It’s funny how very often pondering one thing will lead on to quite another. Recently I was thinking about how much great English literature has been written by women – novels in particular. I don’t mean the oh-so-sensitive Jane Austin or the bodice-rippers of the Bronte sisters, but rather women who wrote wonderful books but didn’t avoid the harsh social and political realities of the times in which they lived or about which they wrote. Women such as Elizabeth Gaskell, George Elliot and Mary Shelley, there are many more. One of my own favourites was Mary Webb.
Mary Webb was a Shropshire writer and she beautifully evokes a sense of place. In her last novel, Precious Bane (1924), set at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, that place is Sarn Mere. It is a fictitious village on a small lake (‘mere’) in the flatlands of northern Shropshire:
There’s a discouragement about the place. It may be the water lapping, year in and year out–everywhere you look and listen, water; or the big trees waiting and considering on your right hand and on your left; or the unbreathing quiet of the place, as if it was created but an hour gone, and not created for us.
Prudence Sarn and her brother Gideon are burying their father and the coffin is standing by the grave. The mourners had all ‘drank good health’ to their father from the ‘big pewter tankard full of elderberry wine’, which was all their mother had been able to afford. But ‘at the coffin foot was our little pewter measure full of wine, and a crust of bread with it, but nobody touched them.’
One of the mourners, a certain Sexton, then stepped forward and asked:
’Be there a Sin Eater?’
And Mother cried out –
‘Alas, no! Woe’s me! There is no Sin Eater for poor Sarn. Gideon gainsayed it.’
Mary Webb’s narrator Prudence then tells us what a sin-eater was:
Now it was still the custom at that time, in our part of the country, to give a fee to some poor man after a death, and then he would take bread and wine handed to him across the coffin, and eat and drink, saying –
I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man, that ye walk not over the fields nor down the by-ways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul.
And with a calm and grievous look he would go to his own place. Mostly, my Grandad used to say, Sin Eaters were such as had been Wise Men or layers of spirits, and had fallen on evil days. Or they were poor folk that had come, through some dark deed, out of the kindly life of men, and with whom none would trade, whose only food might oftentimes be the bread and wine that had crossed the coffin. In our time there were none left around Sarn. They had nearly died out, and they had to be sent for to the mountains. It was a long way to send, and they asked a big price, instead of doing it for nothing as in the old days.
So Gideon said: ‘We’ll save the money. What good would the man do?’ But their mother ‘would not be comforted’ because her husband ‘had died in his wrath, with all his sins upon him’. ‘He had died in his boots, which is a very unket thing and bodes no good.’ So when Sexton calls out once again, ‘Be there a Sin Eater?’:
Then a strange, heart-shaking thing came to pass. Gideon stepped up to the coffin and said -
‘There is a Sin Eater.’
‘Who then? I see none,’ said Sexton.
‘I ool be the Sin Eater.’
He took up the little pewter measure full of darkness, and he looked at Mother.
‘Oot turn over the farm and all to me if I be the Sin Eater, Mother?’ he said.
‘No, no! Sin Eaters be accurst!’
‘What harm, to drink a sup of your own wine and chumble a crust of your own bread? But if you dunna care, let be. He can go with the sin on him.’
With grave misgivings the mother eventually relents; to save her husband’s soul from Satan: ‘If there’s none else to help, let his own lad take pity.’ Gideon wants to make sure that his mother will give him the family farm if he acts as his father’s sin-eater. ‘Yes, yes, my dear!’, she says, ‘What be the farm to me? You can take all, and welcome.’
Then Gideon drank the wine all of a gulp, and swallowed the crust. There was no sound in all the place but the sound of his teeth biting it up.
Then he put his hand on the coffin, standing up tall in the high black hat, with a gleaming pale face, and he said –
‘I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.’
There was a sigh from everybody then, like the wind in dry bents. Even the oxen by the gate, it seemed to me, sighed as they chewed the cud.
But when Gideon said, ‘Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows,’ I thought he said it like somebody warning off a trespasser.
Of course Gideon had made a type of Faustian pact to get the farm, his bane is gold, which he sets of to acquire quite regardless of the harm he will do to others. He is, of course, cursed and doomed.
Precious Bane is a wonderful book but what concerns me here is the idea of sin-eaters. Although sin-eating was particularly prevalent in Wales and the English border counties (including Shropshire) it was also found around other parts of Britain and Europe. It even found its way to America.
In a 1926 book entitled Funeral Customs we read:
Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse with his fellow creatures by reason of the life he had chosen; he lived as a rule in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption.
In the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica we are told:
A symbolic survival of it (sin eating) was witnessed as recently as 1893 at Market Drayton, Shropshire. After a preliminary service had been held over the coffin in the house, a woman poured out a glass of wine for each bearer and handed it to him across the coffin with a ‘funeral biscuit.’ In Upper Bavaria sin-eating still survives: a corpse cake is placed on the breast of the dead and then eaten by the nearest relative, while in the Balkan peninsular a small bread image of the deceased is made and eaten by the survivors of the family. The Dutch doed-koecks or ‘dead-cakes’, marked with the initials of the deceased, introduced into America in the 17th century, were long given to the attendants at funerals in old New York.
So in fact sin-eaters hadn’t quite died out at the end of the Napoleonic wars when Mary Webb’s novel is set. Prudence even tells us that ‘they had to be sent for to the mountains’. In England it seems the last sin-eater only died in 1906 in the village of Ratlinghope, this is indeed in the South Shropshire ‘mountains’ – in A E Housman’s ‘Blue Remembered Hills’. His name was Richard Munslow. Mr. Munslow, it seems, wasn’t a poor person or a beggar but a well-to-do farmer who ‘appears to have taken on the job after losing 3 of his children in a Whooping Cough outbreak.’ One can only imagine the tragedy of this.
Recently his grave had fallen into a bad state and the locals of Ratlinghope raised £1,000 for its restoration. Even the BBC reported in 2010 on the special service held in Ratlinghope Church in honour of this ‘the last of the sin-eaters’:
Frowned upon by the church, the custom mainly died out in the 19th Century.
The Reverend Norman Morris, the vicar of Ratlinghope, a village of about 100 residents on the Long Mynd near Church Stretton, led the “God’s Acre” service at St Margaret’s Church.
Mr. Morris said: “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… This grave at Ratlinghope is now in an excellent state of repair but I have no desire to reinstate the ritual that went with it”
Aren’t Anglican vicars such lovely understanding people today! Maybe previous vicars had turned a blind eye, though as sin-eating was seen as akin to pagan witchcraft maybe quite a few were burned as heretics as well. Isn’t it rather ironic that our nice vicar has ‘no desire to reinstate the ritual that went with it’ although the whole of Christianity is based on the belief that Jesus Christ ‘died for our sins’ – just as the sin-eaters took the sins of the dying or dead upon themselves. Every week Catholics can confess their sins and be absolved and during every Mass Christians literally drink the blood of Christ and eat his body. So not much difference there.
But what is this concept of sin? Christianity tells us that because of the ‘original sin’ we are all ‘fallen’ and every one of us is born sinful, even little children. Even kindly Anglican vicars will still come into your house and tell you that your small daughter is a sinner and that you must acknowledge this before baptism. What bunkum. A good boot up the behind is I think in order.
For me the word ‘Sin’ has become so contaminated by religious dogma that we might as well abandon it. I prefer the equally graphic word ‘Evil’. Perhaps the best definition I have heard of evil is that it is the total absence of empathy. Only people or institutions who lack empathy can commit the individual and group atrocities we witness throughout the world every day.
We don’t need sin-eaters any more, whether of the Gideon Sarn kind or the Christian kind. Whether we call things sins or evil, people and institutions need to be held responsible for the acts they commit in this life, not absolved from them every Sunday or on their death bed so they can go to heaven.