sin-eating


sin-eating
   Evidence for this dramatic *funeral custom rests largely on a statement in Aubrey's Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme (1686/1880), 35:
   In the County of Hereford was an old Custome at Funeralls to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the sinnes of the party deceased. One of them I remember lived in a Cottage on Rosse highway. (He was a long, leane, ugly, lamentable poor raskal.) The manner was that when the Corps was brought out of the house and layd on the Biere, a Loafe of bread was brought out and delivered to the Sinne-eater over the corps, as also a Mazar-bowle ... full of beer, which he was to drinke up, and sixpence in money, in consideration of which he tooke upon him (ipso facto) all the Sinnes of the Defunct, and freed him (or her) from walking after they were dead.
   Aubrey adds that he had heard of several Herefordshire examples, and believed the custom had once been common in Wales; in 1714 another antiquarian said he had seen a notebook of Aubrey's giving a second description, from Shropshire. In 1852 a Mr Moggridge of Swansea claimed it had existed at Llanderbie in Wales 'within the last twenty years'; the sin-eater would be given bread and salt which had been laid on the corpse's chest, plus half a crown, after which he quickly left, for he 'was regarded as a mere Pariah, as one irremediably lost' (Sikes, 1881: 322-4).
   During the next few decades folklorists hunted for further evidence of the practice. They had no difficulty finding instances of cakes and wine, or bread and ale, being consumed by mourners round the coffin, or distributed to the poor at the house or in the graveyard. This ceremonial eating and drinking in the presence of the corpse was common at 18th- and 19th-century funerals in midland and northern counties, especially in Yorkshire. But there was no further trace of a 'professional' human scapegoat, a sin-eater in Aubrey's and Moggridge's sense.
   These customs are best understood as echoes of medieval Requiems, and of the custom of giving alms to the poor (including food) in exchange for their prayers, normally distributed beside the grave or coffin. Scriptural support could be found in the Book of Tobias (or Tobit) which forms part of the Greek and Latin Bible: 'Alms deliver from all sin, and from death, and will not suffer the soul to go into darkness Lay your bread and your wine on the grave of a just man' (Tobias 4: 11, 18). Vague memories of this religious context persisted into the late 19th century. One Herefordshire farmer is reported as saying, 'You must drink, sir, it's like the Sacrament, it's to kill the sins of my sister' (Leather, 1912: 121); in Derbyshire a farmer's daughter explained, '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' (Addy, 1895: 123-4; Addy, letter in N&Q 8s:9 (1896), 296).
   Some slight hearsay evidence can be added. In 1945 a folklorist said he had heard of a few 19th-century cases in East Anglia where 'some unsuspecting person, usually a tramp' was given bread and *salt which had been laid on a corpse, thus acquiring its sins; he said tramps still avoided houses where there had been a death, for fear of this trick (L. F. Newman, FolkLore 56 (1945), 291-2). In 1958 came more second-hand information from the Fens: an old lady who had died in 1906 had been told, when young, how a woman who was a sin-eater ('who, incidentally, was shunned by all the villagers') had qualified herself for the task. She had taken so much poppy-tea that she seemed to be dying, and the minister gave her absolution; she recovered, and was told by her friends that now that she was free of her own sins she could take on other people's, which she used to do by eating bread and salt laid on the shrouds of the dead and being paid thirty pennies, whitewashed to look like silver (Enid Porter, Folklore 69 (1958), 115).
   For an anthropological interpretation, see E. S. Hartland, Folk-Lore 3 (1892), 145-57; he thought the custom is derived from cannibalism. Letters debating the issue will be found in The Times (18 Sept. 1895), and N&Q 8s:9 (1896), 109-11, 169-70, 296.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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