradition was extant, at the time it was supposedly still being employed, made no mention of it, or anything like it?

Is Moggridge’s story to be relied upon ? At the recent meetings of the British Association it was recounted by Mr. Sidney Hartland, who based upon it his statement as to the prevalence of the custom in parts of Wales within the present century. The Cymro, in an erudite and interesting article on the question, adduces some facts to show that Moggridge was wrong. There was published in Carmarthen, some dozen miles from Llandebie, in the year 1823, a book containing a collection of Welsh superstitions. This book, called “Hynafion Cymreig,” has not a word about Sin-eating. Had the custom, as Moggridge alleged, been in existence it would certainly have been mentioned in the “Hynafion.”

The author has no doubts on the matter:

It is almost impossible to escape the conclusion that Moggridge was misinformed, and that Hartland’s theory therefore falls to the ground. Then we have this further fact the custom is not mentioned in any Welsh literature that is extant. The poets do not refer to it, nor is there a syllable about it in any text-book of antiquities or collections of superstitions and folk-lore. This unbroken silence can only be explained by the absence of the practice in the country.

Immediately following the article, on p5 was a review of “Miss Fiona Macleod’s new book, The Sin-eater”.

Miss Fiona Macleod’s new book, The Sin-eater, published this week, doubtless contains curious and interesting facts about this practice in the Celtic portions of northern Scotland. At any rate, her former books, “The Mountain Lovers” and Pharais,” deal with cognate subjects, and throw much valuable light on the daily life, characteristics, and superstitions of our kinsmen, the Gaels of the Scotch Highlands.

A couple of days later, in the Evening Express of November 13th, 1895, p2 noted a report in a “Birmingham newspaper” (I haven’t yet identified which one) summarising the debate occurring elsewhere:

The Sin-Eater in Wales controversy is summarised by a Birmingham paper, which remarks :— As a preliminary we may explain that sin-eaters, according to certain antiquarians, were a class of men who attended funerals in ancient times, and partook of bread and ale placed on the bier, and so symbolically took on themselves the sins of the deceased. It was believed that whenever this ceremony was performed that the spirit of the dead sinner would be saved from walking the earth in troubled state.

The denial of sin-eating in Wales by Mr. Thomas, of Oswestry, has called forth a mass of evidence in proof of the contrary from Mr. Sidney Hartland, one of the most learned of Midland antiquarians, which is printed in the current number of the “Academy.” Mr. Hartland relies mainly on old-time writers for his information. Aubrey mentions the custom, as performed by a “long, leane, ugly, lamentable, poor raskal” in Herefordshire. When the body was placed on the bier, “a Loafe of Bread was brought out, and delivered to the sinne-eater over the corps, as also a mazar-bowle of maple full of beer, which he was to drink up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he tooke upon him (ipso facto) all the sinnes of the Defunct, and freed him (or her) from walking after death.”

Meanwhile, a letter in Y Cymro of November 14th, 1895, p5 introduces the Welsh terms “diodles” and “diodlas”, which perhaps remind us of the Diodlys tradition described in Bingley’s review of North Wales from 1804. The correspondent provides a description of the diodles/diodlas tradition taken from a Welsh work published in 1820, Drych yr Amseroedd [“Mirror of the Times”].

Breaking the chronology slightly, a correspondent to Y Cymro published on December 26th, 1895, p6 denies the existence of the tradition in the sense of “sin-eating”:

At this point, let take a brief interlude from the correspondence, and see what Fiona Macleod’s fictional short story of a sin-eater in the Highlands has to say. We shall then moving on to a new forum for the correspondence debate, for as the Bye-Gones editor had suggested, The Times had tired of these provincial mutterings, even if the correspondents had not. For it had returned to the home of the original debate, in the pages of The Academy.