Monday, October 21, 2013

The Last Sin Eater


The restored grave of the last known "sin eater" in England is in a Shropshire village churchyard. Richard Munslow, was buried in Ratlinghope in 1906.

Sin-eaters were generally poor people paid to eat bread and drink beer or wine over a corpse, in the belief they would take on the sins of the deceased.

Frowned upon by the church, the custom mainly died out in the 19th Century.

It was prevalent in the Marches, the land around the England-Wales border, and in north Wales, but was rarely carried out anywhere else.

Believers thought the sin-eater taking on the sins of a person who died suddenly without confessing their sins would allow the deceased's soul to go to heaven in peace.

While most of the sin-eaters were poor people or beggars, Mr. Munslow was a well-established farmer in the area.

The Reverend Norman Morris, the vicar of Ratlinghope, a village of about 100 residents on the Long Mynd near Church Stretton explains: "It was a very odd practice and would not have been approved of by the church but I suspect the vicar often turned a blind eye to the practice."

THE SIN EATERS

Sin eaters and the custom of sin eating seem to come from Wales. Early descriptions of the ritual all mention the bread eaten over the corpse, as well as the payment of sixpence to the person assuming the sins of the dead. Below are two 19th century accounts of sin eaters.

"In the county of Hereford was an old custom at funerals to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the sins of the party deceased, and were called sin-eaters. One of them, I remember, lived in a cottage on Ross high-way. The manner was thus: when the corpse was brought out of the house, and laid on the bier, a loaf of bread was delivered to the sin-eater over the corpse, as also a mazar-bowl (a gossip's bowl of maple) full of beer, which he was to drink up, and sixpence in money; in consequence whereof, he took upon him, ipso facto, all the sins of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead. In North Wales, the sin-eaters are frequently made use of; but there, instead of a bowl of beer, they have a bowl of milk. This custom was by some people observed, even in the strictest time of the Presbyterian government. And at Dyndar, volens nolens the parson of the parish, the relations of a woman deceased there had this ceremony punctually performed according to her will. The like was done in the city of Hereford in those times, where a woman kept many years before her death, a mazar bowl for the sin-eater, and in other places in this county, as also at Brecon, at Llangore, where Mr. Gwin, the minister, about 1640, could not hinder this superstition."

-- Aubrey of Gentilisme, MS. quoted in Kennett's Par. Ant. vol. 2, p. 276.


In some part of Wales a very extraordinary rite was observed. "When a person died, the friends sent for the sin-eater of the district, who on his arrival places a piece of salt on the breast of the defunct, and upon the salt a piece of bread. He then muttered an incantation over the bread, which he finally ate; thereby eating up all the sins of the deceased. This done, he received the fee of two shillings and sixpence, and vanished as quickly as possible from the general gaze; for as it was believed that he really appropriated to his own use and behoof the sins of all those over whom he performed the above ceremony, he was utterly detested in the neighbourhood -- regarded as a mere Pariah -- as one irremediably lost."

Sin-eating was not a Bardic idea, it seems to have been a perverted and perverse tradition, probably reaching Wales by an oriental channel, in which the Jewish scape-goat and Christian Eucharistic Sacrifice are blended in disguise and distortion. "The popular notion in Pembrokeshire, with reference to the placing of salt on the bodies of the dead, was that it kept away the evil spirit."


-- From Welsh sketches, by Ernest Silvanus Appleyard

The Order

The Sin Eater's Last Confessions: Lost Traditions of Celtic Shamanism

The Sin Eater and Other Stories