Second Controversy, Feb-April, 1896, Part III#

As 1895 rolled into 1896, Peter Ditchfield published a work on Old English customs extant at the present time; an account of local observances. At p202, he described various burial customs, such as some of those that could be found in the county of Yorkshire:

Burial Customs

In Yorkshire it is customary after a death to send to the friends of the family a bag of biscuits, together with a card bearing the name of the deceased. Sometimes these “funeral biscuits” are small round sponge-cakes, and were formerly known as arvel bread- arvel or arval being the ale or feast of the heir when he succeeds to his father’s property. [Cf. ” Forty Years in a Moorland Parish,” Canon Atkinson, p. 228. 2O2 ] This is a relic of the old pagan funeral feasts, and is not unknown in other parts of England. It is probably connected with the curious custom of the Sin-eater, formerly observed in Wales. A poor person was hired (one of them is described as “a long, lean, ugly, lamentable rascal”) to perform the duties of Sin-eater. Bread and beer were passed to the man over the corpse, or laid on it ; these he consumed, and by this process was supposed to take on him all the sins of the deceased, and free the defunct person from walking after death. The eaters of funeral biscuits in modern times little reflect upon the extraordinary superstition of which these dainties are a relic.

He also described the Market Drayton tradition described by Gertrude Hope in her letter to Folklore in 1892 and corrected by Hartland in his first reply in the Academy.

At a funeral near Market Drayton in 1893, the body was brought downstairs, a short service was performed, and then glasses of wine and funeral biscuits were handed to each bearer across the coffin. The clergy-man, who had lately come from Pembrokeshire, remarked that he was sorry to see that pagan custom still observed, and that he had put an end to it in his former cure. Mr. E. Sydney Hartland has recently maintained in The Times that the custom of the Sin-eater still exists in Wales, and mentions the current belief in Derbyshire that every drop of wine drunk at a funeral is a sin committed by the deceased. Hence wine is drunk at the funerals in order to release the soul of the dead from the burden of sin. At Padiham, wine and funeral biscuits are always given before the funeral, and the clergyman is always expected to go to the house, and hold a service before the funeral party goes to church. Arval bread is eaten at funerals at Accrington, and there the guests are expected to put one shilling on the plate used for handing round the funeral biscuits.

At the end of January, in the Merthyr Times and Dowlais Times and Aberdare Echo, a paragraph in the By The Way column, p5 noted:


The controversy about the Sin-eater in Wales is still going on merrily in the columns of the Academy. In the last number Mr. Hartland, metaphorically speaking, pulls Mr. J. P. Owen to pieces.

The Correspondence Moves to Notes & Queries#

The correspondents in the Academy now appeared to take a break, perhaps as a result of Owen licking his wounds following Hartland’s response in the second half of January, 1896. However, what at first looks like a new front of attack then opened up in Notes & Queries. A question had been raised back in the October 10th, 1895 issue by a certain Mr Jonas, presumably in response to reports of the British Association meeting, but there had been no response at the time, other than an answer referring interested readers to earlier mentions in Notes & Queries. At least, that is, until February, 1896.

Owen’s Early Letter to Notes & Queries#

For the Vol 9 Iss 215 ; 8th. S. ix, p109-111 of Notes & Queries, published on February 8th, 1896, someone must have been tidying up the in-tray, as several responses that had apparently been languishing there for some time duly appeared in print.

The most comprehensive of them was penned by a familiar name, Mr. J. P. Owen. A postscript to the answer notes that the letter had been “sent for publication to ‘N. & Q.’ before the appearance of Mr. Sidney Hartland’s first letter in the Academy (Nov., 1895), and that that gentleman had it before him, in the form of a letter from me to Prof. Rhys, in October, 1895.”. Hartland had also referred to it in his second letter to the Academy.


(8th S. viii. 288, 332.)

There appeared in the Times of 18 Sept., 1895, a very interesting letter from Mr. N. W. Thomas, of Oswestry, on the above subject. Armed with that letter, I spent half a day at the British Museum, and looked through everything that Mr. Thomas refers to as bearing on the matter. I was already familiar with Joseph Downes’s tale in the ‘Mountain Decameron,’ but as I am no folklorist, that was about the extent of my own knowledge. It seems that the “authorities” for the alleged custom are (1) Aubrey ; (2) Mr. Matthew Moggridge, of Swansea ; and (3) Pennant.

The important statement as affecting South Wales is Mr. Moggridge’s, made at the sixth meeting of the Cambrian Archeological Society at Ludlow on 28 August, 1852.

An extract is then provided:

After describing the custom Mr. Moggridge said that—

“in Carmarthenshire, not far from Llandebie, there was a mountain valley, where, up to the commencement of the present century, the people were of a very lawless character. There the practice was said to have pre-vailed to a recent period…… He believed that people were thoroughly ashamed of the practice; one case, he was informed, occurred a few yeara 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 “answered in the affirmative.”

The correspondent notes, as did Owen, that this was accepted apparently without further comment.

That statement seems to have passed unchallenged, although there were Welshmen actually present—the late Mr. Wynne, of Peniarth, for instance, and the present Bishop of St. David’s.

It is greatly to Freeman’s credit that his scent for “facts” was keener than the Welshmen’s, even on their own ground. “Sin-eater” has never been adopted into the Welsh language, nor is there an equivalent term known in that language. And yet Mr. Moggridge must have had some ground for his assertion. On the supposition that he was acquainted with the Rev. John Williams, who was vicar of Llandebie and Bettws from 1804 to 1850, I think I can give a possible explanation.

The correspondent then refers to the Drych and quotes the section we might recall from its appeaarance in Y Cymro:

When, after Williams’s death in 1850, there was a sale of his effects at the vicarage, my father bought a large quantity of Welsh periodicals and books. Among these was Drych yr Amseroedd (Mirror of the Times), by the Rev. Robert Jones, of Rhoslan, Carnarvonshire. That little work was a great favourite of mine when I was a boy. Let me translate a short passage :—

Inquirer: I remember my grandfather mentioning something called Diodlas or Diodles. Can you tell me what that was?

Observer: When some one happened to die in a household, some poor person chosen by the family would be the recipient of that precious (lit. happy) dole the Diodles. The manner of bestowing it was as follows: the family would send a cup to the coffin-maker, to be painted of the same colour as the coffin (two colours were used in those times—black for married folk, white for the single); and when the day of the funeral arrived, after the body had been placed on the bier, the head of the family gave the alms to the poor person selected, that is to say, a big loaf of good bread, and a large chunk of cheese with a piece of silver stuck in it, and the painted cup full of ale (if ale there happened to be), otherwisr of milk, presenting them across the corpse to the poor person. The latter would utter devout and fervent blessings and prayers for (lit. along with) the soul of the dead. It was customary for the entire household, on the first Sunday after the funeral, to go and kneel on the grave, each saying the Lord’s Prayer (Pader). And they would never mention any deceased member or relation of the family without saying very devoutly ‘Heaven be his portion’ (Nefoedd iddo!),”— p43.

The resemblance to Pennant, but with the addition of the Welsh term, is noted:

This custom will be familiar to the reader already, no doubt, from Pennant’s ‘Tour’ (ii. p. 338, London, 1784) ; but the Welsh name, and several graphic touches besides, are not to be found in Pennant’s description, which, by the way, is evidently derived from the same source as the account in the British Magazine for 1835 (vol. vii. p. 399), said there to be taken “from a MS. book of a bishop of St. Asaph, written about a century ago.”

We note also the manuscript republished in Archaeologia Cambrensis.

The correspondent then delves further into the etymology of possibly related terms:

I venture to suggest that it is this by no means repulsive old North Walian custom that has given rise to the myth of the sin-eater. The only Welsh terms for the alleged custom that Mr. Moggridge could possibly have heard are diodles and cwpan y meirw —both of them unknown in South Wales.

Owen Pughe’s ‘Welsh Dictionary’ (Gee, 1832) has, under Diawdlesir :—

“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 meire (i.e., the cup of the dead).

Diawdlyst=the give-ale.”

Canon Silvan Evans’s great ‘Welsh Dictionary,’ now in course of publication, has not yet, I believe, reached D. It does not mention cwpan y meirw.

I was very well acquainted, when a boy, with a small farmer from what I must call the “incriminated district,” who used to be in great request as a post mortem barber. He would most certainly have informed me of such a practice had it ever existed within his personal or traditional knowledge.

I may add that the opening of the “lawless” valley mentioned lies between the two parishes of Liandebie and Bettws, and that Swansea is only some ten or twelve miles off. It is not only possible, but highly probable that the aged vicar of those two parishes had often dwelt on the “Popish” superstition described so graphically in Jones of Rhoslan’s little book.

At any rate, that is the only explanation I can suggest of the Cambrian Archaeologists’ amusing “comedy of errors.” Mr, Sidney Hartland must search somewhere else than in Lilandebie and Cwmamman for evidence in support of his “cannibal” theory. J. P. Owen.

48, Comeragh Road, West Kensington.

P.S.—Perhaps I may be allowed to add that the above was sent for publication to ‘N. & Q.’ before the appearance of Mr. Sidney Hartland’s first letter in the Academy (Nov., 1895), and that that gentleman had it before him, in the form of a letter from me to Prof. Rhys, in October, 1895.

Other Responses to the Query of October, 1895#

Several other answers also appeared in the same issue of Notes & Queries (Vol 9 Iss 215 ; 8th. S. ix). The first makes a general comment regarding the supposed transferrance of various personal charactersistics from the deceased following their death:

The two customs mentioned under the above heading are, in reality, quite reconcilable. According to a widely disseminated folk-belief, when a man dies his essential principles, moral or otherwise, may be taken over by some one else, the matter being managed in various ways in different parts of the world. Thus, among certain savage peoples a successful warrior banquets on the body of the enemy he has killed, in order to absorb his bravery and his other enviable characteristics. It is said that in ancient Mexico the captor was under obligation to offer up his captive at one of the solemn sacrificial feasts— an important reason for the custom being, probably, that the prisoner’s virtues as a man should be transmitted to the conqueror, though, from another point of view, no doubt the unfortunate sufferer was an earthly representative of the god to whom he was sacrificed.

In most cases where transference of moral or vital powers is supposed to take place, the recipient is thought to benefit ; but this is not a necessary part of the belief. He may occupy the place of a scapegoat, as does the Welsh sin-eater, and take upon himself all responsibility for the misdeeds of the deceased, although he more usually appropriates the good qualities of the dead. The idea of freeing the defunct from his imperfections can scarcely be so ancient as the more selfish notion of seizing his virtues. It would seem to be an outgrowth from the more egotistical belief, aided to some degree in development by the influence of religious or quasi-religious environment.

M. P.

The remaining answers refer readers to a variety of other sources, such as Dyer and Frazer:

The ceremony of sin-eating as it was formerly practised in Scotland is described at p. 60 of Mr. Phiselton Dyer’s ‘Domestic Folk-lore.’ If my memory serves me, there is a good deal of information on this subject in ‘The Golden Bough,’ by Mr. Frazer.

C. C. B.

Elton and Aubrey…

Mr. Elton, in ‘Origins of English History,’ 1882, pp. 181, 182, has some interesting observations on sin-eating. He says, “The superstition certainly prevailed in Herefordshire, though it may be doubful whether it extended to the neighbouring parts of Wales.” He quotes Aubrey’s ‘Remains of Gentilisme’ (as every one writing on the subject does), and refers also to Sikes’s ‘British Goblins,’ 325, and Hone’s ‘Year Book,’ 858. A quotation from Mr. Wirt Sikes shows that the custom prevails in Turkestan. I doubt if the custom survives anywhere in Great Britain or Ireland.

James Hooper. Norwich.

Hartland’s paper in Folklore:

Sin-eating pure and simple has, I think, been obsolete in these islands now for some considerable period. An excellent article dealing with the whole matter appears in Folk-Lore, 1892, pp. 144-157, by Mr. E. Sidney Hartland. He states, at p. 156, that the custom (of sin-eating in one form or another) was existent, or quite recently existed, among the Greeks and Scots, and possibly among the Dyaks and Gipsies. He quotes the incident which occurred in 1851 or 1852, when the custom was still prevalent in Wales, and gives a reference to the Archaeologia Cambrensis, N.S., iii. (1852), 330. A curious variant of the custom is mentioned as surviving in Shropshire in 1892 (Folk-Lore, iv. pp. 392, 393).

W. B. Gerish. Wormley, Herts.

And Brand and the Gentleman’s Magazine:

Is Mr. Jonas acquainted with the articles on this subject in Brand’s ‘Popular Antiquities,’ ii. 152 (edit. 1841) ; Gentleman’s Magazine, xcii. 222; and ‘N. & Q.,’ 1st S. iv. 211; vi. 390, 541, where references to other works are also given ?

Everard Home Coleman. 71, Brecknock Road.

Mr Thomas Rejoins the Debate He Originally Started#

Three weeks later, in Notes & Queries dated February 29th, 1896, Vol 9 Iss 218 ; 8th S. IX, p169-170, Mr Thomas, whose letter in The Times several months previously had triggered the controversy, and whose name had been invoked throughout the debate, now felt the need to explain his position further:


(8th S. viii, 288, 332 ; ix. 109.)

As the question of the sin-eater has come up in ‘N. & Q.,’ and Mr. Owen has alluded in your issue of 8 Feb. to my letter to the Times in September last, I should be glad of an opportunity of making a few remarks on the subject. I should have preferred to do so in the Academy, but the editor, after inserting Mr. Hartland’s letters, in which I was alluded to by name half a dozen times and challenged to explain various facts, published Mr. Owen’s reply without a word of explanation to myself.

Disgruntled? Surely not!

In particular, Mr Thomas suggests that he had intended to be very specific in the question he was raising:

The original purpose of my letter to the Times was to dispute the evidence for the Llandebie case, and it was only incidentally that the general question of sin-eating was involved.

The main objection to the Llandebie story is the evidence of the schoolmaster Rowlands, who states that cakes were not given at funerals there. If this is so it is difficult to see how the sin-eater could have existed; for it is argued that this custom of giving cakes was a survival of sin-eating, and we are asked to believe that the custom of giving cakes disappeared before the central figure, the sin-eater.

The strength of support for Moggridge’s claims are also challenged:

The weakness of Mr. Moggridge’s ipse dixit is so apparent that I need not enlarge on it ; for, in the absence of any statement of how he came by his information, a story on his authority is worth no more than a statement in an anonymous letter, copied and published without investigation.

Mr Thomas really does sound despairing at this point:

I could not, even without the explicit denials which we have before us, attach any importance to such a story ; but when capable men, resident in the neighbourhood, not only fail to find the sin-eater, but vouch for facts actually inconsistent with the existence of the sin-eater at the spot within recent times, it seems absurd to consider the Llandebie case as coming under the head of facts for folk-lorists.

It is singular that no one has ever been produced who has seen a sin-eater, or even spoken with any one who has seen one. If the sin-eater was in existence in 1852 or shortly before, it should be possible now (much more should it have been so in 1877) to produce one who could give testimony of this nature.

N. W. Thomas. New College, Eastbourne.

Mr Addy Observes…#

In the same issue of Notes & Queries, a new correspondent joins the fray in the form of Mr S. O. Addy, of Sheffield, author of Household Tales, 1895.

Mr. Owen begins his remarks by saying that “there appeared in the Times of 18 Sept., 1895, a very interesting letter from Mr. N. W. Thomas, of Oswestry, on the above subject.” He forgets to say that Mr. Thomas’s letter was an attack on Mr. Hartland, to which the latter, in the Times and the Academy, effectually replied.

Mr Addy then describes his take on the tradition:

Mr. Hartland quoted a passage from my ‘Household Tales and Traditional Remains,’ p. 124 ; and as this has a material bearing on the subject, I will repeat it here :—

“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.”

Mr Addy then suggests he has access to a primary source for this claim:

I can produce the informant from whom this curious piece of folk-lore was obtained. It was offered to me without any questioning when I was collecting folk-lore some years ago, and it is undoubtedly genuine.

Furthermore, in a sleight of hand, he extends the notion of sin-eating to include sin-drinking:

It completes what Aubrey said about sin-eating; so that English folk-lore is acquainted not only with sin-eating but also with sin-drinking. It matters not whether such terms as “sin-eating” or “sin-drinking” can be proved to have existed in recent times. It is enough to show that the customs themselves existed ; and of this we have ample evidence.

From this new basis, he now provides an interpretation of the combined traditions as a ritual mass in the sense of a ritual feast, or mess:

Taking the two customs together, one cannot help seeing a resemblance between them and the missa pro defunctis, or mass for the dead. For what is a “mass” for the dead but a “mess” or banquet for the dead? Prof. Skeat tells us that the Low Lat. missa “is usually accounted for by supposing that the allusion is to the words ite, missa est.” But this seems far-fetched and very improbable ; indeed, Prof. Skeat admits that the change of vowel from the Lat. i to O.E. oe, as in moesse, M.E. messe, is remarkable.

Evidence for such feasts, Addy claims, is clear for all to see:

It is easy to trace the “mess,” or feast for the dead, in ancient custom. We may see it in the mass of All Hallows, or All Hallows Day (1 Nov.), of which, even to this day, a reminiscence is found in Yorkshire in the “tharf cakes” eaten during the first week of November. We may see it in the funeral cakes so commonly eaten during the present century. We may see it in the enormous feasts and in the mighty brewings of ale held and made after the death of the wealthy in the Middle-English period. And, going still further back, we may see it in the broken bones, with marrow extracted, scattered throughout so many prehistoric burial mounds in England.[Greenwell's 'British Barrows', p10.] From evidence thus presented it appeared to Dr. Thurnam that anthropophagism once prevailed in the British Isles, and he adduced some passages from ancient writers in support of his opinion [Greenwell, ut supro, p544.]. These were: Diodorus Siculus, v. 32; Strabo, iv. 5, 4; Plinius, vii. 2; Hieronymus adv. Jovianum, ii.

With a final leap of imagination, Addy now suggests reframing our interpretation of many ritual feasts:

If the explanation of “mass” here offered be correct, it follows that every “feast” in the calendar is a commemorative banquet. The words of the Saviour, “This do in remembrance of me,” may be compared, and also the minni, or memorial cup, at old northern sacrifices.

S. O. Addy. 3, Westbourne Road, Sheffield.

Back to the Academy#

On the same date as Mr Thomas’ letter to Notes & Queries was published, in which he was apparently under the impression that his letters to The Academy were no longer welcome in that publication, Mr Thomas also had a letter published in The Academy that he had written the week before.

Does this suggest a “missing letter” to The Academy from Mr Thomas written at the end of 1895 or early in 1896? Or was Mr Thomas disgruntled that no-one appears to have corresponded with him directly asking for his response on the matter?

Mr Thomas Restates His Challenge#

For the reader of both Notes & Queries and The Academy, we can only wonder at how they might have regarded the content of p178-9 of Vol 49 Iss 1243 of The Academy, published on February 29th, 1896, if they had read it before that day’s issue of Notes & Queries, or after!

But whatever the case, Mr Thomas had now entered the fray in that august journal, declaring his credentials from the very start:


New College, Eastbourne: Feb. 22, 1896.

Now that Mr. Owen has retired from the field to all appearance, you will perhaps allow me, as the person who was directly challenged by Mr. Hartland, and the initiator of the whole discussion, to say a word or two on the question.

The charge Mr Thomas raises is the same one he described in his letter to Notes & Queries, although desecribd here with more provenance attached:

The main purpose of my letter in the Times was to throw doubt on the Llandebie story, and my doubts rest on a point that has not yet been mentioned in the ACADEMY. In the evidence quoted by Canon Silvan Evans in the ACADEMY in 1878, the schoolmaster of Llandebie stated that cakes were not given at Llandebie. If this is so, it seems to me impossible to suppose that the Sin-eater existed there at the close of the first half of the century, if Mr. Hartland is correct in regarding this dole as a survival and degenerate form of Sin-eating. We cannot suppose that the central rite was in full tide if those portions of the ritual which survive longest in other parts had entirely disappeared.

As with the other letter, he also challenges Moggridge’s authority, as well as contesting the soundness of the argument provided by Mr Hartland regarding the likely evolution of the tradition :

My second point is, that if Mr. Hartland is correct in identifying all these funeral customs with tribal feasts, he cannot adduce them all as proofs of the existence of the Sin-eater, unless he is prepared to argue that in Wales and the Borders the whole of the tribal ceremonial was swallowed up in the Sin-eating. Unless the custom of tribal feasts underwent a uniform evolution, we should find by the side of any single descendant of it in folk-custom various analogous customs bearing a resemblance more or less close; but these analogous customs cannot be brought forward as a proof of the existence of their co-descendants. We are not entitled to conclude the general practice of Sin-eating from an analogical argument, backed by a few isolated instances on the authority of a single writer, who wrote forty years after the single case which he mentions within the Welsh borders. I say a single writer advisedly, for I cannot regard Mr. Moggridge as an authority: he gives us no hint of his source: we have no certainty that he derived his account at first hand or even at second. I am not enamoured of the anonymous nwspaper correspondent as a collector of folk-lore; but he is better off than Mr. Moggridge’s informant, for, if he cannot be identified, he is at least not liable to have his words distorted by transmission and final publication at third, fourth, or fifth hand. Even if we had no denials such as those given by intelligent and competent persons like Mr. Rowlands in 1871, the Llandebie story would rest on an uncertain foundation. In the face of these denials, it seems impossible to give credence to it.

And once again, the extraordinary situation regarding the lack of first-hand testimony regarding direct experiences of the tradition, or memories, even, of accounts of it, is raised:

I call attention to the fact that in 1878, though the Sin-eater was said to have existed thirty years previously, no one was produced who had ever seen him, nor even one who had seen a person who had seen him. Thirty years is not so long in a rural district that old customs are forgotten. If the Sin-eater had really existed there in 1850, it would have been possible to find an eye-witness. But no eye-witness was forthcoming.


Hartland Focusses His Defence#

Hartland responded promptly with a letter written on March 2nd, 1896, that appeared a week later, in Vol 49 Iss 1244, p200-201, of *the Academy, dated March 7th, 1896.

He opens by denying the relevance of Rowland’s negative testimony regarding the eating of cakes, based on the geography of the areas concerned, and the attitudes of the inhabitants thereof regarding their knowledge and direct experience of certain other locations:


Highgarth, Gloucester: March 2, 1896

It seems generally that the valley near Llandebie referred to by Mr. Moggridge as the scene of the custom of Sin-eating was Cwmamman. If this be so, the evidence of the schoolmaster of Llandebie (by name John Rowlands) is of little weight. The parish is a very large one. The village, containing the church and the national school, is at one end, the district bordering on Cwmamman at the other. Fifty, or even thirty, years ago the upper part of the parish (towards Cwmamman) was almost a terra incognita to the vicar and the schoolmaster. At least, it was beyond their influence; and probably it is so still.

He also challenges the likelihood of such local legends ever being revealed to Rowlands, or the incomer local vicar.

I am informed by Mr. J. P. Owen that both the vicar of Llandebie and the schoolmaster mentioned by Canon Silvan Evans were known to him; that they were both strangers to the parish, and that neither of them stayed long enough to identify himself with it. Cwmamman is in the heart of a romantic country. Around it are spots renowned for the hunting of Twrch Trwyth by King Arthur. Across the mountains, only a few miles away, is the famous Van Pool, the dwelling-place of the mysterious lady from whom the physicians of Myddvai traced their descent, and the scene down to a few years ago of an annual summer pilgrimage when the lady herself was expected to appear. The valley was at one time sparsely inhabited. It has been described as “lawless”; it was, doubtless, the very home of superstition. But during the last fifty years a revolution has taken place. Large industries have sprung up, and a considerable population of a much more civilised character been attracted to the place. This revolution was in progress in the sixties; it was completed before Canon Evans’s inquiries were set on foot. When we add to all this the fact, to which I have already drawn attention (ACADEMY, November 16, 1895), that those inquiries were not made for more than a quarter of a century after the alleged event, it is hard to see what importance can be attached to the schoolmaster’s assertions. He may have been “an intelligent,” but he was not a “competent mperson” to give satisfactory evidence ; and it has yet to be proved that his evidence, such as it was, related to a larger area than the village of Llandebie and its immediate surroundings— which do not come into the story at all. This is my reply to Mr. Thomas’s first point.

Part of the implication here seems to be that the primitive and uncivilised parishioners might somehow of been ashamed of their local tradition, and sought to hide evidence of it from these “more civilised” incomers?

Hartland also expresses some confusion at Thomas’ arguments relating to the evolution of the tradition in more universal terms:

His second point rests, I think, on a misapprehension. I have never identified “all these funeral customs with tribal feasts.” What I have contended is, that Sin-eating is a relic of a specific feast of the kin, immediately following a death, at which feast the body of the deceased was eaten. It is therefore unnecessary “to argue that in Wales and the borders the whole of the tribal ceremonial was swallowed up in the Sin-eating.” No doubt there were many tribal feasts of various kinds. I do not trace Sin-eating back to them all, nor indeed to any tribal feasts. A tribe is a local organisation. The tribe may have included many clans or kindreds ; and, on the other hand, many clans may have stretched far beyond the bounds of the local tribe. It seems to have been the kindred who were entitled and expected to take part in the feast in question.

He then refers Thomas et al. elsewhere for a more detailed consideration of rituals elsewhere:

I cannot adequately discuss the matter here, and must be pardoned for referring once more to the chapter on Funeral Rites in the Legend of Perseus (vol. ii.) where I have treated the subject in connexion with parallel practices in different parts of the world.

As to Moggridge’s claims, Hartland suggests he has already accounted for his position on the matter:

With Mr. Moggridge’s sources and opportunities of information I have already dealt (ACADEMY, November 16). I believe his statement. But, even if we leave him out of account, there is enough in Pennant, Robert Jones of Rhoslan, and the Bishop of St. Asaph’s MS. to corroborate Aubrey, who besides gives evidence of having curefully inquired into the matter.

Hartland closes with a comment regarding the lack of “on the ground” research regarding the collection of local testimony in what might have been a more timely fashion:

Mr. Thomas’s last paragraph would be more difficult to meet if it could be shown that Canon Silvan Evans’s challenge was brought under the notice of Mr. Moggridge, or anyone else who was interested in the matter and in a position to investigate. But Mr. Moggridge was then an old man; he had left Wales. Canon Evans’s contention was probably popular among Welshmen—at least, they were apathetic—and nobody seems to have been concerned to take up the challenge. It is a pity it was so; but this I think we must conclude was the reason why in 1878 (or was it not 1875?) “no one was produced who had ever seen” a Sin-eater.


So how did Thomas now respond…?

Thomas Promptly Responds to Hartland#

By return of post, it seems, Mr Hartland wasted no time in compiling his repsonse to Mr hartland, which appeared in the next ossue The Academy, Vol 49 Iss 1245, p222-3, dated March 14th, 1896.

The first point he offers is a defence of Mr Rowlands, the schoolmaster:


New College, Eastbourne: March 7, 1896.

With regard to my first point, as Mr. Hartland questions the competence of the schoolmaster, Rowlands, to give satisfactory evidence, it will be convenient if I state what I believe to be the facts with regard to his position. I am obliged, unfortunately, to speak from memory, so I trust Mr. Hartland will be merciful if he finds me tripping. Mr. Rowlands’s own statements are: (1) that he became schoolmaster at Llandebie in 1852, the year of the Ludlow meeting—if, as I suppose, he was schoolmaster there when Canon Evans wrote, Mr. Owen’s recollection seems to be at fault ; (2) that he was in the habit of attending funerals; (3) that he collected for Sir Thomas Phillipps the traditions and customs of the district. He has also, I believe, published a pamphlet on some Welsh archaeological question. He was therefore, before Canon Evans applied to him, taking an interest in matters of this sort.

As to the likelihood that Rowlands would have knowledge of any traditions outside his own village:

Of course, if he had no acquaintance with a larger area than the immediate surroundings of Llandebie, his evidence is only valuable for that area ; but Mr. Hartland (ACADEMY, November 9) stated that the ritual was in use “at Llandebie.” I admit that if Mr. Hartland’s assumption as to the extent of Mr. Rowlands’s knowledge be correct, the value I attach to his evidence is unwarranted ; but Mr. Hartland must also admit that it is his change of ground which renders it so. If, however, he was employed by Sir Thomas Phillipps for the purpose stated, I infer that his knowledge extended to more than the immediate surroundings of Llandebie.

On the matter of “feasts” and his comments on the evolution of certain traditions, Mr Thomas then clarifies his position, attempting this time to lay out his arguments as clearly as an ABC:

I offer apologies for not having stated my second point more clearly. It is this. Mr. Hartland regards Sin-eating as a survival of a specific feast of the kin ; he regards as survivals of Sin-eating customs of eating and drinking at funerals where we find no Sin-eater and no special virtue attributed to the dole. I suggest that these customs are allied to Sin-eating in virtue of a common descent from the feast of the kindred, not by direct descent from Sin-eating itself. I suppose that the feast of the kindred is now represented by various practices— A, B, C. Evidence shows that these were occasionally associated with or replaced by D. No amount of evidence that A, B, and C were, or are, generally practised will lead to the conclusion that D was prevalent in the area in question.

Mr Thomas appears weilling to concede certain points, but not the argument:

I contend that we find certain customs involving the giving of food at funerals. There is evidence that these customs sometimes took the form of Sin-eating, but we cannot infer the existence of Sin-eating wherever we find these offertories at funerals. And be it noted in this connexion that Aubrey himself does not connect the offertories with the Sin-eater.

Finally, on the matter of seeking out corroborative testimony, Mr Thomas holds his ground, and recalls the article that started the whole debate:

As to the third point, I do not agree with Mr, Hartland that no one was concerned to take up the challenge. The ACADEMY controversy arose out of an article in Blackwood. The writer (Prebendary Davies of Hereford, according to a good authority) professed to be well acquainted with Wales, and having taken up the challenge, was certainly interested in the matter, and, I think, in a position to investigate.


Hartland’s Similarly Prompt Response#

As with Mr Thomas, it seems that Mr Hartland is no less prompt in his ability to compose to a reply as a direct response to that day’s Academy, with his letter dated March 14 1896 appearing in the following edition of The Academy, Vol 49 Iss 1246, p241-242, dated March 21st, 1896.

He opens with a comment regarding where he thinks the goalposts now appear to have moved to realting to Moggridge and Rowlands:


Highgarth, Gloucester: March 14, 1896.

I must plead guilty to having given Mr. Thomas some reason for charging me with changing my ground. Mr. Moggridge, it seems, did not specify the exact place where the custom of Sin-eating had been performed within recent years. He described it as a mountain valley near Llandebie.

In mounting his defence, he is careful to state that he is working from notes, and an incomplete set of evidence:

Writing without having the Archaeologia Cumbrensis before me, but only notes of its contents, I referred to the scene in general terms as “at Llandebie.” Nor have I there the letter containing Mr. Rowlands’s statements. But, assuming Mr. Thomas’s account of them to be correct, I see nothing in them to alter my opinion. It was, at all events, some years after the event signalised by Mr. Moggridge that Mr. Rowlands came to the village of Lilandebie; and, granting that Cwmamman was where the custom was alleged to have been practised, it appears to me that Mr. Rowland’s denials so many years later cannot outweigh Mr. Moggridge’s affirmation. However, I am unable to carry the evidence further, and there for the present it must rest.

As to the evolution of tradition, Hartland notes that Thomas appears to be happy that sin-eating really did exist, and that the depite the question of exact lineage being hard to prove, Thomas actually appears to be largely in agreement with him.

If I now understand Mr. Thomas’s second point —that the customs of North Wales described by Pennant, Robert Jones, and Aubrey himself were not survivals of Sin-eating, but merely independent survivals of the same feast, of which the custom of Sin-eating was also a survival—he admits that the custom of Sin-eating was practised somewhere. It is, of course, extremely difficult, if not impossible, to say with certainty whether these North Welsh customs were lineally descended from that of Sin-eating, or were only variant or related forms of it, independently derived from a common original. In my view the whole evidence presented in this correspondence—not forgetting the Lancashire custom of “The ded manse dowle or Banquet of Charitie,” brought to light by Mr. Owen—points to a widespread, and probably Celtic, custom of Sin-eating, gradually disappearing with the growth of civilisation, and surviving here and there in more or less complete forms, which were naturally not all precisely alike. The difference between us is, after all, no very great one, and the scientific inferences as to the meaning of the customs remain undisturbed.

Regarding the Blackwood’s article, Hartland suggests it was an opinion piece designed to spark controversy, which it undoubtedly did, rather than provide a basis for an investigation into a matter in which the original author was seriously interested:

Whoever the writer of the article in Blackwood’s may have been, what evidence is there that Canon Silvan Evans’s letters in the ACADEMY were brought to his knowledge? In any case, the article was most likely nothing more than a pot-boiler, in which, having served its office, the author had no further concern.

He also suggests that Owen has already demonstrated how he is well accustomed with such tactics, as for example demonstrated by his rambling second letter to The Academy:

The manners and customs of the tribe of magazine article-writers are well known. Mr. Owen gave an amusing and instructive example in his letter which appeared in the ACADEMY of December 21. Everybody who has made it his business to inquire seriously into any subject could easily add others quite as amusing and almost as instructive.

Hartland then signs off in a way that suggests he has tired with the constant to-ing and fro-ing and that there is little more that can be said:

Here, so far as I am concerned, I must bring the correspondence to a close. The subject, I think, has been pretty well threshed out. In thanking the Editor of the ACADEMY for allowing the statements of fact and exchange of opinions in his columns, I may venture to express the hope that, if his correspondents have not succeeded in converting one another, they have at least provided some material not without value for the solution of the questions involved.


Owen Responds to Addy in Notes & Queries#

As Mr Hartland was attempting to lay the matter to rest in the correspondence pages of The Academy, in Notes & Queries 8th Series, Vol 9 Iss 221, p236-7, also on March 21st, 1896, Mr J. P. Owen, who it might be recalled authored a rebuttal to Hartland in the pages of The Academy in December, 1895, was defending what he had written therein to Mr Addy:

SIN-EATER (8th S. viii, 288, 332 ; ix. 109, 169). — Mr. Addy’s reference to my note in ‘N. & Q.’ is not quite accurate. I did not “forget to say” that Mr. Thomas’s letters to the Times were an “attack” on Mr. Hartland, for the simple reason that the latter gentleman had assured me his sole object was to get at the truth, and that he would welcome light from whatever quarter it came. The only thing in the shape of an “attack” that I have seen was Mr. Hartland’s criticism on the supposed shortcomings of the venerable Welsh scholar Canon Silvan Evans.

He also claims “no hard feelings” in the way the correspondence had played out there:

So far as I was personally concerned, I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which my own humble contributions to the controversy were handled, though that handling did not tend to enhance my respect for “authority” in matters of folk-lore, nor to deepen my confidence in the dovetailing method of working up accounts of custom and myth. Indeed, Mr. Hartland’s efforts

varias inducere plumas
Undique collatis membris ut turpiter atrum
Pingeret avépopphagow (Fe-fi-fo-fum Auberiensem),

furnish a lesson that will not, I hope, be thrown away on the guileless reader of the pronouncements of folk-lore “authorities.”

As to the omission regarding Addy’s observations:

The only modern instance of so-called “sin-eating” adduced by Mr. Hartland in his letters that I did not attempt to deal with was the account taken from Mr. Addy’s book. Aubrey and Pennant, Moggeridge and the Pembrokeshire minister were all found to be other than Mr. Hartland’s fancy painted them. I was unable to find a copy of Mr. Addy’s work in the British Museum, but

having seen now, for himself, what Addy has to say, he observes that

that gentleman’s own communication to ‘N. & Q.’ induces me to ask him (1) if the term “sin-drinking” was employed by his informant ; (2) if his informant was a Churchman or a Dissenter; and (3) if he can see his way to publish the name of the locality where the “ritual” described to and by him is practised.

Mr Owen then stands up straight and congratulates himself for having helped move understanding about the sin-eater tradition along, such as in the case of the Market Drayton account, which Owen had previously suggested that ‘the mysterious and “significant” remark of the Pembrokeshire minister was of no historical or scientific value whatever’:

It was only, I believe, through my public avowal of scepticism as to the “significance,” from a sin-eating point of view, of the Pembrokeshire minister’s remarks at the Market Drayton funeral that Mr. Hartland was induced to sift that tale. The result of his investigation was, if I may borrow Mr. Addy’s expression, “effectual” enough. The Market Drayton evidence— “evidence,” to quote Mr. Hartland’s words in the Academy for 9 Nov., “such as could not be doubted” — had become two months later (Academy, 11.Jan.) an “incident about which there had been some misapprehension”; while the minister’s words “would appear only to have had reference to the general custom of eating and drinking at funerals.” I did not attempt to argue with Mr. Hartland. Indeed, there was no need, for the above is only a sample of the “effectual” way in which his own arguments destroyed either themselves or one another.

J. P. Owen. 48, Comeragh Road, W.

Thomas Seeks the Last Word#

Back in The Academy, Mr Thomas seems reluctant to allow Mr Hartland have the last say in the public correspondence between them, despite appearing to appeal to the contrary. Writing in Vol 49 Iss 1247, p265, of The Academy, dated March 28th, 1896, he signs off by suggesting that Hartland appeared to concede another point to Thomas (and should presumably have had the grace to give in completely?!) and then makes a confusing statement regarding Silvan Evans (I’m not actually sure what point he is trying to make?).


New College, Eastbourne: March 91, 1896. I should not offer any remarks on Mr. Hartland’s last letter, if it were not that he has admitted the importance of my point, that no direct evidence was produced in reply to Canon Silvan Evans’s challenge, and at the same time misunderstood my statement that the Blackwood writer took up the challenge. He was actually one of the correspondents in the ACADEMY; so of course, Mr. Hartland’s remarks have no bearing on the point at issue. If most articles are potboilers, and of no further concern to the writers, this was certainly not the case on the occasion under discussion.

It’s not clear in the final sentence whether he is bitterly muttering to himself.

I base my suggestion that some at least of the customs are independent survivals partly on the fact that we find in some cases all the guests expected to partake.

N. W. Thomas.

Addy Responds to Owen#

To finish off the current round of exchanges, Mr Addy penned a response to Owen in Notes & Queries, Vol 9 Iss 224, p296, of April 11th, 1896.

Briefly, and to the point, he addressed each of the three questions raised by Mr Owen in turn, identifying as he did so, the source of his information regarding the observation he went on to indirectly refer to as “sin-drinking”:

8th S. IX

Sin-Eater (8th S. viii, 288, 332; ix. 109, 169, 236). —Mr. Owen has put three questions to me, which I answer specifically. (1) The term “sin-drinking” was not employed by my informant, nor does it occur in the text of my book. I used it in the index as the most convenient word for reference. (2) I do not know whether my informant was a Churchwoman or a Dissenter. (3) The name of my informant was Miss Alice Halifax, the daughter of a farmer, formerly living near Dronfield, in Derbyshire, afterwards at Ompton, in Nottinghamshire, and now, I believe, near Newark. Miss Halifax collected folk-lore for me, and I wrote it down from her dictation. I am not aware that any ritual is now practised. S. O. Addy.

3, Westbourne Road, Sheffield.

And here ends this phase of the deabte. But there was a final chapter to come, as Mr J. P. Owen returned to the pages of The Academy.