Triggering the Second Controversy, 1895#
At the start of 1895, Sidney Addy published Household Tales, a collection of tales *”with other traditional remains, collected in The Counties of York, Lincoln, Derby, and Nottingham”.
In a chapter on Traditional Remains, at p123-5, he notes:
At Eckington, in the same county [Derbyshire], when a corpse was laid out food was placed upon a table within reach of the body. This practice was invariably adhered to.
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 wine until the funeral party has returned from church.
When a dying man has “something on his mind” he cannot die until he has divulged it.
Of particular interest to us, perhaps, is the observation that:
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.
Funeral cakes, and alms, are also described:
At all funerals in Eyam cakes were given to the mourners, and each mourner carried his cake to church wrapped up in a handkerchief. The cakes were always three-cornered or triangular, and were usually spiced with currants. The mourners also partook of spiced ale, which was known as “burnt drink”. It was a dark-looking liquid, with a strongly aromatic smell, and consisted of ale spiced with cloves, nutmeg, ginger and mace. It was drunk out of a large tankard, which was handed round to the mourners at the door of the house, when the funeral procession was about to start for the church. At the same time the three-cornered cakes were handed round to the mourners in a large round willow basket. The same tankard and basket were used at all funerals. The mourners walked before the corpse, and sang all the way to church.
At the funeral of one Lydia Brushfield every child in the village received a twopenny-piece and a cake.
But no mention of a sin-eater role borne by a single unfortunate individual is made.
The Founding of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831-2#
“On the morning of September the 27th, 1831, the Theatre of the Yorkshire Museum was filled by an assemblage of more than three hundred persons,
[The number of Tickets issued, was three hundred and fifty-three.] including many distinguished members of learned and scientific bodies in different parts of the united kingdoms, who were collected together in consequence of a general invitation to the friends of science, which had been issued by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.”
First report, Brit. Assoc. Adv. Sci., 1832
Following an opening address by Viscount Milton, the President of the Society, “the Rev. William Vernon Harcourt, Vice-President of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, and Chairman of the Committee of Management, then addressed the Meeting”:
“I am desired by the Council of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society to submit to your consideration a plan, which they beg leave to propose for the conduct of this Meeting, and for the establishment of a system, on which similar Meetings may continue to be conducted hereafter.
“Mr. Harcourt then commenced his exposition of the Objects and Plan of the Association.”
“I propose then, Gentlemen, in the first place, that we should found a BRITISH ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF SCIENCE, having for its objects, to give a stronger impulse and more systematic direction to scientific inquiry, to obtain a greater degree of national attention to the objects of science, and a removal of those disadvantages which impede its progress, and to promote the intercourse of the cultivators of science with one another, and with foreign philosophers.”
The society so proposed was the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The meeting at York was seen as its first meeting, and reported in the First report of the proceedings, recommendations, and transactions of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1832.
The British Association for the Advancement of Science
The preface to the first report, pvii-xiii, gives a sense of how the association should be organised as well as the scope of its activities:
It will be observed that the object to which the Committees have in general paid the first attention has been, to procure reports on the state and desiderata of the several branches of science, preliminary to measures which may be hereafter adopted to advance them.
A paragraph further on, and the very obvious mutual benefit to local societesi, as well as to science of forming such an association is described:
The nature and value of the aid which Provincial Societies might render to science through the system of the British Association, and the advantages which they may themselves derive from it, have been lately adverted to by the Council of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society in the following manner.
[Report of the Council of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society for 1831 — 2 .]“The effect of such a system will be not only to give connection to the efforts of insulated inquirers, but to link societies themselves together in unity of purpose, and in a common participation and division of labour. There are many important questions in philosophy, and some whole departments of science, the data of which are geographically distributed, and require to be collected by local observations ex- tended over a whole country ; and this is true not only of those facts on whicli single sciences are founded, but of many which are of more enlarged application. Thus, for instance, were the elevation above the sea of all the low levels, and chief heights and eminences, of a country ascertained so generally, that every observer of nature might have a station within his reach from which he could fix the relative position in this respect of whatever might be the object of his research, of how many questions, in how many sciences, would these facts contribute to the solution ? Again, supposing it to be ascertained also, at these stations, what is the temperature of the air, and of the water, — as it falls from the shy, and as it is held in the reservoirs of the earth — these are data of the same kind, interesting not only to meteorological science, but to the philosophy of organized and animated existence. Yet, extensive as might be the importance of such facts, and simple as are the processes for ascertaining them, and numerous as are the individuals capable of contributing to their investigation, how little, nevertheless, even of this elementary work has yet been accomplished, either by insulated observers, or by those who are associated together for the express purpose of advancing those sciences to which it is of so much interest.
The power of such a syndicated approach is then remarked upon:
“None of our societies has ever pretended to collect observations of this kind on a regular system, nor to form a national catalogue of the scattered particulars of any one science, accurately detailed ; and yet the great value which would attach to such collections of facts, when reduced and analyzed. must often have occurred to the enlightened con- ductors of such institutions ; but that which has prevented any single body from venturing on the undertaking, has been the impracticability of carrying it on over so extensive a territory as an entire king- dom. There is a method, however, by which these important objects might be achieved. Were there in every county one or more provincial societies, having some members competent to superintend, and others ready to execute, the observations within definite limits, and were these societies willing to work together under a common plan, the natural history of the country, and all the geographical data of philosophy included within it, might easily he collected in a manner far more perfect than has ever yet been attempted.
And the British Association offers itself as the co-ordinating umbrella organisation:
“With a just sense, therefore, of the consequence to science of combining the Philosophical Societies dispersed through the provinces of the empire in a general co-operative union, the British Association has not only invited them to join its meetings, but has given to those whom they may specially depute to represent them, the privilege of becoming members of the Committee by which its affairs are conducted.
Agan, the mutual benefit of forming such an association is stressed:
“It appears to the Council that in availing themselves of the bond of connection thus offered. Societies, at the same time that they will contribute most essentially to the success of this extensive plan, will add greatly to their own efficiency. When individuals meet for scientific objects, the effect of the general effort, emulation, and example, is to produce a spirit of exertion winch, gives to such meetings their principal value. And if societies shall concur in thus meeting each other, in proposing certain common objects, in communicating from year to year the means which they are employing and the progress which they are making, it seems impossible that this should be done in the presence of an assembly concentrating a great part of the scientific talent of the nation, without kindling an increased ardour of emulous activity ; it seems impossible that the deputies of any society should attend such meetings without bringing back into its bosom an enlargement of views and communicating to its members new lights of knowledge, new motives for inquiry, and new encouragement to perseverance.
As is the national scope:
“The actual assembling of one of the meetings at the place in which any society is established, has a tendency to produce the same effect in a still more powerful degree, and the Council does not hesitate to state that this institution has received a sensible impulse in all these respects, from the visit with which it has recently been honoured. The plan indeed on which it was first founded, and on which it has been since conducted, was in the spirit of the design which may now be contemplated for the whole kingdom. Its especial aim has been to collect information respecting its own County, and the end to which it aspires has been described in a former Report to be the execution of such a history of Yorkshire as the Natural Philosopher and the Antiquary may be contented to possess. But how greatly will the importance of this object be heightened when it is incorporated into a national system, and when all the results of our inquiries become part of the materials of a far more extensive analysis. It could not but be felt before by a provincial Society, that, in executing the task which it had undertaken, advice and consultation were wanted. With how much more confidence may it proceed when it has the advantage of consulting with the Committee of this great national Association. In comparing the views which it entertains, and the methods which it employs, with those that may be offered to its con- sideration, how largely may it profit by such a commerce, without sacrificing any portion of its real dignity or independence.”
But still, even within a national organisation, there is the recognition that the local level of organisation plays a very important role, not just in local dissemination, but also in federated practice, particularly practice that observes standards co-ordinated at a national level:
Should views like those which are here expressed be generally adopted, should the Societies established in different districts be disposed to combine their exertions through the medium of this Association, for the purpose of carrying a general system of observations into effect, each Society would then become a centre of instruction to its own neighbourhood, from which correct means and methods of investigation might be derived. Thus, for instance, a large proportion of the philosophical instruments at present in use are so imperfectly constructed, and so discordant in their indications, as to be of little service to science ; but if Societies will send to the next Meeting of the Association the Thermometer or portable Barometer which they employ, in order that they may be examined, and that any error which may be found in them may be rectified or estimated, the instruments will thenceforward not only speak the same language among themselves, but will become standards with which in every part of the kingdom those of insulated observers may be compared.
The importance of local representatives coming together at a national level for the purpose of national agenda setting is also seen as key:
The principles which have been already noticed as having regulated the choice of some of the subjects of investigation recommended in the present Report, are important to be borne in mind, at the ensuing Meeting, by those who may take a share in proposing matter of inquiry or discussion. To come to a common understanding on unsettled questions of general interest, to fix the data on which important points of theory hinge, to collect and connect extensive series of observations ; these appear to be the objects which peculiarly belong to the Association, and which should therefore be chiefly, if not exclusively, contemplated. It is also very material that those who propose any subject of inquiry should have considered it well in a practical point of view. It is not enough to put forth general recommendations of inquiries without making specific arrangements for their being actually undertaken. The Committee which met for the first time at York laboured under a disadvantage in this respect, from not knowing on what auxiliaries to reckon. Much was in consequence left to subsequent correspondence with the members of the different Sub-committees, which, had it been possible, ought to have been settled at the Meeting itself.
The Sixty-fifth Meeting of The British Association, Ipswich, September, 1895#
An article in Nature, 52, pp. 370–371, August 15th, 1895, described the progress of arrangements for the fortchoming sixty-fixth meeting of the British Association:
THE arrangements for the meeting of the British Association at Ipswich this autumn are making rapid progress. The General Election somewhat interrupted the preparations of the local secretaries, but the excitement being now over, general attention in the locality is again centred on the coming visit of the Association, and great efforts are being made in the town and neighbourhood to ensure the success of the meeting.
The report includes a descriptin of the facilities that will be available to the meeting:
The chief public buildings in the town are just emerging from the hands of the painter and decorator. The reception room will be located in the Town Hall, the council chamber being the room actually set apart for the purpose, whilst the library will be the writing room. The President’s address and the evening discourses will be delivered in the public hall, as will also the lecture to working men. In the matter of Section rooms, the Local Committee will be able to offer the Association very good accommodation, as there are fortunately a number of suitable rooms and halls in the town within a very short distance of each other, and all are close to the reception room. The two halls at the Girls’ High School, which were formerly the New Assembly Rooms, and were used for the reception room and for Section E on the occasion of the Ipswich meeting in 1851, will be allotted to Section A (Mathematical and Physical Science) and Section B (Chemistry). About two hundred yards distant is the Co-operative Hall, in which Section G (Mechanical Science) will meet. Section C (Geology) will be accommodated in the Art Gallery adjoining the Museum. Section D (Zoology) and the new Section K (Botany) will have, respectively, the banquet room and the lodge room at the Masonic Hall. The Lecture Hall, adjoining the Ipswich Institute, will be given over to Section E (Geography), whilst across the street, the Working Men’s College (formerly known as the Old Assembly Rooms) will be set apart for Section H (Anthropology).
A fortnight later, on September 29th, 1895, 52, pp. 415–417, further details were provided:
IN our last article we gave a general outline of the local arrangements for the Meeting. The programme, as a whole, is now fairly complete. A slight alteration has been made with reference to the soirées; the first will be given by the Ipswich Scientific Society and the Suffolk Institute of Archæology jointly, and the second by the Mayor of Ipswich (Mr. J. H. Bartlet,). The fitting up of the Section Rooms is proceeding rapidly, and arrangements are being made for the darkening of those in which a lantern will be used. In the case of Sections A and B, which meet in the same building, only the room allotted to Section B will be fitted up with dark blinds and a lantern screen, and the Sections will be asked to exchange rooms on days when papers requiring lantern illustration are read in Section A. The same arrangement will be made as to Sections D and K, which meet in the two rooms at the Masonic Hall. For the President’s address in these Sections, the Lyceum Theatre, which is a short distance off, will be placed at the disposal of the Sectional Committees, as the Masonic Hall rooms may be hardly large enough to contain all those who would probably wish to be present on these particular occasions. For a similar reason, Section G, which meets in the Co-operative Hall, will be asked to allow the President’s addresses in Sections A and B to be delivered there. A spacious room adjoining the main street, and within two minutes’ walk of the reception room, will be set apart for a ladies club-room.
In The Times of September 4th, 1895, a program of events was listed, including the following mention of a paper to be presented in section H (Anthropology)
On Monday there will be papers on Cannibalism by Captain Hinde …
The abstract for the paper can be seen in the Report of The Sixty-fifth Meeting of The British Association for the Advancement of Science; held at Ipswich Ain Spetember, 1895, p829-830:
On Cannibalism By Captain S. L Hinde
Captain Hinde, who has been travelling and fighting for some years in the Congo basin, and has therefore had many almost unprecedented opportunities of observing the natives, gave the following information with regard to cannibalism —
Almost all the races in the Congo Basin practice cannibalism, and though in some parts it is prevented by the presence of white civilisation, in others it seems to be on the increase. An extensive traffic in human flesh prevails in many districts, slaves being kept and sold as an article of food.
The different tribes have various and horrible methods of preparing the flesh for eating; in some instances, before the death of the victim, certain tribes of the Bangala race themselves acknowledge that they break the arms and legs of the victim, and place the body, thus mutilated and still living, in water for two or three days, on the supposition that this pre-mortem treatment renders the flesh more palatable. There are also distinct tribal preferences for various parts of the body, and it is remarkable that, contrary to an ignorant yet very generally accepted theory, the negro man-eater never eats flesh raw, and certainly takes human flesh as food purely and simply, and not from any religious or superstitious reasons.
The opening of the meeting was reported in The Times of September 12, 1895, followed by a review of the President’s address and the first day’s sessions:
THE BRITISH ASSOCIATION., IPSWICH, Sept. 11. (Wednesday)
The annual meeting of the British Association was opened to-day under circumstances which augur favourably for a week of useful activity, sustained by sufficient, but not overwhelming, numbers. Up to this evening nearly 1,200 tickets had been issued. The weather is cooler than it was three days ago and is broken by sharp showers, too short to cause much inconvenience. …
Captain Hinde’s Presentation “On Cannibalism”#
The Times of Monday, September 16th, 1895, reported on Captain Hinde’s presentation:
THE BRITISH ASSOCIATION, Ipswich, Sept 15th
The engineers dealt with a short and varied programme. The Anthropologists had their meeting-place crowded during a discussion on cannibalism, in which there was apparently an under-current of feeling not quite in accord with popular sentiment.
Section H - Anthropology
This section assembled in the morning at the Working Men’s College, under the presidency of Professor Flinders Petrie There was a crowded attendance to hear Captain Hinde’s papers on cannibalism and the pigmy tribes in the Congo region.
The CHAIRMAN, in introducing Captain Hinde, said that we had been accustomed to look upon cannibalism as something extremely unnatural; but it had not at all been so regarded by a large number of the rest of mankind. We should endeavour to cast aside a little insular prejudice in listening to the paper.
A report of Captain Hinde’s paper was then provided:
CAPTAIN S. L. HINDE, who has been travelling and fighting for some years in the Congo basin, said that almost all the races in the Congo basin practise cannibalism, and, though in some parts it is prevented by the presence of white civilization, in others it seems to be on the increase. An extensive traffic in human flesh prevails in many districts, slaves being kept and sold as an article of food. The different tribes have various and horrible methods of preparing the flesh for eating; in some instances, before the death of the victim, certain tribes of the Bangala race themselves acknowledge that they break the arms and legs of the victim, and place the body thus mutilated and still living in water for two or three days, on the supposition that this pre-mortem treatment renders the flesh more palatable. There are also distinct tribal preferences for various parts of the body, and it is remarkable that, contrary to an ignorant yet very generally accepted theory, the negro man-eater never eats flesh raw, and certainly takes human flesh as food purely and simply, and not from any religions or superstitious reasons. In the country of the Balétéla one saw neither gray-haired persons, halt, maimed, nor blind. Even parents were eaten by their children on the approach of the least sign of old age. Under such circumstances the Balétéla were a splendid race. After a fight the native camp-followers of his expedition invariably ate up all the dead, leaving absolutely nothing for the jackals. In this way they undoubtedly saved the expedition from many an epidemic. With regard to the pygmies, he said their average height was under 4ft., and it was as difficult to detect their presence in the forest as it would be to find a mouse in a cornfield. ‘hey were a nomadic race, and, being hunters, followed the game in its migration through the forest according to the season. They were courageous, pugnacious, and had an intimate knowledge of poisons. Death succeeded in from three to ten minutes after a scratch was made by one of their tiny poisoned arrows.
This was followed by some discussion:
Mr. ELWORTHY said he appeared in the character of “devil’s advocate” and thought there was something to be said in favour of cannibalism. Underlying it was the primeval idea that the body imbibed the properties of that which it ate. Upon that idea – and with all possible reverence he said it – was founded one of the most solemn of our Christian rites. In one part of France even now the last of the harvest corn was baked into a loaf made in the form of a human figure. This was supposed to represent the spirit of the corn – the spirit of vegetation, reproduction, fertility – and was broken up, distributed among the villagers, and eaten.
Mr. ROUSE, speaking on the authority of Mrs. M’Kittrick, wife of Mr. M’Kittrick, of the Congo Ballolo (Baptist) Mission, who remained to carry on missionary work after her husband’s death, said that under the influence of Gospel teaching the practice of cannibalism in that region had almost wholly ceased. What was the derivation of the word cannibal?
Mr. DARNELL DAVIS, of British Guiana, said it was derived from the Caribs, or Carribals, who ate the bodies of their enemies under the impression that they would thereby absorb the courage of the latter. A French writer had described the Caribs as such anthropophagic epicures that they could detect the different flavour of a Frenchman, a Spaniard, and an Englishman, and they liked the French flavour best. In regard to Captain Hinde’s “sly dig” at the missionaries, speaking as an unprejudiced Government official, he thought missionaries were hampered in their work by the fact that other white men, as a rule, practised the very opposite of what the missionaries preached.
And then a report of a comment from a name we might recognise:
Mr. E. S. HARTLAND said that in all probability the earliest form of cannibalism was that of the eating of deceased relatives. This practice extended over bhe greater part of the world, and many people would be surprised to learn that traces of it were to be found, not merely in Europe, but in our own islands. Not very long ago in Upper Bavaria, when a man died and had been laid out, a cake was made of ordinary flour. The corpse was placed before the fire, and this cake, called the corpse cake, was put upon its breast to rise. The dough, in rising, was believed to absorb all the virtues of the deceased, and the cake was afterwards eaten by his nearest relatives. In the Balkan Peniusula an edible image of the dead was carried in the funeral procession. When the body was buried the mourners ate this image above the grave, saying as they did so, “God rest him.”In Wales the practice of employing a “sin-eater” had only ceased within the memory of men still living. It was the custom for the nearest relative, usually a woman, to hand across the bier, or place upon the breast of the corpse, bread, cheese, and beer, which were eaten by the sin-eater, who pronounced everlasting rest to the departed. It was believed that the sin-eater by this means appropriated to himself all the sins which the deceased had committed during his lifetime.
Followed by a couple more comments:
Mr. STEPHEN BOURNE testified to the value of missionary effort in the spread of civilization, humanity, and religion.
Mr. SCOTT ELLIOTT gave details of the habits of the human “leopard” cannibals of the West Coast of Africa, and said that had it not been for Captain Hinde’s expedition he himself would have been killed and eaten. He had noticed that cannibalism in Africa seemed to be confined to the region of the dark forests.
And regret from the good Captain Hinde if any of his comments had been misconstrued as being disrespectful to missionaries:
CAPTAIN HINDE regretted that it should have been inferred from his paper that he had any intention of attacking missionaries; such was not the case in the least.
A briefer report printed in both The South Wales Daily Post, p4, and the Western Mail, p4, on that same Monday, September 16th, 1895, described to Welsh readers those same comments raised by Hartland:
CURIOUS WELSH CUSTOM.
TRACES OF CANNIBALISM IN WALES. “SIN-EATING” IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD OF SWANSEA.
In the course of the discussion raised by the reading of Captain S. L. Hinde’s paper on cannibalism at the Anthropological Section of the British Association at Ipswich on Saturday, an interesting feature connected with old Welsh social life was referred to by Mr. E. S. Hartland, of Gloucester. He said that there were traces of the olid custom eating the dead to be found, not merely in Europe, but in our own country. In Upper Bavaria, when a dead man was laid out, the first thing was to bake a corpse-cake of ordinary flour. The cake was put on the breast of the dead “to rise.” It was afterwards eaten by the nearest relatives. In the Balkan Peninsula an image of the dead was carried in the procession, and was eaten at the tomb, the relatives praying “God rest him!”. In our own country there were traces of these customs. In Wales there was within the recollection of men still living, the “sin-eater”. John Aubrey, who lived at the time of Charles II., and was a celebrated antiquary, witnessed this ceremony at Ross, in the county of Hereford. Aubrey described the man, who was a paid “sin- eater,” as “a long, lean, lamentably poor rascal.” It was the practice for a relative, usually a woman, to put on the breast of the dead a. quantity of bread, cheese, and beer. The “sin-eater” was expected to consume these things, and then to pronounce the everlasting rest of the departed. It was believed that in doing this he absolutely ate and appropriated to himself the sins of the deceased. The “sin-eater’ was given six- pence for his trouble, and took care to get out of people’s sight as soon as he oould. This practice was said to have existed in the neighbourhood of Swansea as recently as 1851, but the “sin-eater’s” price had then risen to half-a-crown. Probably the greater part of the human race had passed through this phase of cannibalism. and it was, perhaps, a necessary phase of the evolution of human civilisation.
An editorial comment in the Western Mail on that same date, *September 16th, 1895 (indeed, on the very same page, p4) similarly reviewed Hartland’s comments:
The interesting discussion which followed Captain Hinde’s paper on cannibalism before the anthropological section of the British Association at Ipswich on Saturday brought to light one or two facts connected with Welsh social life which are entitled to a passing notice. Mr. Hartland, of Gloucester, referred in the course of his comments to an old custom which obtained in Wales in times gone by, and which was called “sin-eating.” As late as 1851 traces of it still survived in the Swainsea Valley, and it would he worthwhile inquiring whether they have completely disappeared. The “sin-eater” was the individual who literally “took the cake” at the death of a neighbour, and in consumling it was supposed to “eat” the sins of the deceased.
The report acknowledges that whilst the passing of certain old traditions may be a loss to some, it also represents progress:
The custom was a relic of barbarism, and shows with what tenacity old beliefs and institutions hold on. The student of men and his ways must feel regret that so many ancient customs and usages have been relegated to oblivion, beyond any possibility of re-call. But it was hardly expected that they should have survived in a country like Wales, which has given itself over to the Sunday school and the Bible. It is a mistaken policy, however, to drive out ancient customs, for they form links between the present and the past, and relieve modern social life of much of the monotony which enters into its very texture.
A report of the proceedings that appeared originally in the Daily Telegraph of September 16th was also remarked upon, and quoted directly, in the north of England by the Yorkshire Evening Press of September 17th, 1895, p2:
WELSH “SIN EATER”
The “Daily Telegraph”, commenting on the proceedings of the British Association yesterday, says:— An interesting trace of old-world customs is to be found, according to Mr. Hartland, in this country. The Principality of Wales has within living memory possessed an official known as the “sin-eater.” It was the practise for a relative — usually a woman — to put on the breast of a deceased person a quantity of bread and cheese and beer, and the sin-eater was sent for to consume them and to pronounce the everlasting rest of the departed. It was believed that in doing this he absolutely ate and appropriated to himself the sins symbolised by the viands, and thereby prevented their disturbing the repose of the sinner who had committed them.
The Daily Telegraph author then describes their confusion as to what the sin-eater might, or might not, get out of this:
Such an arrangement would obviously leave nothing to be desired on one side, but how it worked on the other side we are not told. What was supposed to be the condition of the spiritual undertaker after the ceremony was concluded? Did in “appropriation” of the dead man’s sins imply a sort of moral assimilation of them answering to his physical assimilation of the bread and cheese. The question would obviously be one of some importance to a sin-eater in large practice. If the responsibilities of his profession were as great as they would appear to have been on this hypothesis, he would need to retire from it early, and to devote a considerable portion to his closing years to repentance and good works. Again, it is natural to ask what happened at the decease of a popular “fashionable” sin-eater. Would any one among his professional brethren undertake to eat his sins, even in the first flush of satisfaction produced by stepping into his shoes? If so, then indeed has the epithet of “gallant” been rightly bestowed upon little Wales.
A couple of days later, on Wednesday, September 18th, 1895, p6, a correspondent to the Western Mail appeared to provide several further pieces of evidence relating to the sin-eater tradition, although they are more than familiar to us already:
CURIOUS WELSH CUSTOM.
MORE ABOUT THE “SIN-EATER”
LAST OF THE RACE IN WALES.
Referring to the paragraph about the “Sin-eater” in Wales, and your comments in a leaderette, both in Monday’s issue (writes “Gwynfardd Dyfed”), it is interesting to learn that the superstition of the “Sin-eater” is said to have lingered even till 1881 int the secluded vale of Cwmamman, in Carmarthenshire. When a person died the friends sent for the “sin-eater” of the district, who, on his arrival, placed a plate of salt and bread on the breast of the deceased person; he would then utter an incantation over the bread, after which he proceeded to eat it, thereby eating the sins of the dead person; when this was finished he would receive a fee of 2s. 6d., after which he would leave the place as expeditiously as possible, all the friends and relatives of the departed aiding his exit with blows and sticks.
So that’s Moggridge’s account, essentially.
Then follows what looks like the paraphrasing of an extract from the Vol 8 Iss 182 edition of The Academy, dated November 6th, 1875, p. 478, as noted during the first controversy:
In 1875 the custom was extent in North and South Wales and the borders. The “sin-eater,” who gained his living by his services was usually hired when a funeral took place, and was given a loaf of bread and a maple bowl of beer or milk, and a sixpence, for which he bore away all the sins of the deceased, and prevented him or her walking after death. In Pembrokeshire a relic of this barbaric custom seems still to survive, for upon the breasts of nine out of every ten corpses the plate of silt is still placed. The bread and beer, the “sin-eater” and his sixpence have all vanished, but the plate of salt reniains. Even the placing of the plate of salt on the breast of the dead body seems to have lost its superstitious character, the act being now performed, so it is alleged, to keep down the swelling which takes place after death.
The correspondent also appears to be familiar with the Mountain Decameron, driectly quoting the mention to both Fosbroke as well as the fictional “last sin-eater of Wales”:
A Mr. Fosbroke, in his account of the town of Ross, quotes a letter which speaks of a “sin-eater” who lived by Ross highway, and is described as a gaunt, ghastly, lean, miserable poor rascal. A gentleman who lived a little before the time of this dark superstition becoming, obsolete gives us this brief account of what is believed to have been the last “sin-eater” of Wales: “I got lost,” says he, “near nightfall, after being landed by the ferry-boat from the Aber-of-Dovey, on the Cardiganshire side of that estuary. A black turbary of great extent divided me from the road. I was cautioned to ride far around this pitchy bog, for no horse ever ventured among the peat-pits, the whoe being a quaking morass. In truth, its look was enough under a black evening to keep me off even without peril of being swallowed, man and horse. At last, thanks to my starts, the good, hard rock of a rouch road rung to my horse’s hoof, and I saw a cottage taper, as ghastly as the “Canwyll Corph,” at a distance. The house was on a high point and turn of road, overlooking all those many acres of hollow ground. Just as I came, hoping lodging, I heard sounds of wailing within, and soon a woman came out into the dead night, late as it was, and cried a name to the top-pitch of her wild voice, that seemed like the one I had heard weeping indoors. When I looked in there lay a corpse of a man, with a plate of salt, holding a bit of bread, placed on its breast. The woman was shouting to the ‘sin eater’ to come and do his office; that is to eat the bread, lay his hand on the dead breast, place the dead man’s on his own, after making the sign of the cross, and then praying for a transfer of all pains or penances from that pardeoned dead man for ever. At last, what seemed a foggy meteor moved towards the cottage, and, after waiting long, the traveller caught a far-out shout in reply to the woman’s long unanswered, till she kindled on the high road’s point the straw of her husband’s late bed– the usual sign of a death in the house. The ‘sin-eater,’ it was said, lived alone in a hovel made of sea wreck, and nails of such, between the sea-marsh, and the bog, where few could approach by day, and where none dare go by night.
Reports were also to appear in various pages over the next few days, under various titles.
The Cambrian, “Cannibalism in Wales”, Sept. 20th, 1895
For the readers of The Cambrian, news of the meeting was not to reach them until the edition of September 20th, p8, under a most provocative title:
CANNIBALISM IN WALES
The discussion on cannibalism at the Anthropological Section of the British Association at Ipswich, on Saturday, was taken part in by Mr. E. S. Hartland, of Gloucester, but formerly of Swansea, who made an interesting reference to the old Welsh social life. He said that there were traces of the old custom of eating the dead to be found, not merely in Europe, but in our own country. In Wales, there was, within the memory of men still living, “the sin-eater.” It was the practice for a relative, usually a woman, to put on the breast of the dead a quantity of bread, cheese, and beer. The “sin-eater” was expected to consume these things, and then to pronounce the everlasting rest of the departed. It was believed that in doing this he absolutely ate and appropriated to himself the sins of the deceased. This practice was said to have existed in the of Swansea as recently as 1851.
Weekly Mail, “The Week”, Sept. 21st, 1895
Readers of the Weekly Mail also had to wait until September 21st, 1895, p8:
The interesting discussion which followed Captain Hinde’s paper on cannibalism before the anthropological section of the British Association at Ipswich on Saturday brought to light one or two facts connected with Welsh social life which are entitled to a passing notice. Mr. Hartland, of Gloucester, referred in, the course of his comments to an old custom which obtained in Wales in times gone by, and which was called “sin-eating.” As late as 1851 traces of it still survived in the Swansea Valley, and it would be worth while inquiring whether they have completely disappeared. The “sin-eater” was the individual who literally “took the cake” at the death of a neighbour, and in consuming it was supposed to “eat” the sins of the deceased. The custom was a relic of barbarism, and shows with what tenacity old beliefs and institutions hold on. The student of man and his ways must feel regret that so many ancient customs and usages have been relegated to oblivion, beyond any possibility of recall. But it was hardly expected that they should have survived in a country like Wales, which has given itself over to the Sunday school and the Bible. It is a mistaken policy, however, to drive out ancient customs, for they form links between the present and the past, and relieve modern social life of much of the monotony which enters into its very texture.
Montgomery County Times, “Sin-Eaters in Wales”, Sept. 21st, 1895
The audience of The Montgomery County Times and Shropshire and Mid-Wales Advertiser also had to wait for its edition of September 21st, 1895, p8:
“SIN-EATERS” IN WALES.
In the anthropological section of the British Association, which held its meetings at Ipswich last week, Captain L. S. Hinde on Saturday gave a description of some cannibals in the Congo district and their customs. In the discussion which followed Mr. E. S. Hartland (Gloucester) thought there were traces of the old custom of eating the dead to be found, not merely in Europe, but in our own country. In Upper Bavaria when a dead man was laid out, the first thing was to bake a corpse cake of ordinary flour. The. cake was put on the breast of the dead “to rise,” and was supposed to absorb the virtues of the deceased. It was afterwards eaten by the nearest relatives. In the Balkan Peninsula an image of the dead was carried in the procession, and was eaten at the tomb, the relatives praying “God rest him!” In our own country there were traces of these customs. In Wales there was within the recollection of men still living the sin eater.” John Aubrey, who lived at the time of Charles II., and was a celebrated antiquary, witnessed this ceremony at Ross, in the county of Hereford. Aubrey described the man, who was a paid sin-eater,” as a long, lean, lamentably poor rascal.” It was the practice for a relative, usually a woman, to put on the breast of the dead a quantity of bread, cheese, and beer. The” sin-eater” was expected to consume these things, and then pronounce the everlasting rest of the departed. It was believed that in doing this he absolutely ate and appropriated to himself the sins of the deceased. The “sin-eater” was given sixpence for his trouble, and took care to get out of people’s sight as soon as he could. This practice was said to have existedlin the neighbourhood of Swansea as recently as 1851, but the sin-eater’s price had then risen to half a crown. Probably the greater part of the human race had passed through this phase of cannibalism, and it was perhaps a necessary phase of the evolution of human civilisation.
A correspondent of Notes & Queries also made passing mention to the tradition, in the Vol 8 Iss 198 edition of October 10th, 1895, p288, piqued by interest in their own local paper (though we do not know which one):
Recently this old custom has been referred to in a local paper ; but the rather contradictory illustrations given call for an explanation, which doubtless some reader will be able to give. It is said that in Upper Bavaria, when a dead person is laid out, a cake of ordinary flour is put on his breast, which is to absorb the virtues of the deceased, the cake afterwards being eaten by the nearest relatives. In Wales, we are told, there was, within the recollection of persons living, the sin-eater. The relatives, in this case, put bread, cheese, and beer on the breast of the dead, and the sin-eater disposed of the lot, and pronounced the everlasting rest of the dead. Here the sin-eater was supposed to take upon himself the sins of the departed. This practice is said to have existed in this neighbourhood in 1851. It will be interesting to learn if these customs still exist ; if so, where. The old custom referred to in Leland’s ‘Collections’ was sin-eating pure and simple.
Alfred Chas. Jonas, F.R.Hist.S.
Pairfield, Poundfald, near Swansea.
A response in Vol 8 Iss 200, p332 ; 8th S, viii. 332 dated October 26th, 1895, referred readers to previous mentions of the topic in earlier editions of Notes & Queries.
Sin-eaters (8th S, viii. 288).
—See ‘N. & Q.,’ 1st S. iv. 211; vi. 390, 541, and the references there given. W. C. B.
For many readers around the country, that might have been the end of the matter; but for readers of the Western Mail for its review of the meeting, and for a certain reader of The Times, Hartland’s comments, as reported therein, were to be rather more provocative.