Second Controversy, 1895-6, Part II#

With the editor of The Times apparently tiring of the sin-eater correspondence by the end of October, it was perhaps “fortunate” that Mr Hartland had written to The Academy on October 14th, 1895, since it meant that when the letter appeared in edition dated November 11th, 1895, p387-8, it would keep the debate alive.

As we are essentially looking back at Hartland’s understanding of the matter from mid-October, there is an element of going back over ground already covered in the Times correspondence.

Hartland’s First Letter to The Academy, October-November, 1895: The Positive Evidence#

In the opening paragraph, Hartland briefly reviews his comments to Captain Hinde’s paper at the British Association meeting, and then admits to his being unaware at the time of the previous round of correspondence in the Academy twenty years earlier.


Highgarth, Gloucester: Oct. 14, 1895.

During the recent discussion at the British Association meeting on cannibalism, I ventured to point out that there was reason to believe that the practice had once extended over a much wider area than we might be disposed a prior to think; and in support of my statement I referred, among other things, to the custom of Sin-eating, described by John Aubrey as existing in his time on the Welsh border and in Wales. This I explained as the relic of a more ancient custom of eating the corpse. My observations, when reported, called forth a letter from Mr. N. W. Thomas, who, writing from Oswestry to the Times, absolutely denied the existence of the Sin-eater in Wales, declaring that “if the dissemination of false news is a crime in a newspaper, it is far worse in a member of the Folklore Society,” and calling my attention to the correspondence in the ACADEMY in the winter of 1875-76, in which Canon Silvan Evans, he seemed to think, had finally disposed of the evidence.

After obtaining the previous correspondence, albeit with some apparent difficulty, his position remains unaltered:

As a matter of fact, I had to confess that I had not heard of that correspondence, and I found some difficulty in getting it. By the courtesy of Mr. Thomas and Mr. Woodall, I have now had the opportunity of reading it, and my opinion is unchanged by the perusal.

He then suggests that The Academy is perhaps the right and proper place to argue his case against both Mr Thomas, and Silvan Evans, the previous critic:

As it may be desirable that the question should be thrashed out in the arena where the first blow was struck, and as, moreover, the Sin-eater furnishes meat lacking, perhaps, something of the savour most appetising for readers of a daily newspaper, I ask you to allow me to review the evidence in your columns.

He follows a strategy we also saw him use in his letter to the Times publisghed on October 14th, 1895, opening with the “positive” evidence, which is to say, the evidence he regards as supporting the claims of sin-eating in Wales. (From the signature at the end of the correspondence, the negative evidence he hopes to provide in a later letter.)

Not surprisingly, he opens with Aubrey:

Before dealing with the negative evidence, let us see what positive evidence of the custom can be found. The stories, as Mr. Thomas says, all go back to Aubrey, who, we are told, is “none too strong a witness.” It is true that the stories all go back to Aubrey, in the sense that he is the earliest writer to mention the custom, and that he gives the fullest account of it. He says (Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, p. 35):

“In the County of Hereford was an old Custome at funeralls to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the sinnes of the party deceased. One of them I remember lived in a cottage on Rosse-high way. (He was a long, lean, ugly, lamentable poor raskal.) The manner was that when the Corps was brought out of the house and layd on the Biere ; a Loafe of Bread was brought out, and delivered to the sinne-eater over the corps, as also a mazar-bowle of maple (Gossips bowle) full of beer, which he was to drinke up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he tooke upon him (ipso facto) all the sinnes of the Defunct, aud freed him (or her) from walking after they were dead.”

And then invokes Bagford, via Brand:

In Brand and Ellis’s Observations on Popular Antiquities (ed. 1813, vol. ii., p. 155) is reprinted from Leland’s Collectanea a letter from a Mr. Bagford, giving a slightly varied account, professedly derived from Aubrey, placing the scene of the custom in Shropshire, the time “within the memory of our fathers,” and stating the fee paid to the Sin-eater as a groat. On this, if it stood alone in reference to Shropshire, I should lay no stress. It might contain the result of additional inquiries by Aubrey; it might, on the other hand, be only the inaccurate recollection of a verbal communication by him to Mr. Bagford, really referring to Herefordshire. If we compare it, however, with the cases cited further on, we shall have reason to think that the custom actually obtained in Shropshire.

As he commented elsewhere, he doesn’t understand what Mr Thomas has against Aubrey:

I do not know what grounds Mr. Thomas may have for casting doubt upon Aubrey’s testimony. Aubrey 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 statements than casual gossip.

To reassert his support for Aubrey, Hartland quotes him again, arguing that Aubrey’s account is not mis-representing the evidence in any way:

A little lower down he adds:

“This Custome (though rarely used in our dayes) yet by some people was observed even in the strictest time of ye Presbyterian goverment: as at Dynder, volens nolens the Parson of ye Parish, the relations of a woman deceased there had this Ceremonie punctually performed according to her will: and also the like was donne at ye City of Hereford in these times, when a woman kept many yeares before her death a Mazard-bowle for the sinne-eater; and the like in other places in this Countis: as also in Brecon, e.g. at Lllangors, where Mr. Gwin the minister could no hinder ye performing of this ancient custome.”

Aubrey does not, indeed, profess to have himself witnessed these instances of the ceremony. 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.

Hartland then argues, as he has before, that the tradition is well established, and traces of it are spread widely:

Leaving for the moment what he says about Llangors, I pass to Derbyshire, a district where the Britons long maintained their independence, and the population of which is probably still to a great extent of Celtic ancestry. Recent inquiries by Mr. S. O. Addy have shown that:

“at a funeral in Derbyshire wine is first offered to the bearers who carry the corpse. This custom is strictly maintained, the guests not receiving any wive until the funeral party has returned from church… . When you drink wine at a funeral, every drop that you drink is a sin which the deceased has committed. You thereby take away the dead man’s sins and bear them yourself” (Household Tales, with other Traditional Remains, collected in the Counties of York, Lincoln, Derby, and Nottingham, 1895, pp. 123, 124).

As we have seen previously, his claim is that such traditions are obviously a relic of an earlier, commonly held sin-eater tradition:

This, there can hardly be a doubt, is a survival of a similar custom to that of the Sin-eater.

Hartland then pivots his argument:

The same effect is assigned to the act of drinking; and the ritual requires that the wine should first be offered to certain of the funeral officials.

A long history of drinking traditions is then described, and a character Hartland did not allude to in his Times correspondence – Monsieur Jorevin – and who has not explicitly appeared in any of the sin-eater descriptions to date, is introduced:

Returning to Shropshire, we find a drinking custom recorded by an eye-witness in the reign of Charles II. M. Jorevin, apparently a Frenchman travelling in England, relates that he was present at a nobleman’s funeral at Shrewsbury. The minister made a funeral oration to the assembled friends and relatives in the chamber where the body lay. “During the oration there stood upon the coffin a large Pot of Wine, out of which every one drank to the health of the deceased.” When this was finished the funeral proceeded. (Brand and Ellis, vol. ii., p. 153.) It is true that there is no special Sin-eater here, nor any words indicating the assumption by the survivors of the sins of the dead. But it will be observed that the health of the deceased can mean only “the ease and rest of the soul departed,” which is exactly the expression placed in the Sin-eater’s mouth by Mr. Bagford. The ceremony, in fact, looks uncommonly like that of Sin-eating transplanted to an upper stratum of society, and accompanied by modifications such as that transplantation would in course of time evolve.

Hartland then provides contemporary evidence of the tradition as provided to him by Gertrude Hope a couple of years previously:

The same custom was still practised at Market Drayton as lately as July 1, 1893. Miss Gertrude Hope, writing in Folklore (vol. iv., p. 392), gives the particulars as related to her by an eye-witness. After the bearers had lunched, “the coffin was brought down and placed on two chairs in the centre of the room, and, the mourners having gathered round it,” a short service was then and there conducted by the Nonconformist minister, as is frequently done, before setting out for the grave. “Directly the minister ended the woman in charge of the arrangements poured out four glasses of wine and handed one to each bearer present across the coffin, with a biscuit called a ‘funeral biscuit.’” Mark what follows. “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 the Pembrokeshire village where he had formerly been.” Here the food and drink were handed across the coffin to the bearers—the same officials who in Derbyshire first partake in a formal manner of the drink which is believed to have the effect of taking away the sins of the deceased. The relation of the ceremony to that of the Sin-eater is apparent. The evidence, if not literally at first hand, is such as cannot be doubted.

Reading the following paragraph today, we might read Hartland as admitting that Aubrey’s claims are “merely” circumstantial, but Hartland is arguing perhaps that they are “substantively” circumstantial?

If, fortified by this evidence from Derbyshire and the Marches, we turn to Wales, we find Aubrey’s statements of a very circumstantial character ; and that not merely in the case of Llangors referred to just now.

Hartland now uses sleight of hand again, suggesting that another quote from Aubrey is also demonstrative of the sin-eater tradition:

Speaking of offertories at funerals, he says (Remains, p 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, wich one accepts of on the other side of ye Corps, and this Custome is used to this day [1686] in North Wales.”

This is precisely the ceremony of Sin-eating, save that Aubrey does not record the words uttered. The testimony is perhaps all the stronger that he does not thus expressly connect it with a practice which he elsewhere declares he believed to have been “used over all Wales.” It would seem that he had actually beheld it in this shape; though his words are not free from ambiguity.

Hartland then reaffirms his belief in the efficacy of Aubrey’s researches, invoking Pennant as another commentator of upon the same tradition:

At all events, it is clear that he had made minute inquiries. A century later Pennant describes the same custom among several others “used among us in former times, which have been gradually dropped in —— as the age grew enlightened.” He says:

“Previous to a funeral, it was customary, when the corpse was brought out of the house and laid upon the bier, for the next of kin, be it widow, mother, sister or daughter (for it must be a female), to give, over the coffin, a quantity of white loaves, in a great dish, and sometimes a cheese, with a piece of money stuck in it, to certain poor persons. After that they presented, in the same manner, a cup of drink, and required the person to drink alittle of it immediately. When that was done, they kneeled down, and the minister, if present, said the Lord’s Prayer; after which, they proceeded with the corpse (Tours in Wales”, ed. 1883, vol. iii., p. 150).

Pennant’s credentials are also assumed to be good ones:

Pennant was born and lived in Wales; and we must suppose 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.

For Hartland, then, contemporary evidence of certain food traditions claimed as remnants of sin-eating is seen to resemble the earlier evidence of Aubrey and Pennant, and hence they must also be seen as evidence of sin-eating:

The explicit statements of Aubrey and Pennant must be put side by side with the evidence already given 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. Matthew Moggridge when he reports that words and all were used at Llandebie, a few miles from Swansea, down to a few years before 1852, when he read a paper on the subject at Ludlow to the Cambrian Archaeological Association. It is unnecessary to quote the paper, which is to be read in Archaeologia Cambrensis (vol. iii., N.S., p. 330), as it mentions no material variation of the ceremony. 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 a compromise would be adopted. The acts would continue to be performed, the words interpreting and completing those acts would be dropped.

The logic of this argument is rather perverse:

  • there is a sin-eater tradition, as defined by Aubrey;

  • Aubrey described certain ritual behaviours;

  • Pennant described certain ritual behaviour;

  • contemporary ritual behaviours have been observed;

  • they’re all the same;

  • they are claimed to be remnants of sin-eating;

  • therefore, sin-eating exists.

Whatever the case, Hartland considered his case in support of his claims complete. For the “negative” evidence, the readers of the Academy would have to wait until a later issue:

I will ask permission to consider the negative evidence in another letter.


Hartland’s Second Letter to The Academy, October-November, 1895: The Negative Evidence#

Hartland’s second letter to the Academy, dated October 25th, 1895, a Friday, was published on November 16th, 1895, in Vol 48 Iss 1228, p413-4. It was perhaps unfortunate that it presumably posted two or three days before a replay from Mr. Thomas had appeared in The Times dated Monday, October 28th, 1895.

The letter opens with a reference to the “a MS. book of a Bisop of St. Asaph”, which is perhaps the manuscript that was reprinted in Vol 2 Iss 6 of Archaologia Cambrensis, dated April, 1885?



Highgarth, Gloucester: Oct. 25, 1895.

Before I examine the negative evidence, let me revert for a moment to Pennant’s statement cited in my previous letter. I am indebted to Mr. J. P. Owen, who, writing lately to Prof. Rhys, has pointed out that this statement is derived from the same source as an account of “Ancient Usages and Customs in North Wales,” contained in the British Magazine for April, 1835 (vol. vii., p. 399), and there said to be “from a MS. book of a Bishop of St. Asaph, written about a century ago.” The British Magazine is now lying before me, and the passage runs as follows:

“When the corpse is brought out of the house, and laid upon the bier, and covered before it be taken up, the next of kin to the deceased —widow, mother, daughter, or cousin (never done by a man)— gives cross over the corpse to one of the poorest neighbours two or three white loaves of bread and a cheese with a piece of money stuck in it, and then a new wooden cup of drink, which some will require the poor body that receives it immediately to drink a little of. When this is done, the minister (if present) saith the Lord’s prayer, and then they set forward towards church.”

Mr J. P. Owen’s letter, via Prof. Rhys

A copy of Owen’s letter can be found in Notes & Queries of February 8th, 1896, Vol 9 Iss 215 ; 8th. S. ix, p109-111.

As we shall see, Mr. Owen was also to enter into the debate in a more public way in the pages of the Academy.

Hartland obviously regards this as a manuscript that Pennant referenced, rather than a manuscript of Pennant’s own work:

The way in which Pennant deals with the entire account, omitting or varying some usages and inserting others, suggests that, though he unquestionably had the MS. or a copy of it before him, he supplemented or varied it in accordance with information obtained elsewhere. In the passage I have quoted I would draw attention, for example, to his graphic touches the loaves as presented “in a great dish,” and bringing the funeral party before us as kneeling down when the Lord’s Prayer was repeated, which are not to be found in the British Magazine. Perhaps the omissions may be equally significant, but naturally they are less to be trusted. The whole account should, however, be compared, for doing which I have no space here. In any case, the detail of “a new wooden cup,” overlooked or purposely left out by Pennant, is worth noting as an independent confirmation of Aubrey some half century after he wrote.

Hartland now turns to the main focus of his epistle, the “negative evidence” that could be directed aganst the claims of the sin-eater’s existence in Wales. The list of points is identical to the numbered list he included in the letter to the Times of October 14th, 1895:

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

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

  2. He made inquiries in the year 1875 of the Vicar of Llandebie, who, together with Mr. Rowland, the schoolmaster, denied the existence of — 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 ia reference to Cwmamman, founding his denial not merely upon his own experience (not a very long one in 1882), but also upon the declarations of octogenarians.

The next paragraph covers much the same ground as the earlier letter to the Times, although in more detail.

None of these denials, nor all of them together, can outweigh the positive evidence of Aubrey, Pennant, and the minister at Market Drayton. Even if we assume, what I do not see my way at present to admit, namely, that Pennant was merely reproducing the statement of the Bishop of St. Asaph (or whoever may have been the writer of his MS.), it is clear that the latter was describing the custom as still subsisting when he wrote. Thus, the custom that certainly existed uncurtailed in the seventeenth century at Llangors maintained itself, shorn of the ritual words, well into the eighteenth century in North Wales, and down to a few years ago in Pembrokeshire. We may be sure it did not maintain itself only in these places. I do not understand that Canon Silvan Evans’s denials extend to England. But to admit the existence of the practices (and they can hardly be denied) in Shropshire and Derbyshire is to lend strong countenance to the probability of similar practices in many districts of Wales. Mr. Matthew Moggridge did not claim to have been an eye-witness — we cannot even affirm that he saw and examined eye-witnesses; but it is possible, and even likely, that he did, seeing that he lived at Swansea, only twelve or thirteen miles from Llandebie. His assertions. at any rate, were evidently not made at random, but were the result of investigations. He may have been misled. So may Aubrey and the writer of the Bishop of St. Asaph’s MS. In that event it is remarkable that the accounts they give, while agreeing in the main, present just the differences we might expect from independent writers describing a custom liable to all the variations of traditional practice. Nor will the hypothesis that these writers were misled get rid of the evidence of the minister at Market Drayton. He at least could not have been mistaken about a custom which he had himself succeeded in putting down.

The opening sentence of the next paragraph again repeats the letter to the Times

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, indeed, was, we are told, an old resident ; but the clergyman had only been vicar for fourteen years, though he described himself as having known the neighbourhood well for twenty-five years, which may mean much or little. We have no means of knowing in what form these gentlemen in turn put their questions. That may make all the difference. 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 folk-lore, 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 anyone 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” inquiry, is of the greatest weight on this point.

The next point did not appear in the Times letter:

He said he had heard “nothing, absolutely nothing,” of the doings which ended in the unfortunate victim’s death, until all was over. Asked if he did not think that very extraordinary, he replied :

“No, I do not. The priest is very often the last to hear of things like that—generally, I should say… I had no suspicion of foul play or witchcraft, and if I had 1 should have at once absolutely refused to say mass in the house, and have given information to the police at once.”

But then we rejoin the original letter:

The reason of the concealment from the priest or the minister comes out here. It is founded on the known hostility of such personages to the ancient superstitions.

The final paragraph is newly written, and suggests that there is more to come:

So far, then, as regards the actual practice of Sin-eating in Wales in modern times, it must be said, with all respect to Canon Silvan Evans (whose services to Welsh learning are recognised by everyone), that his denials and the results of his inquiries do not countervail the positive evidence; and the same remark applies with even greater force to the Rev. Eynon Davies, whose inquiries were made later still. But in order to complete the case, I must add something as to Canon Evans’s failure to find any allusion to the Sin-eater in Welsh literature. This, however, I shall have to reserve for next week.


Before that letter was to appear, however, another report of another, possibly related, custom made its way into the pages of Bye-Gones dated November 20th, 1895, p218:


I do not know whether the following will throw any light on the question of “The Sin-Eater in Wales,” which has again come up for discussion :— A few months ago, six or so, I was present at the funeral of a member of one of the old-inhabitant families of Bettws-Cedewain. After the corpse was placed outside the door, and before the performance of the religious service, a small piece of cake was given, first to the bearers (but whether across the corpse or not I cannot now recollect),and afterwards to each of the guests. Next a glass of wine was handed to each one in the same order. I believe the custom was general in this district twenty or thirty years ago, but I have seen only one other instance of its observance within the last five years. I have never heard any ritual used. T.H.J.

Hartland’s Third Letter to The Academy, November, 1895: The Lack of Mentions in Welsh Literature#

Hartland’s third contribution to the Academy, dated November 4th, 1895, appeared in Vol 48 Iss 1229, p435, published on November 23rd, 1895.



Highgarth, Gloucester: Nov. 4, 1895.

I have now dealt with the positive evidence derived from English sources— that is to say, from writings in the English language— and with the negative evidence of the inquiries by Canon Silvan Evans at Llandebie and by the Rev. Eynon Davies at Cwmamman, and of the general acquaintance of the former with Welsh folk-lore.

The main subject of this letter is the question of the appearance, or rather, the lack of it, of the sin-eater in Welsh literature.

At this point, Hartland admits he is perhaps not the best qualified person to scour the pages of historical Welsh texts, not being a native Welsh speaker (we might also comment, his scholarshiop appears to be lacking across English journals too!). He also wonders how many English customs might exist in practice if not in books?

But Canon Evans not only failed to trace the Sin-eater in Welsh folk-lore; he failed also to trace him in Welsh literature. Here he has me at a disadvantage. I am not conversant, as he is, with Welsh literature. I do not doubt, however, that many English customs have existed, and perhaps exist even yet, of which no indication can be found in ordinary English literature; and it may be the same in Wales.

I’m not sure what tone of voice Hartland had in mind as he suggested that Silvan Evans, despite being a noted philologist, should perhaps hecked the dictionary? (Was he aware, I wonder, that Silvan Evans had also embarked on various Welsh dictionary projects?)

But I should like to ask: what has he looked for, and how has he looked for it? He is himself a lexicographer of distinction ; and he is doubtless acquainted with the work of his predecessor, Owen Pughe. If he will turn to the letter D he will find the word Diawdlestr thus defined: “A drinking cup, also a cup full of drink so-called, superstitiously given for the dead, which in some places is called diawdlyst, and cwpan y meirw”; and Diawdlyst is explained as “The give-ale.”

At this point, Hartland admits it wasn’t he himself who had made this discovery:

I owe this reference to Mr. Owen. Prof. Rhys has been kind enough to make a little further search. He has turned up in Thomas Richards’s Welsh and English Dictionary (Trefriw, 1815) what seems to be one form, if not the original and true form, of Pughes’s Diawdlyst, namely Diodlifft, explained by Cwppan dros y meirw (a cup for, or on behalf of, the dead), with a reference to “Davies.” The reference to Davies seems to be not to Davies’s still older Welsh Dictionary, but rather to his “MS. notes.” We have here at least three words expressive of a cup of drink superstitiously given for the dead, pointing not to an isolated, but to a widely known custom of some kind.

Whatever the case, Hartland suggest this proves the existence of the sin-eater in Welsh literature:

To what can they point, if not to the practices detailed in my first letter and in the extract from the Bishop of St. Aseph’s MS, ? And that they do in fact refer to hem there is proof in Welsh literature.

But apparently, there’s more:

Cymru Fu is a little book published anonymously at Wrexham, bearing no date on the title-page, but having the preface dated 1862. It is a sort of omnium gatherum of Welsh history, literature, and traditions. Among other things, it contains an account of popular funeral customs. The portion (p. 91) which is pertinent to my present purpose, runs as follows :

“Before the sad procession started for the church the friends and nearest relations collected about the corpse to bewail and lament their loss, while the rest of the company were in another room drinking warm beer and smoking their pipes, and the women in another room still were drinking tea together. After the coffin was carried out of the house and laid on the bier beside the door, one of the relations of the deceased gave bread and cheese over the coffin to poor people, who, in expectation of these gifts, had been diligently gathering flowers and herbs to bestow in the coffin. Sometimes a loaf of bread with a piece of mone stuck in it was added to these [gifts]. Then all the mourners knelt down, and the clergyman, if present, repeated the Lord’s Prayer, and the procession stopped and repeated the same prayer at every cross-way until they reached the church.”

At this point, Hartland admits the Cymru Fu author must have had access to Pennant, but he also suggests that he must have access to other texts too that had provided an additional source of facts:

I think it is undeniable that the writer had Pennant before him while writing this passage ; and I have purposely translated it so as to bring out the identities of expression. But allowing for this, it is clear that he has other sources of information from which he adds particulars given neither by Pennant nor in the Bishop of St. Asaph’s MS. Such are the description of the proceedings before the corpse was taken out of the house, and the details of where the coffin was placed outside the house (gerllaw y drws), and of the presentation of flowers and herbs in return for the bread and cheese.

There is no suggestion of poetic license or creative input on the part of the author.

Hartland does not, however, feel the need to rely on so recent a text as Cymru Fu, for he also draws on Drych y Amseroedd, which we might recall was referenced in correspondence in the November 14th, 1895, edition of Y Cymro:

Scepticism, however, may deny the authority of so modern a compilation as Cymru Fu. Let me, therefore, turn to an account of the same custom, written at least forty years earlier. It occurs in a little book called Drych y Amseroedd Wikipedia book. The purport of the book is described in the title-page, which may be rendered : “Mirror of the Times; comprising a little of the history of the most remarkable things that have happened, chiefly in Gwynedd, during the last two centuries in relation to religion. In the form of a conversation between Inquisitive and Observer.”

Hartland brings the attention of the predominantly English speaking Academy audience to the same excerpt from that work in the following way:

Its author was a Calvinistic Methodist minister, named Robert Jones, of Capel y Dinas, previously of Rhoslan; and it was published at Llanrwst, presumably in 1820, for that is the date of the preface, though there is none on the title-page to the second edition, to which alone I have access. In the course of the conversation, Inquisitive says (p. 50) :—

“I remember hearing my grandfather talk about something called Dïodas or Dïodles. Can you tell me what it was ?” And Observer replies :

“When someone happened to die in a family, a certain poor man was chosen by the family to have the favour of receiving that happy charity, the dïodles. The manner of giving it to the poor man was this: the family sent to the workman who made the coffin a cup to be coloured the same colour as the coffin. Two colours were customary for coffins at that time: black for the coffins of married, and white for those of unmarried persons. When the day of the funeral came, after putting the corpse on the bier, the head of the house presented the superstitious alms to the poor man— namely, a large loaf of good bread, an ample piece of cheese, with a piece of money stuck in it, and the coloured cup full of beer, if there was any, or else of milk, reaching them over the corpse to the poor man. He in return blessed and prayed fervently and earnestly with the dead man’s soul [gyd dg enaid y marw].”

It might be useful here to compare the translation given above, presumably made by a native Welsh speaker, with the machine translation we obtained of the original Y Cymro text.

Hartland admits to some difficulty in clarifying the content of last sentence, but is not concerned by any possible mis-representation of it:

The last sentence is one of some difficulty. But, whatever the true rendering, it cannot denied that we have in the custom described a practice of giving a cup full of drink for, or on behalf of, the dead. The bread, cheese, and money are of course given for the same purpose; and prayers and blessings of no ordinary kind are expected and given in return.

Hartland then co-opts the practice as akin to the one described by Aubrey and asks what Mr Thomas or Canon Silvan Evans have to say, the that! Harrumph…

If this be not a local variant of the practice delineated by Aubrey — a variant, moreover, affected by the natural ceremonial decay of, say, two more generations — perhaps Canon Silvan Evans or Mr. Thomas will have the goodness to tell us what it is, or how he would propose to discredit the witness.

At this point, it’s not hard to imagine Hartland pacing around his office, gesticulating enthusiastically, and pronouncing to an imaginary jury…

Until then I shall hold, as I think most of the readers of these letters will hold, that it is strong and independent confirmation of the existence of the custom of sin-eating, or, what is the same thing, of sin-drinking in Wales.

There can be no doubt in the verdict… But how did it ever come to this?!

How is it, then, that Canon Silvan Evans has been unable to trace it in Welsh literature? The explanation lies, I believe, in his having looked for a functionary called the Sin-eater, and for a Welsh form of the word “sin-eater,” while students of tradition would look for the custom.

Ah, he was looking for the wrong thing…

He has missed the substance in seeking for the shadow. And yet I think I have shown that even the search for the shadow need not have been in vain.

And he also omitted to look for words that describe, not the tradition, but practices claimed to to be associated with the tradition:

There are, at least, four words in the language expressive of the custom, or of the cup with which it was performed: Cwpan y meirw, the cup of the dead; Diawdlestr or Diodlestr, the cup of drink superstitiously given for the dead; Diodlifft, which Prof. Rhys suggests to me, is, perhaps, partly an English loan-word, meaning the drink lifted over the dead; and, lastly, the Dïodles, the Venedotian word for the custom, meaning possibly the drink-boon.

But then: what can you expect? Great lexicographer he may be, but he only knows his A, B, C…

Canon Evans’s great dictionary has not yet progressed beyond the letter C. I do not know why he has omitted Cwpan y meirw from it: no doubt not without some reason. When he publishes D he will have an opportunity of explaining the other three words, and incidentally of telling us why he passed over the curious Cwpan y meirw.

Or not!

Hartland now brings his case to close, summarises the main points, and addressing the jury once again:

I have now shown, by examination both of the positive and of the negative evidence, that there is abundant ground for believing in the existence of the custom of sin-eating in Wales. I have shown it in the Marches down to the year 1893; I have shown it in Brecknockshire in the seventeenth century; I have shown it in Pembrokeshire down to recent years ; I have shown it in Powisland in the eighteenth century; I have shown that in Gwynedd, or the western part of North Wales, it had not died out of memory in the year 1820, though probably it was no longer practised.

The argument, he claims, cannot be denied, even if you discount Aubrey:

The united force of the testimony I have adduced— concurrent, be it remembered, in its main lines, and not diverging in detail more than we might reasonably expect from the differences of locality and of time—is very great; nor can it be set aside by pooh-poohing Aubrey.

And there is also lots of other evidence, probably, even if no-one has found it:

I might have adduced other English evidence ; and where Canon Silvan Evans has failed to find evidence lying upon the surface of Welsh literature—nay, in his very path as a philologist — it is not impossible that careful inquiry may discover further references to the custom. Even as the matter stands, however, it is amply proved. I have dealt with its meaning in the second volume of my Legend of Perseus, lately published by Mr. David Nutt, and have there traced parallel practices over a large part of Europe, and, indeed, of the world. Here I will only add that I believe it to be an interesting relic of immemorial antiquity, originating probably in the custom, expressly ascribed by Strabo to the Irish, of the eating of dead parents.

He then closes with a sop to Mr Thomas, that the original (cannibalistic) practive may well have derived from the Irish rather than the Welsh:

If so, Mr. Thomas may derive some comfort from the conjecture that after all the custom properly belongs rather to the Goidelic, than to the Cymric branch of the Celtic race. Upon this speculation it is not my business to enter.


A few days later, the South Wales Daily News of November 27th 1895, p4 relayed the latest installment of the debate to a wider Welsh public in an article that also appeared in the Cambrian of December 12thm 1895, p7:

Welsh Gossip

The alleged existence of the sin-eater in Wales has occasioned an interesting discussion in the Academy, to which Mr E. Sidney Hartland has just contributed a series of three articles dealing with the positive and negative evidence on the question. Canon Silvan Evans, the eminent Welsh lexicographer, declares he has failed to trace the sin-eater either in Welsh folklore or in Welsh literature. Mr Sidney Hartland this week, however, quotes interesting extracts from Cymru Fu and Drych yr Amseroedd in support of his view that “there is abundant ground for believing in the existence of the custom of sin-eating in Wales;” and in concluding his article he thus sums up :— “I have shown it in the Marches down to the year 1893 I have shown it in Brecknockshire in the seventeenth century I have shown it in Pembrokeshire down to recent years I have shown it in Powisland in the eighteenth century I have shown that in Gwynedd, or the western part of North Wales, it had not died out of memory in the year 1820, though probably it was no longer practised… Where Canon Silvan Evans has failed to find evidence lying upon the surface of Welsh literature— nay, in his very path as a philologist— it is not impossible that careful inquiry may discover further references to the custom. Even as the matter stands, however, it is amply proved.” Mr Hartland believes the custom to be an interesting relic of immemorial antiquity, originating probably in the custom, expressly ascribed by Strabo to the Irish, of the eating of dead parents; but he adds a grain of comfort in the conjecture that, after all, the custom properly belongs rather to the Goidelic than to the Cymric branch of the Celtic race.

Owen’s First Letter to The Academy, November-December, 1895#

At this point, we might have expected some response from Mr Thomas, although it is possible that he was unaware, at the time, of Mr Hartland’s moving of the location of the debate. But the mantle against Hartland was taken up nonetheless by a new correspondent, a Mr J. P. Owen of London, who was to similarly lay out his arguments across three letters to the Academy.

The first letter appeared in the Academy, Vol 48 Iss 1231, p484, on December 12th, 1895 although it was dated just over two weeks previously, on November 25th, 185, a couple of days after hartland’s third letter appeared.

Owen opens with a summary of what he believes are the claims made by Hartland:



London : Nov. 25, 1895.

Mr. E. Sidney Hartland, in his article in Folk-lore, in his paper read before the British Association, in his two letters in the Times, and his three letters in the ACADEMY, has attempted to prove the existence of what Aubrey said was known in Herefordshire, and what Mr. Moggridge, of Swansea, said was known in the neighbourhood of Llandebie, Carmarthenshire, as “Sin-eating.” He has also attempted to prove that the alleged custom is “Celtic.” He has also attempted to prove that the Welsh funeral custom of the diodles, as described by Robert Jones, Bingley—both of whom give the Welsh name — Wirt Sikes, Evans, Peter Roberts, Pennant, &c., is a mutilated survival of a cannibalistic savage rite formerly practised by “the Celts,” the central feature of which was “eating the corpse.”

He then suggests that Hartland has not substantiated these claims at all, and worse, that he,has suppressed contrary evidence. It is also clear that Messrs. Hartland and Owen know each other:

I venture to submit that he has failed entirely in making out his case. Moreover, he has committed the blunder of withholding evidence that militated against his theory. That evidence he had himself expressly stated to me, weeks before the appearance of his first letter in these pages, to be “far and away the strongest” he had seen. How unfortunate the omission is may be gathered from the fact that the evidence in question affords a plausible explanation of what is otherwise inexplicable: I mean Mr. Moggridge’s reply to the late Mr. E. A. Freeman’s question at Ludlow. Mr. Hartland says (ACADEMY, November 9) that it was “unnecessary to quote” Mr. Moggridge’s paper. Therein I differ from him, and beg leave to quote somewhat regarding the amusing little comedy of errors enacted by the Cambrian Archaeologists at Ludlow :

“Mr. Moggridge (of the Willows, Swansea), after describing the Sin-eater, said that in Carmarthenshire, 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… . [Later on he said] that ‘he believed that people were thoroughly ashamed of the practice; one he was informed, occurred four or five years ago, but he believed it was extinct now.’ Mr. E. A. Freeman inquired whether Sin-eater was the term used in the district where the custom prevailed. Mr. Moggridge replied in the affirmative” (Arch. Camb., 1852, vol. iii., N.S., p. 330).

So what was it about Moggridge’s reply that Owen finds so telling? Owen speculates as to the comprehensiveness of the official record:

There were present at that meeting several Welshmen who are (I believe) still alive. One certainly is the Bishop of St. David’s. I am under the impression that the Bishop knows the Welsh language, and can speak it fluently. It would be very interesting to get his Lordship’s account of what really passed at the meeting. He must have known that it was impossible for a Welsh custom to “prevail” in a Welsh mountain valley in the heart of Welsh Wales without having a Welsh name. Yet it was left to Mr. Freeman to investigate Mr. Moggridge’s staggering statement, and of course the latter’s “reply in the affirmative” was bound to silence the Englishman.

Owen then considers the character of the place where the tradition was claimed to be present:

Now the mountain valley in question — Cwmamman — may have been “lawless” as regards fighting, poaching, and trifles of that sort, up to the commencement of this century. As an outlying district of the huge parish of Llandilo, it had no church until about fifty years ago, but it had plenty of chapels. The Independents had by far the largest congregation; and when I first remember it, in the early sixties, its minister was one of the most famous preachers in South Wales, the Rev. John Davies, an extremely handsome, old-fashioned gentleman of the finest manners, who always wore swallow-tails and knee-breeches. A relative of my own – the Rev. W. I. Morris, of Pontypridd — then a grown-up man, had, I think, lived up to that time in Cwmamman. I used to spend a day or two regularly once a month or so at his father’s house, where I revelled in the Traethodydd, Adolygydd, and other Welsh periodicals, of which they had a plentiful store. As I am writing, it suddenly occurs to me that an article on Cwmamman and its characters appeared in the Beirniad quarterly review some time in the sixties.

The Beirniad reference is perhaps a reference to a Welsh language article entitled “Hen Brydyddion Cwmaman A LLangiwg” (Google translate: “Former Brethren of Cwmamman and Llangiwg”) in Y Beirniad, Autumn 1862, p.204-220.

Mr Owen then proposes his own explanation for the goings on in Llandebie, which appears to be that Moggridge must have been exposed to the term “diodles” and its translation as “sin-eater” but not fully appreciated the context:

And now for my suggestion. I think it is beyond a doubt that Mr. Moggridge had some foundation for his assertion, and that it reached him somehow or other from Llandebie. The vicar of Llandebie, as also of the neighbouring parish of Bettws, from 1804 to 1850, was the Rev. John Williams. The road from Llandebie to Bettws runs right across the opening of Cwmamman. Well, after the old vicar’s death, my father bought at the vicarage sale a quantity of Welsh books and periodicals. Among them was Robert Jones of Rhoslan’s Drych, which was a great favourite of mine when a boy. It must be borne in mind that that is a North Walian work, and that diodles, or diodlys, is a North Walian term. In the Welsh-English Dictionary by “T. Lewis and others,” published at Carmarthen in 1805, there is no mention of diodlys, cwpan y meirw, clul coffa, bwyd cenad meirw, bara rhan, or cacen gwyl y meirw. The term, therefore, most probably heard by Mr. Moggridge was the term applied to the North Walian custom described by Robert Jones; and that it came either directly or indirectly from the vicar of Llandebie is very possible. This may appear to an Englishman a very minute point to attach importance to; but it must be remembered that in Welsh Wales (in Llandebie at any rate) there is not a field, nor a clump of trees, nor a rivulet, nor a custom, that has not its own appropriate name. In a succeeding letter I propose to deal with Aubrey, with Miss Hope’s Pembrokeshire minister, and with each item of the North Walian custom described by Pennant and others.


That the debate triggered by the Times correspondence had reappeared in the pages of the Academy was noted in a brief mention in the Western Mail on December 16th, 1895, p5 noting the publication of Fiona Macleod’s collection of short stories:

Wales Day By Day

The sin-eater controversy did not end when it disappeared from these columns. The “Times”, the “Academy,” and one of the Birmingham papers opened their columns to the discussion, and now a volume has appeared, entitled, “The Sin-Eater, and Other Stories,” by Miss Fiona Macleod. of which a reviewer says “she (the authoress) has caught in no small degree the spirit of the Celt, with its gloom and superstition, its fixity of purpose, it harshness and nobility.”

The same remarks appeared in the “Gathered from Gwalia” column of the Evening Express on the same date, p4.

The “Birmingham paper” is perhaps Bye-Gones, which reprinted some of the Times correspondence?

Owen’s Second Letter to The Academy, December, 1895#

Owen’s second letter, dated the last day of November, 1895, appeared in The Academy Vol 48 Iss 1233, p545-7 on December 21st, 1895, and loses focus somewhat as Owen takes a broader look at Welsh tradition and superstition:




London: Nov. 30, 1895.

The following digression will, I am afraid, lengthen my answer to Mr. Hartland ; but, as it contains matter probably novel to most readers, I venture to trespass on the editor’s kindness.

The other day I looked into Seren Gomer, vol. i, (1818), as I remembered having seen, many years ago, a well-written paper on “Superstitions” in some early number of that periodical. I found the paper easily enough ; on reading it, not only the instances of superstition, but the order in which they were related seemed quite familiar to me. I was rather puzzled at this, but that very evening the mystery was cleared up. The paper had been “conveyed” bodily, with just sufficient change to conceal the source from an inquisitive eye, from No. 59 of the Connoisseur (March 13, 1755). If the reader will look up that paper, he will see that it does not profess to have the slightest relation to Welsh superstitions. How many times, I wonder, has that veracious account been quoted as genuine folk-lore of the Swansea district ?

Unfortunately, it is not clear what article in the Welsh language Seren Gomer Owen is referring to is called or what, exactly, it contains.

Copies of the journal are available from The National Library of Wales.

Furthermore, from the Connoisseur, it’s not even clear what Mr Owen thought was even tangentially relevant in *that article.

Owen then continues his rambling tour of Welsh lore, clarifying which article of the Beirniad he had referred to in his previous letter:

Of quite a different kind is the paper on the “Old Rhymesters [Prydyddion] of Cwmamman and Llanguick” in the Beirniad for October, 1862 (vol. iv., pp. 204-220) online, to which I alluded in my previous note. Cwmamman, it may be remembered, is the “lawless mountain valley” of Mr. Moggridge’s tale. The paper in the Beirniad presents a very vivid picture of the manners and customs of that valley in the eighteenth century, founded apparently on the recollections of aged inhabitants. During the period the writer deals with the Cwmamman folk seem to have been, under a very rough exterior, an intelligent and keen-witted race. The men were clad in coat and waistcoat of homespun, grey cloth breeches buckled at the knee, black (undyed) woollen hose, and shoes with huge buckles, “The young men never parted the hair on their foreheads.” Women and girls wore flannel dresses, cloth hats, and wooden clogs. When boot-polish and umbrellas came into fashion, the old people prayed to be removed to heaven, “since pride and the devil had taken possession of the old Cwm.” They delighted in stories of hunting and tales of corpse-candles, and in making rhymes on one another. (This was long before the revival of the Eisteddfod, some eighty years ago.) Many of the old rhymes are quoted in the paper, and some of them I remember quite well.

Owen then goes on to quote from the article at length, including an amusing insight into the operation of the rhyming court, but it’s not really relevant to the case of the sin-eater:

The court scene closes with a defendant, Pali, being found guilty of an offence.

And who was Pali?

Well, all that my author—of whom I here take leave—says is, that she was Pali Sion Aubrey. She must therefore have been either the daughter or the wife of John Aubrey. Aubrey’s degree of cousinship to the famous author of the Miscellanies might be easily traced, I should think, by the aid of the Aubrey pedigrees in of the County of Brecknock. Not a little of the land lying between Cwmamman and Llangorse (near Brecon) belonged at one time to different descendants of Dr. Aubrey, Master of Requests in Elizabeth’s reign. Jones, in his History, mentions no peculiar custom connected with Llangorse. He quotes Walker’s Sufferings of the Clergy as his authority for the statement that Rowland Gwynn was parson of Llangorse till 1640, when he was ejected, and the “cure lay vacant for three years, saving that one John Edwards, a shoemaker, sometimes preached by the Commissioners’ orders.” The first volume of Jones’s History was published in 1805, and he writes as follows concerning Welsh funeral customs (p. 287):

“The funerals in Wales and the ceremonies preceding and following them very much resemble those of the Irish as described in that admirable little volume entitled Castle Rackrent. The straw on which the deceased lay is set on fire as soon as the breath departs, which is a signal of that event : we have our gwylnôs, or night of watching, and when ale can be procured in the neighbourhood a llawen-nôs, or night of rejoicing, though this latter phrase is more generally appropriated to the night before the wedding.”

The work referred to is Theophilus Jones’ A history of the county of Brecknock in three volumes, 1805 (it was also republished in two volumes, with additional notes, by Sir Joseph Russell Bailey in 1909 (volume I, volume II). The cited page appears ???

The simplest explanation of burning the straw-bed seems to be fear of infection. The home of the famous medical family, Meddygon Myddfai, was not far from that part of Breconshire, and some of their lore was widely spread by tradition. Another quotation from Theophilus Jones may afford Mr. Hartland more satisfaction :

“It is said that formerly the articles of consumption esteemed as the greatest luxuries in the Principality were—

‘A toasted Welsh rabbit And a Sais off the gibbet. (Ibid, p. 281.)”

In a footnote he adds: “Here is an opportunity for a triumph against the Celt, as Mr. Pinkerton may argue that the Welsh were not only savages but cannibals.”

Owen picks up on the lack of descriptions of Welsh funeral customs providing a couple of references, one of which is not available to him (Mary Curtis’ Antiquities of Laugharne, Pendine from 1880), but one which is, and which is also a new addition to our trail:

I pointed out to Mr. Hartland, in reference to the Market Drayton story, that, as it stood, the mysterious and “significant” remark of the Pembrokeshire minister was of no historical or scientific value whatever. As he seemed to agree with me to a certain extent, I was rather surprised to find the minister’s oracular remark assuming in the ACADEMY even more “significance” than it had been originally endowed with in the Times. As a matter of fact, there are extant precise descriptions of Pembrokeshire funeral customs. I may refer to, though I am at present unable to quote from, Miss Mary Curtis’s Antiquities of Pendine. Again, in part iii. of Cymru Fu for July-December, 1888— not the Welsh work that Mr. Hartland quotes from, but a republication of notes that had appeared in the Cardiff Weekly Mail— the following account, dated Tenby, Sunday, October 6, is to be found under the heading, “Travelling in Wales in 1820”:

“Going down the street of Tenby, I observed a number of men in their best clothes, principally black. I at first thought it was for Sunday, but seeing a woman among them with a tray and glasses in one hand and a bottle in the other, I stopt (being then on foot, to ease the horses in ascending a hill at the end of the town) to inquire the meaning of it, when one of the men informed me they were to attend a funeral, and that it was the custom to assemble before the door of the deceased, and to be served with wine and warm ale in the street before the body was brought out. It is a Flemish custom, I suppose.”

Owen then comments on this description of the tradition:

The writer had previously mentioned that “Tenby was of Flemish origin.” In all the South Walian accounts that I have seen, the custom appears to have been of a much less elaborate character than was the case in the north. The reason is not far to seek. Both in the north and in the south, such customs have been usually explained as “remains of popery.” That explanation is no doubt the true one, though I do not use the term “popery” in an invidious sense. The difference between north and south in this matter seems to have been due to the following cause. At the Reformation the Church was robbed of its property to a far greater extent in South Wales than in the north. There were hardly any valuable livings left—for instance, in the diocese of St. David’s. Consequently the parishes were served by “humble men of heart,” many of whom became Methodists. In the north there were enough rich livings remaining to tempt the cupidity of episcopal families and their friends, and the religious life of the parishes was starved wholesale.

“Rich, self-indulgent, and idle is too much still the character of the clergy of North Wales. The livings are generally good—too good, too rich, to allow any great expectations from such as enjoy them. … True religion had forsaken the country. There was nothing like the semblance of it in the Church; nor was there much of it among the few dissenters that were very thinly scattered here and there. … The Bible was almost an unknown book, seldom to be met with, especially in the houses of the poor. In many parishes not even ten could be found capable of reading it, and in several parishes in Anglesea not even two or three.” —Morgan’s Life of Rev. T. Charles, 2nd ed., pp. 236, 249 (1831).

The old Catholic rites, therefore, trailed along the ground, and kept their roots in the soil, with none to attend to them and none to preserve them, by reverent explanation, from degenerating into superstition that was actually indistinguishable from heathenism.

Mr. Owen then signs off in hope of being allowed to submit a third part to his epistle:

In a succeeding letter (if I am permitted to write another) I shall enter, in fuller detail, into the North-Walian funeral customs and their real significance.


Owen’s Third Letter to The Academy, December-January, 1896#

The editor of The Academy indeed seemed happy to accept another instalment, and Mr. Owen’s third letter, dated December 18th, 1895, appeared there on January 4th, 1896, in Vol 49 Iss 1235, p14-15.

He opens with an attack on Hartland’s apparent lack of interest in considering the effect that Christian rituals might have had on Welsh funeral traditions:



London : Dec. 18, 1895.

Nothing has struck me so much in Mr. Hartland’s treatment of this question as his absolute ignoring of Christian rites. He quotes [presumably in Perseus?] an account of a funeral custom in Eastern Europe, but he appears to have no notion that every part of the ceremony described can be accounted for by the practice of the Orthodox Church. An account is given of another burial custom in Bavaria, but there are no traces of an inquiry into the history of Catholic rites in that part of the world. Like Wamba’s pax vobiscum, “Celtic” blood is the key to it all. It is the same in England. Is there a peculiar funeral custom in Derbyshire? Oh, “the population is probably still to a great extent of Celtic ancestry.” When we come to Herefordshire and Shropshire, why, we are there right in the Welsh March, which must be saturated with Celticism.

Owen is clear that many heathen practices could be found in England just as they could in Wales, if not more so:

I do not think that Mr. Hartland can find evidence of Welsh heathenism, to anything like the same extent, in the pre-Norman annals of the British Church.

He then goes off on another tangent:

The Church has always found it a hard task to keep “the most diligent bishop in all England,” as Latimer calls a certain personage, from sowing tares ameng Christian wheat. On this point I beg leave to extract the tenth article of Archbishop Stratford’s Constitutions (A.D. 1343). I take it as translated in Johnson of Cranbrook’s Collections :

“A probable good often becomes an experienced evil, and then an alteration is allowable. It is a devout custom of the faithful to observe night-watches in behalf of the dead before their burial, and to do it sometimes in private houses, to the intent that the faithful there meeting together and watching might devoutly intercede for them with God; but by the arts of Satan this wholesome practice of the ancients is turned into buffoonry and filthy revels; prayers are neglected, and these watchings are become rendezvous for adulteries, fornications, thefts, and other misdoings; as a remedy for so rife a disease, we ordain that when ecclesiastical men have performed the memories (exsequiae) of the dead, none for the futura be admitted to the accustomed night-watches at private houses, where dead corpses often remain till their burial, the relations and such as say psalters for the dead only excepted, under pain of the greater ex-communication….”

Of the eleven “comprovincial bishops” present at the publication of this Constitution in St. Paul’s, only one was from Wales — namely, David, Bishop of Bangor. “There is superstition,” says Bacon, “in avoiding superstition, when men thinke to doe best, if they goe furthest from the superstition formerly received.” Our own Reformation affords some notable examples of this.

“In the time of popery,” says Latimer (Works, i. 547, Parker Society), “before the Gospel came amongst us, we went to burials with weeping and wailing as though there were no God: but since the Gospel came unto us, I have heard say that in some places they go with the corses grinning and flearing, as though they went to a bear-baiting, which thing no doubt is nought.”

From Mr. Edward Peacock’’s notes to his edition of John Myre’s “Instructions to the Clergy* (E.E.T.S.) I take the following :

“Chrismatories and fonts were ordered to be kept securely locked, for fear that weak or evil-disposed persons should steal the holy oils or consecrated wafer for magical purposes.” “It was customary in early times for the receivers to carry home the panis benedictus. It was said that in the fifteenth century some people used to employ it as a charm, and on that account carry it about their persons.” “The holy bread, the holy loaf, or eulogia, was ordinary leavened bread cut into small pieces, blessed, and given to the people after mass was over.”

From a storytelling point of view, we get some interesting colour regarding what various sorts of drinking bowl, as used in the Church, looked like, but it is not hard to imagine Mr Hartland reading the letter and wondering “just what is your point?!”

That copious man, Bishop Bale, in his Image of the Two Churches, gives an interesting list of the material adjuncts of worship to which superstition clung. I have only room here to refer to the “pardon-masers or drinking-dishes.” These are, no doubt, of the same origin as the “grace-cups” of Oxford colleges, and the “loving cup” of Guildhall banquets. “These mazers are shallow bowls of wood,” says Dr. Rock (Church of our Fathers, ii, 340, 341),

“light, thin, and mostly quite black, which sets off the rim and mounting of silver, oftentimes gilt, extremely well. … Of the several mazer-bowls still in existence, though only a few are indulgenced, all show in the inscription running round the edge a something that speaks of religion. In the vestry of York Cathedral there is a fine one unto which Archbishop Scrope and another bishop had each granted an indulgence of xl. days.”

Having picked up on the theme of bowls, Owen is not going to give up on it:

In that most Protestant of all Welsh counties, Cardiganshire, about five miles from Aberystwith, there is the seat of an ancient Welsh family, the Powells of Nanteos. Nanteos is famous through the county for its “healing cup.” In Wales for November his Honor Judge David Lewis has an interesting paper on this cup. From a couple of cuts illustrating the article, it is evident that the Nanteos healing cup is an old maser-bowl. Unfortunately its former history is not given; and I know not whether the superstition attaching to it is a real survival of Roman Catholic times, or a mere modern revival. The vessel may have been secured by some careful picker-up of such “toys” from the wreckage of the neighbouring abbey of Strata Florida. However that may be, within an easy walk of Nanteos is the Mecca of Welsh Methodism, Llangeitho. For the last hundred years or so, at scores of chapels in that part of Cardiganshire, the bread and wine of Holy Communion have been handed round from one seated partaker to another, with an absence of superstitious formalism that would have satisfied Zwingli himself. And yet all the time this time-worn and mutilated old maser-bowl of Nanteos, which has never, of course, been used in the service of the Mass, but which has possibly been “indulgenced” in olden days, is regarded by the ultra-Protestants of Cardiganshire with superstitious reverence, and as still possessed of healing virtues. From some curious memoranda drawn up by an old butler of Nanteos, and quoted by Judge Lewis, I select one (out of about twenty-five, ranging in date from 1857 to 1889) :

“November 24th, 1887. The Nanteos healing cup was lent on the above date to Charles Eiwards for the use of his daughter, Mary Edwards. One pound left. Returned 13th December, 1887. A wonderful cure.” The italics are not mine.

From cures, Owen pivots to wells:

Mr. Elton, in his Origins of English History, is mistaken when he says that Wirt Sikes had given a full description of the ceremonies connected with the notorious cursing-well of St. Elian, near Denbigh. Wirt Sikes says nothing of the cup.

In Goleuad Cymru for May, 1819 (i., pp. 110 et seq.), there is a very full account of the trial of one of the “cunning men” (dynion hyspys) who exploited that well. Part of the sworn evidence is as follows :

“Then he [i.e., John Edwards, the cunning man] emptied the well with a small wooden cup. When doing so, he prayed to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Then the well filled again. He then filled the cup with water, and asked me to drink some of it, and to throw the rest over my head. He said I must do that three times, and so I did.”

To the singing of verses:

It is a well-known North Walian institution to sing improvised verses to the accompaniment of the harp. This is called “Pennillion singing.” Hundreds of these rhymes, many of them bearing the marks of considerable age, have been preserved by tradition. A prize was offered at the Denbigh Eisteddfod (1828) for the best collection of pennillion. Absalom Roberts won the prize. He subsequently published a small volume of poems (Llanrwst, 1832), in which will be found a further collection of some two hundred stanzas. At the end of the little book the author says that he had gathered

“From place to place, at various times,
More than a thousand ancient rhymes.”

Finally, it seems, maybe something relevant?

The following are the only verses pertinent to this discussion :

“On Shrove-Tide eve a wife I married,
Brief was the time with her I tarried,
Ash-Wednesday morn across the bed
I found her lying stiff and dead ;
Then I offered ’neath her head
A piece of cheese, a loaf of bread,
And of ale a mighty bowl—
May that rest upon her soul!”

Offrymais is the Welsh word for “offered” in the fifth line. The English and the Welsh are, of course, of the same Latin origin. Unlike the English word, however, the Welsh one is confined strictly to the religious meaning. Cognates are : offeren (the service of the Mass), and offeiriad (priest), the commonest term for “clergyman” in Welsh, but never applied to Dissenting ministers.

Handing the dole to the poor bedesman across the corpse may perhaps have no meaning beyond that of mere convenience. More probably, however, a deeper meaning was read into the action. Making the sign of the cross lingered on in North Wales till, certainly, the time of John Aubrey. Thus Richard Davies, the Welsh Quaker, says in his autobiography :

“About this time [1658] I went to visit some young men … two or three of them were convinced … When we came to the number of four… we determined to meet upon a hill in a common as near as we could, for the convenience of each other. … There we met in silence, to the wonder of the country. … We were not free to go into any neighbour’s enclosures, for they were so blind, dark, and ignorant that they looked upon us as witches, and would go away from us, some crossing themselves with their hands about their foreheads and faces.”

At this point, Owen resurfaces and ponders why there is a dearth of Welsh literature that might be expected to describe Welsh traditions:

It is only within the last hundred years or so that, broadly speaking, there has been any demand for non-devotional Welsh literature, for it is only within that period that Welshmen who could not read English have been able to read at all. It is rather difficult, therefore, to find any eighteenth century Welsh accounts of Welsh customs. Even during the first half of this century, such reading was looked upon by rigid Methodists as profane, and on the same level as whistling on Sundays or singing maswedd (a term applied to all non-spiritual songs, such as the “Men of Harlech” and “Dafydd y Garreg Wen.”) And so, almost down to our own day, vernacular accounts of native customs are not common, and when met with they generally turn out to be simply translations from English. The only Welsh account, for instance, of Welsh funerals which Mr. Hartland did not find in my letter to Prof. Rhys—I mean his extract from Cymru Fu— has been translated from the Rev. John Evans’s Tour in North Wales (1804).

I have picked out the following questions from Goleuad Cymru for June, 1819, and May, 1821. The answers are mainly “Scripture proofs,” and therefore of no folk-lore interest.

“What is the meaning of putting lighted candles in brass candlesticks on the coffin ?”

“Why do people lean on the coffin to pray?”

“Is that a sign of an old custom of praying for the dead?” “The second Sunday after a burial the relations of the deceased keep a ‘memorial knell’ (clul coffa) that Sunday, and feast throughout the day.”

“Is it an unseemly and sinful thing for people to drink ale and smoke tobacco at funerals; and whence has that custom sprung?”

Mr. Hartland, strangely enough, left off his quotation from Robert Jones, of Rhoslan, at the very point where the “ritual words” come in. The original proceeds as follows :—

“The whole family on the first Sunday after the burial used to go on their knees on the grave, each saying his Paternoster (ei Bader). And they would never mention any deceased member or relative of the family without saying most devoutly ‘Heaven be his portion’ (Nefoedd iddo !).” And thus we see that the “ritual words” of these “sin-eating” customs can be “shorn off” as ruthlessly by our folk-lorist as by old Father Time himself.

The reference to Robert Jones relates to the Welsh language “Drych yr Amseroedd”.

Owen then turns to a couple of other, more familiar sources:

I should like to quote the Rev. W. Bingley’s two accounts of the North Wales custom in question— the traditional one as supplied to him most probably by his friend, the Rev. Peter Williams, Vicar of Llanberis; and the actual one as observed and most graphically described by himself. I dare not, however, lay such a burden on the Editor’s patience, but must content myself, on my way to Aubrey, with the following :

“When we came to the church we found the place nearly full of people waiting our arrival. The service was read in Welsh in a most impressive manner, and the coffin was let down into the grave by four of the female mourners. A more solemn office I had never witnessed, and the circumstance of the body being committed to the bosom of the earth by the hands of relatives or friends was altogether new to me. A few rushes were strewed upon the coffin, and I shall never forget the stifled shriek that was uttered when, in Welsh, the solemn words, ‘We commit her body to the ground,’ &c., were read. … The ceremony being over, the grave was filled up, and planted with slips of box and some other evergreens. The offerings in the church amounted to near two pounds, of which more than thirty shillings were in silver.”

Owen then starts to critique Aubrey’s contributions, and Hartland’s reading of them:

Mr. Hartland has not pointed out in plain terms, as I submit he ought to have done, that only on a single occasion did Aubrey witness personally the funeral ceremonies he describes. That was at Beaumaris, in North Wales. On that occasion the ceremony reminded Aubrey, not of his “own invention” the Sin-eater, but of church funeral offertories or “mortuaries.” This custom of mortuaries, once universal in the Church, was kept up in many parts of North Wales until almost the other day. Indeed, no small portion of the North Walian clergy’s income used to be derived from that source. But that the custom was a thoroughly English one can be proved at once from the name—“Soulscot,” which it bore in the Anglo-Saxon Church. The proper place for its payment, according to the laws of that Church, was “at the open grave.”

“Simple astonishment” will best describe my feelings when the custom in North Wales is described as that of “Sin-eating, shorn of the ritual words,” and when that custom is asserted to have “certainly existed uncurtailed in the seventeenth century at Llangors.” Surely Mr. Hartland does not translate Aubrey’s ipso facto by “in so many words”? I think I am entitled to assume that he has placed before us all the particulars in his possession relative to the “uncurtailed” custom and its “ritual” words. Has he, perchance, perused the will of the woman of Dynder, according to the direction of which, “nolens volens” the parson of the parish,” her relations had the ceremony in question “punctually performed”? Uncorroborated and unconfirmed, the vague and ambiguous testimony of Aubrey is absolutely worthless. I can find no such term as “Sin-eater” in Sir George Cornewall Lewis’s list of Herefordshire words. As Mr. Hartland apparently quotes straight from Mr. Britten’s edition of the Remaines, it is no large assumption to suppose that he has read that volume with some care. What are we to say, then, of the candour of his touching expression of confidence in the credibility of John Aubrey, when the following extract of a letter from Ray, the naturalist, to Aubrey himself is to be found in the editor’s preface to that very volume?

It is one thing for Aubrey to have been a credible old fool when it came to belief in the supernatural, but surely Mr Hartland does not also succumb to misunderstanding or false belief so easily?

“I think (if you can give me leave to be free with you) that you are a little too inclinable to credit strange relations. I have found men that are not skilful in the history of nature very credulous and apt to impose upon themselves and others, and therefore dare not give a firm assent to anything they report upon their own authority, but am ever suspicious that they may either be deceived themselves, or delight to teratalogize (pardon the word), - and to make a show of knowing strange things.”

Such is the character of our sole authority for “Sin-eating,” so called. It is drawn not behind Aubrey’s back by a carping Anthony Wood, but to his own face by a friendly hand.


With Mr Owen having finished making his case, how was Mr Hartland to respond?

Hartland Responds to Owens, January, 1896#

Writing on January 6th, Hartland opened his response in Vol 49 Iss 1236, p37 of the Academy, dated January 11th, 1896, with perhaps a weary tone as he seeks to correct several matters of fact regarding his own position:


Highgarth, Gloucester : Jan. 6, 1896.

I will not venture to emulate Mr. Owen by asserting that he has committed blunders; but I would point out: (1) That I read no paper before the British Association— as my letter in the ACADEMY of November 9 shows, I simply spoke in the course of a discussion on cannibalism ; (2) that I have not attempted to prove that the custom of Sin-eating is Celtic, but that there was a custom of the kind in Wales; and (3) that I have not attempted to prove, either in what I said at the British Association or in my letters to the Times and the ACADEMY, that the Welsh funeral custom of the Diodles “is a mutilated survival of a cannibalistic savage rite formerly practised by the Celts, the central feature of which was eating the corpse.” My paper in Folklore, published more than three and a half years ago, indeed gave an outline of an argument to this effect, which I have since much amplified and strengthened in the book referred to in the last of my three previous letters to the ACADEMY. My letters to the Times and the ACADEMY were merely directed to answering the arguments of Mr. N. W. Thomas and Canon Silvan Evans, to the effect that Sin-eating had never been practised in Wales; and I submit that Mr. Owen has not seriously attempted to controvert my position.

At this point, it is perhaps worth remarking that despite several references to Mr N. W. Thomas, no correspondence appears from him at this point in the correspondence chain in The Academy.

Hartland then mentions the unpublished correspondence with Mr Owen in which he assums he must have privately addressed one the charges that Owen publicly made against him:

I have forgotten what I admitted in a private letter to Mr. Owen three months ago; but the context of his letter in the ACADEMY of December 7 appears to show that it had reference to the absence of the word “Sin-eater” in Welsh. Now, as this was one of the very arguments of Canon Silvan Evans which I was endeavouring to meet, it is manifest that I did not commit the blunder Mr. Owen alleges of withholding that evidence.

Hartland than comments on the rambling nature of Owen’s letters, and whilst not wanting to follow him down the garden path, seems to feel obliged to put Owen right:

He is to be congratulated on his capacity for talking round a subject. I shall not follow him in his interesting but discursive remarks, but shall content myself with observations on one or two points. He complains that I have absolutely ignored Christian rites. Quite so ; I was not dealing with the origin, but merely with the fact.

He is also happy to have a sensible dicussion with Owen, but Owen needs to make substantive and supported comments if he expects a response:

When, however, he has mastered in its fuller shape my argument, as to the origin and meaning of the ceremony of Sin-eating, and is prepared to produce in detail the evidence that the Welsh and other customs are part of any Christian ritual, I shall be happy to discuss the question with him at the proper time and place. Meanwhile, I should like to draw his attention to the fact that the customs described by Robert Jones, by Aubrey, and by Pennant, are not apparently connected with any ecclesiastical ritual or Christian doctrine. It is true that they are described in Welsh books written under the influence of the Methodist Revival as relics of Popery. But Robert Jones and his compeers were not scientific students of custom. They simply lumped together as Popish all old customs which they thought to savour of heathenism. Is Mr. Owen a belated follower of that school of thought?

Hartland then turns to the question of Diodles as described in Jones’ Drych:

It may be conceded that some of the customs described in the Drych and else-where were relics of Roman Catholicism. Such is the practice mentioned by Robert Jones, which Mr. Owen censures me for omitting: namely, that of going to the grave on the first Sunday after the funeral, and saying the Paternoster. The reason why I broke off my quotation from the Drych was that the subject of the Diodles ended where I ended the quotation; and if Mr. Owen will look at the book again he will see that the custom of saying the Paternoster, which he quotes, was practised on a different day (the Sunday after the funeral), at a different place (the grave), and, in short, has nothing to do with the Diodles. So much for his charge of shearing off the ritual words.

In picking up questions regarding the reliability of Aubrey, Hartland suggests that Aubrey’s credibility on some matters is perhaps recognised, but it is not clear from certain correspondence on what specific matters that correspondence relates to:

The condition of Cwmamman, described in Mr. Owen’s second letter, is just the condition in which I should expect to find such an institution as Sin-eating. I need not pursue his surmises as to how Mr. Moggridge obtained his information, nor any of his other controversial conjectures. I can tranquilly wait until he has something better to offer. The same remark applies to his various ebullitions of argumentative astonishment. His one point of any importance is that Aubrey’s friend, Ray, the naturalist, told him, in a letter which Mr. Owen quotes, that he was “a little too inclinable to credit strange relations.” I am not aware whether we have Aubrey’s letter to which this is a reply. From the context, however, we may gather that Ray was reproving Aubrey for attaching credit, not to reports of strange customs, but to prodigies of a different kind. Anybody who reads Aubrey’s Miscellanies will see that the author was (like most of the men of his day) credulous of prodigies, apparitions, and portents; and it is to such as these that Ray, who was a student of nature, referred. But I have yet to learn that that is any reason for discrediting Aubrey when he relates things of a totally different character, wherein the miraculous is no element. In connexion with this, I am glad to find that Mr. Owen agrees with me in thinking that Aubrey actually witnessed the ceremony at Beaumaris; so that there, at all events, his credulity is beside the question.

Hartland closes by mentioning that his own researches regarding first-hand testimony continue and that the record needs correcting:

Before I close, it is right that I should say, with regard to the funeral at Market Drayton (or, rather, at Wollerton, near that town), that, by the kindness of Miss Hope, I have been in communication with her informant, who was present on the occasion, and with the minister. There has been some misapprehension about the incident, and it now seems certain that the wine and biscuits were not handed across the coffin, but only given to the bearers and others in the presence of the coffin; and that this is the custom in that part of Shropshire. The minister’s words also would appear only to have had reference to the general custom of eating and drinking at funerals. But even if the Market Drayton incident and the observation of the minister be erased entirely, the evidence is still abundant for the existence of the practice of Sin-eating and kindred observances in Wales and the Marches during the last two hundred and fifty years.


Owen Replies Post-haste#

With the publication of Hartland’s response, immediately put pen to paper when he received the Academy on January 11th, 1896, his letter appearing on January 18th, 1896 in Vol 49 Iss 1237, p56-7.

He opens by suggesting that his approach is one of open-mindedness and that wider reading might prove instructive:



London: Jan. 11, 1896.

Mr. Sidney Hartland’s doubt as to what “school of thought” I follow may, at any rate, be taken as an indication that I have not thrust my own prejudices and prepossessions into this controversy. That I have “talked round” the subject is a charge that I willingly acknowledge to be true. After reading the previous discussions of the question (including Mr. Elton’s remarks in his Origins of English History)— discussions which seemed to me to bring the matter to no satisfactory conclusion, I thought that a few sidelights might probably be an improvement.

He also believes he has managed to move the discussion forward somewhat, not least by getting Hartland to concede several points:

I am quite satisfied with the results obtained so far. I trust that I shall not appear immodest if I avow my belief that the controversy is no longer where it was when Mr. Hartland’s letter appeared in the Times some few months ago. That gentleman has now denied and conceded quite as much as could fairly be expected of an author who was entirely absorbed in “strengthening” a very untenable theory.

That said, he seems to think that Hartland is, at times, being rather petty:

But really he is somewhat exacting. After I had presented him with cwpan y meirw, diodlys, Robert Jones, Owen Pughe, and Sion Holi the beggarman, he is still waiting “until I have something better to offer.”


Well, I will not treat him as the workhouse authorities treated Oliver Twist, but will meekly comply with his request.

In one of the volumes of Miscellanies edited by Canon Raines for the Chetham Society is to be found an account of “The State, Civil and Ecclesiastical, of the County of Lancaster, about the year 1590,” part of which is as follows :

“XV. Manifolde popishe Superstitions used in the Buriall of the dead.

“1. Som use the popishe Rites of Buriall towardse the dead Corps at home, as it wer burying it, befor it com to the Churche.

“2. After that they sett forthe the Corse in theire houses all garnished with Crosses, and sett rownde abowte with Tapers and Candelics burninge night and day till it be carried to the Churche. All whiche time ye neighbors use to visit the Corse, and there everie one to saye (a Pater noster, or De profundis) for the Sole; the Belles (all the while) beinge ronge many a solemn Peale. After which, they are made partakers of the ded manse dowle or Banquet of Charitie.

“3. Thus all thinges beinge accomplished in right Popishe order at home, at length they carie the Corse towardse the Churche all garnished with Crosses, which they sett downe by the way at everie Crosse, and there all of them devowtly on theire knees make prayers for the dead.

“., And when in this superstitious sorte they have brought the Corse to the Churche, som with hast prevent the minister, and burie the Corse them selves, becawse they will not be partakers of the service saide at the Buriall ; som, overtreate the minister to omitt the Service, and som times obtagne theire purporse ; and when the minister is redie to accomplishe the order of Service appointed for the Buriall, mavy of these that com with the Corpes will departe ; ffor, Recusantes refuse not to bring it to ye Churche, thoughe they will not partake of the Service of the Churche.

“5. Then, concerninge those that remain with the Corse till it be buried, when they have sett downe the Corse in the Church, they bende themselves to theire privat prayer with Crossinge and knockinge themselves, All knelinge rownde the Corre neglectinge the publique Service then in hand. And, when the Corse is redie to be putt into the grave ; som, by kissinge the ded Corpes ; other, by wailinge the dead with more than Heathenishe owtcries ; other, with open invocations for the dead; and another sorte with Janglinge the Belles, so disturb the whole action, that the minister is ofte compelled to lett passe that parte of Service appointed for the Buriall of the dead, and to withdrawe him selfe from their tumultuowse Assembly.

“6. After which Buriall, at theire Banquet in the Alehouse they often times have a ‘Pater noster’ for the dead.

“7. All the day and night they use to have excessive ringinge for ye dead, as also at the twelve monethes day after, which they call a minninge day. All which time of Ringinge, theire use is to have theire privat devotions at home for the soule of the dead. …”

What more evidence could you need, what more indeed?

Quid plura? It would be insulting the intelligence and abusing the patience of the readers of the ACADEMY to lay before them any more evidence of that kind.

Dogmatism as to the diodles having “nothing to do” with the clul coffa is surely somewhat premature. Has Mr. Hartland read what Bingley, our earliest authority for the term so far, says about it ?

Owen now reuses a trick he has used before, suggesting Hartland of quoting things out of context, or, at least, of cutting them short:

I have not yet dealt with “M. Jorevin, apparently a Frenchman travelling in England.” The writer in question was a M. Jorevin de Rocheford, whose travels were published at Paris in 1672 in three duodecimo volumes. The book does not seem to be at the British Museum ; but the part dealing with the British Isles was translated and given in full in Astle’s Antiquarian Repertory, iv., pp. 549-631 (1809). From that translation Owen and Blakeway in their History of Shrewsbury extracted the portion having reference to that town. Mr. Hartland has quoted as a complete sentence what is a mere fragment of one, and has “shorn off” the really “significant” portion. Here follows the complete sentence as printed in the Antiquarian Repertory. I have italicised the part omitted by Mr. Hartland :

“It is to be remarked that during this oration there stood upon the coffin a large pot of wine, out of which every one drank to the health of the deceased, *hoping that he might surmount the difficulties he had to encounter in his road to Paradise, where by the mercy of God he was about to enter ; on which mercy they founded all their hope, without considering their evil life, their wicked religion, and that God is just.”

Owen suggests that if Hartland were not so hasty in lifting partial quotes, he would have a better understanding of what the original authors were actually saying:

M. de Rocheford’s meaning is now plain. He scornfully ridicules the employment by heretics of a rite which had no significance except for those who believed in purgatory and the efficacy of prayers for the dead. Really the portentous gravity with which poor Bagford is dragged in here, and the solemn reference to “an upper stratum of society” are very diverting. I hope that kind of thing is not the prevalent mode among “scientific students of custom.”

He closes with another dig at Hartland’s reliability when it comes to quoting original sources, not just in correspondence, but also in his formally published works:

One word in conclusion in reference to Strabo and Irish cannibalism. Mr. Hartland says (ACADEMY, November 23) that Strabo expressly ascribes to the Irish the custom of eating their dead parents. That statement is wrong, but it is not likely to mislead the readers of the ACADEMY. It is made in a far more misleading manner in the Legend of Perseus (ii., p. 281). There it is said that Strabo “admits fairly enough that his authority for the statement is not decisive.” What Strabo expressly says is, that his authority for certain specified customs, including the one mentioned above, is not trustworthy. He implies that, as regards cannibalism, he is inclined to believe the tale. But on what grounds? Because, for one thing, it is said to be a Scythian custom also, and because many other nations are said to have practised it amid the rigours of a siege. If Mr. Hartland had consulted the original Greek he could not possibly have so mistaken his author’s meaning, for the paragraph is very plain and easy. I am therefore driven to suspect that he has depended on a translation; but an unscholarly translator from Greek is very apt to neglect the force of particles, and (above all) of participial clauses. In fact,

“A participle by the story’s brim A simple participle is to him, And it is nothing more ! “


The Spat Continues: Hartland Responds, January, 1896#

On reading Owen’s retort, Hartland wastes no time in responding in like manner, flame war-like, Victorian style, although who is trolling whom?!

Writing on January 18th, 1896, Hartland’s comeback appears in the January 25th edition of the Academy, Vol 49 Iss 1238, p78-9 with an opening salvo that suggests Owen just keeps moving the goalposts:


Highgarth, Gloucester: Jan. 18, 1896.

One difficulty in arguing with Mr. J. P. Owen arises from the fact that he declines to stick to the point at issue: nay, after being expressly told, he still seems to be unaware what the point is. Let me tell him once more. The question is, whether sin-eating was in effect a Welsh funeral practice. I have shown that the evidence does not rest only on Aubrey’s authority, but that customs apparently identical are described by other writers in English and Welsh. And I repeat that Mr. Owen has not seriously attempted to controvert my position. Instead, he wanders away to wedding customs, to the Brig o’ Dread, to St. Elian’s Well, to pennillion-singing, and to fifty other irrelevant matters. He is so full of throwing “a few sidelights” that he forgets to focus them on the object, and leaves us to grope our way as best we can to his meaning. And then he takes credit that he has “not thrust his own a prejudices and prepossessions into this controversy.”

What he appears to mean is that the practices (which he admits took place) were “relics of Popery” — in other words, that they were Christian, and not heathen practices. What then? Does he attempt to distinguish them from the practice, with which we set out, described by Aubrey? Not at all. He contents himself with surmises as to how Mr. Moggridge came by his information, complaints that I have ignored Christian rites, and “simple astonishment”—poor fellow !— at finding the custom in North Wales “described as that of sin-eating shorn of the ritual words.” When I try to recall him to the question, he gives a long and interesting quotation from “The State, Civil and Ecclesiastical, of the County of Lancaster, about the year 1590,” and says: “It would be insulting the intelligence and abusing to the readers of the ACADEMY to lay before them any more evidence of that kind.” I agree all the more heartily because he gives us no hint how the evidence applies to Wales.

Regarding the charge of cutting quotations short:

In answer to Mr. Owen’s complaint that I had broken off a quotation from Robert Jones at a certain point, I adduced in my last letter reasons to show that the subject of the Diodles ended where I ended my quotation. All he replies is: “Dogmatism as to the Diodles having nothing to do with the clul coffa is surely premature.” Surely it is— but then neither Robert Jones nor I had referred to the clul coffa, or memorial knell, which is dragged in by Mr. Owen himself from the Golewad Cymru, for what purpose he has yet to show.

Mr. Owen accuses me of omitting a portion of M. Jorevin’s account of a funeral at Shrewsbury. I quoted all that was given by Brand and Ellis; for, unfortunately, I had no more access to the original than Mr. Owen himself. But what difference to the argument the rest of the sentence, as he now gives it, would make, he carefully avoids informing us. He seems to think the blessed word “portentous” settles everything— as well it may where “simple astonishment” is reckoned a valid argument.

Hartland closes with a deflection that whether or not he misrepresented Strabo, it was an irrelevant aside anyway to the matter at hand - the question of the sin-eater in Wales:

Lastly, in wandering round the subject, he comes upon my reference to Strabo, and complains that in The Legend of Perseus I have misinterpreted the geographer’s expressions. This is an excellent sample of Mr. Owen’s “red herring” style of controversy. It may be a very heinous crime to misinterpret Strabo, and I may or may not have been guilty of it. I could easily defend myself if it were necessary to do so here. But my reference to Strabo in the columns of the ACADEMY was a purely incidental one; and I am not going to gratify my friend by running away from the historical question of of sin-eating, and practices identical therewith, in Wales and the Marches to a discussion of cannibalism at large, or even of Irish cannibalism. To discuss these subjects with such a disputant as Mr. Owen would be very entertaining; but it would occupy the rest of my natural life.


At this point, there is a break in the correspondence in the Academy.