The Century Ends

The Century Ends#

As the nineteenth century came to end, the episodes of active debate surrounding the historical existence, or otherwise, of the sin-eater came to an end.

From now on, it would become more of a historical curiosity, as the following note in Carmarthenshire notes (antiquarian, topographical, and curious) October 28th, 1899, p100 demonstrates. Even as an appeal for more information was made, the quesion apparently went without response:


Some years ago, an account of the sin-eater appeared in a London periodical. The function of this person was to attend funerals, and eat the deceased’s sins with cakes, swilled down with nut brown ale on the coffin. It was alleged that sin-eating took place at Llandebie in 1852. The Rev. Daniel Silvan Evans, the lexicographer, made enquiries and found there was no foundation to the story, and that the sin eater was a myth. I lived at Llandebie in that year, and never heard of such a superstitiou. Have any of your readers heard of this superstition in other parts of the country?


J. Rowland (Giraldus).

Often, mentions in the press appear to be triggered by references to the sin-eater tradition appearing in other periodicals, as for example in the Barry Herald of May 6th, 1898, p2:


Within the last few decades a curious custom has disappeared in Wales. This (says a writer in the current issue of the Rambler) is the sin-eating ceremony. It was the practice, when anyone died, for a relative to place on his or her body a quantity of bread, cheese, and beer. The “sin-eater” was then sent for, and his duty was to consume these provisions, and to pronounce the everlasting rest of the departed. It was believed that, like the Hebrew scapegoat, he thus took upon himself the misdoings of the departed, and, by the act of eating the food, freed the soul of the deceased from all its burden of sin. As to the eventual responsibility of the sin-eater himself we have no conclusive information. Perhaps a brother “sin-eater” eventually relieved him. At any rate, he found good provender to ease his conscience qualms.

At other times, we just appear to get echoes, as for example in the The Western Mail of September 21st, 1894, p4 recalling Aubrey:

Wales Day By Day

Aubrey, writing about the middle of ths seventeenth century, remarks that, “in the strictest time of Presbyterian government, one very singular custom was prevalent in many parts of rural England and Wales: — “In Shropshire… when a person died, there was notice given to an old ‘sire’ (for so they called him), who presently repaired to the place where the deceased lay, and stood before the door of the house, where some of the family furnished him with a cricket or stool, on which he sat down facing the door. Then they gave him a groat, which he put in his pocket, a crust of bread, which he ate, and a bowl of ale, which he drank off at one draught. After this he got up from the cricket, and pronounced with a composed gesture “the peace and rest of the soul departed, for which he would pawn his own soul”. A similar scene is also recorded at Ross, about 1640, when the local “sin-eater,” “a long, lean, lamentable poor rascal,” came, “when the corpse was taken out of the house and laid upon a bier … and received a loaf of bread, and a mazard bowl of maple fuil of beer (which he was to drink up), and sixpence in money, in consideration of which he took upon him, ‘ipso facto,’ all the sins of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they woere dead.” It is noticeable (remarks a writer in the “Globe”) that the “sin-eater’s” fee was 2d. dearer in Herefordshire than in Shropshire, but it is not recorded whether this arose from the fact that people were wickeder in the former than the latter county.