Book Review, Gothic Fiction, Uncategorized

Welsh Gothic Tropes V: The Sin-Eater


The Sin-Eater was a Welsh export to America, now so forgotten in Wales and so connected with Appalachia, that most Welsh might now consider it to be an American phenomenon, rather than a part of their own history. The Sin-Eater has their* own chapter in Jane Aaron’s Welsh Gothic (Chapter 6) and this is the last post of my Welsh Gothic series!

There are three main sections to this long chapter, the last in Aaron’s book, except for her post-Devolution epilogue. She opens with a literary illustration of the practice, then discusses the historical sin-eater in Wales, the sin-eater in Welsh literature, and the sin-eater beyond Wales. I’m going to leave out the last section for this post, but Aaron discusses the mainly American lit in which this figure appears, with particular reference to Native American postcolonial literature.

*I use the singular their in this case because, while the sin-eater was generally male, this was not always the case.

The Sin-Eater in Life

Aaron discusses the sin-eater as a figure, and the debate surrounding whether they were a real aspect of Welsh history or a fabrication of John Aubrey (1626-97), who first recorded the phenomenon. The practice was often not explicitly referred to, and despite the Nonconformist ministers’ vehement denials that any such practice existed, there is evidence that it was not as fictional as they would have liked.

Neither was sin-eating exclusive to Wales: it was also found in the Borders, and the ‘last sin-eater’ in England, who died in 1906, was honoured by a special service in 2010 when his grave at Ratlinghope, Shropshire, was restored. Richard Munslow was a well-established and well-respected farmer in the area, which makes his position unusual.

Sin-eaters were typically scapegoats of their communities, and the practice seems to have come from a popular folk-Christian understanding of the Old Testament practice. If someone died suddenly without having confessed their sins to a priest, the sin-eater was called for, usually a poor person who was paid to eat bread and drink wine/ale over the corpse in a Eucharistic manner, and in doing so ingested the sins of the deceased and took them all upon themselves.

This kind of ritual falls into the realm of Folk-Christianity – that is, practices, rituals, beliefs and symbols relating to Christianity but coming from sources other than the Church or religious leaders – which is often denied or misunderstood. The Yorkshire Post‘s article on Ripon sin-eaters erroneously suggests this practice is ‘pre-Christian’, despite the basis of the ritual being taken from both Leviticus 16 and the New Testament institution of the Lord’s Supper, underpinned by a [Christian] Eschatological theology of substitution.

That the sin-eater appears in the North of England too (and was probably more widespread than we think) is possibly indicative not only of patterns of movement, settlement and contact in the Middle Ages (the Earl of Lincoln settled his North-Welsh lordship with men from Lancashire and Yorkshire), but also of the popularity of the practice in communities where the poorer working classes could be exploited for the purpose, or could gain some kind of status in their communities by performing this role as a public service.

The practice had largely died out by the nineteenth century, and Richard Munslow was not a poor man, nor was he ostracised in his community as other sin-eaters were. It is suggested that he revived the practice after the deaths of his first three children, perhaps as a means of giving reassurance to other grieving families that their loved ones would find peace.

Munslow was probably part of the inspiration for Shropshire novelist Mary Webb’s 1924 novel, Precious Bane, where sin-eating appears. For anyone new to Webb and/or this novel, Eloise Millar critiqued this bestseller in her book blog in 2009, describing Webb as ‘brighter and better than Thomas Hardy‘, although in my opinion that’s not a difficult feat. Sin-eating is mentioned particularly in Chapter 4.

Munslow isn’t mentioned as an example in Aaron’s chapter, as the historical section is concerned with exploring why the knowledge of the practice was denied, and what evidence there is that it actually took place. However, since she did discuss vampire lit with reference to the Borders almost exclusively, I don’t see it as a stretch to include the evidence from Shropshire here, and add it to Aaron’s own argument that the historic practice was not Aubrey’s invention.

I mention the English and Borders examples here to illustrate that the practice was also not as exclusively Welsh as Aaron make it out to be. Even in the third section of the chapter, Aaron treats it as a Welsh export, and focuses mainly on the American context, but doesn’t discuss it in relation to England.

The Sin-Eater in Literature

Hearts of Wales, (1905) by Allen Raine, was almost titled The Sin-Eater instead. This is a historical fiction novel set in the fifteenth century, featuring a sin-eater, Iestyn Mai, who took the role on by choice, rather than being forced into abjection by circumstances or status. Raine’s sin-eater doesn’t even believe in the practice, performing it as a public service to those who do. Iestyn’s penance stems from the realisation he shared in ill-gotten gains from the betrayal of his lord, Owain Glyndwr. The novel, Aaron argues, suggests that ‘the national disgrace of not having been stalwart enough in support of independence movements is at the heat of Wales’. (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 182).

The Forerunner, (1910) by Henry Elwyn Thomas, a Wesleyan minister, represents sin-eating as a relic of Roman Catholicism. This novel is set in the seventeenth century, in the years prior to the English Civil War, and features Nell, granddaughter of Puritan martyr John Penry, who is kidnapped and incarcerated in a convent by her rejected lover, Shôn Jones. Shôn has taken up sin-eating to atone for the sins of his father, none other than the (real life) highwayman, Twm Siôn Cati.

Ifor Owain (1911), also by Henry Elwyn Thomas, is a Welsh-language novel set in the 1640s. Here also sin-eating is depicted as a tradition of Catholicism being slowly eradicated ‘by the light of Protestantism’. His sin-eater in this novel is Arthur Vaughan, who adopted the role to atone for killing the priest who murdered his betrothed (except, of course, he isn’t).

The problem with this interpretation is that if sin-eating was a Roman Catholic survival, it would surely have been known in Ireland, but Aaron’s research has not shown up any such practice in Irish funeral rites. Thomas’s use of it is used to blacken Catholicism in support of Protestantism, but it’s unlikely that this is where the tradition actually stems from.

Ffynon, the Sin-Eater, (1914) by Eleanor Nepean under the pseudonym ‘A Whisper’, critiques the way Welsh Nonconformity ‘supported the sexual double standard, making scapegaots of its women and afflicting them with dread of their own sexuality’. (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p.184). Fynnon/Fynon is a metaphorical sin-eater, however, not a literal one.

Ffynnon Morgan, whose name is spelled with two ‘n’s in the text but one on the title page, is the novel’s heroine. Fynnon is the beautiful daughter of a lay preacher, and the ‘widowed’ mother of a sickly child. A visiting Englishman, Paul Lethbridge, familiar with the stereotype of wanton Welsh women, inquires about her, and is haughtily told that of course she was married or else she would not have a child. Fynnon, however, is not only unmarried, but her father’s intense fury at her pregnancy was the cause of his death. She takes all the blame on herself, and at the novel’s close she is pregnant again by Paul who has since deserted her. Fynnon commits suicide, a victim of the predatory nature of the English tourist, but also of the sexual morality of Welsh Nonconformity which scapegoats and destroys her. She becomes a sin-eater not through physically eating the sins of others over the corpse, but embodies the trope regardless.

The burden of shame is even more pronounced in ‘The sin-eater: a Welsh legend’ (1920), a long narrative poem by Septimus G. Green, where a wrecker called ‘Black Evan’, also known as ‘the human spider’, calls for bread and salt to be placed on his chest as he lies dying. Morgan the sin-eater comes to take on Evan’s sins in exchange for gold, here described as an avaricious marsh-dweller, ‘gaunt, ghastly, lean, miserable and poor’ and ‘the devil’s priest’. Morgan duly takes Evan’s sins for his pay, despite knowing his own brother was one of Evan’s victims. The next morning, Evan’s widow finds Morgan dead on the threshold of their house, ‘scorched as if with heaven’s bolt / His greedy hands still clutching at the gold’, which she retrieves for her own use.

‘The sins of the fathers’, (1939) by Christanna Brand (Mary Christianna Milne Lewis, 1905-97), also reflects the theme of the whole community being abject, not only the sin-eater. Brand was the Malayan-born wife of a Welsh surgeon, and her short story was republished in the Fifth Pan Book of Horror Stories in 1964, and filmed in the 1970s as part of the popular US TV Night Gallery series. This did much to bring sin-eating into the popular imagination of the United States. A full review of the TV episode can be found on David Juhl’s wordpress site.

In this tale, the wife of a sin-eater tricks both the desperate mourners of a Welsh village out of their sin-eating, and tricks her own son into inheriting his father’s profession. Who eats the sins of the sin-eater? In this case, it is the starving boy who would rather die than perform the ritual – and as he returns home with the bread and salt secreted about his person, having cheated the community of the rite, his mother takes it from him and lays it upon his own father, who has died while Ianto was out on his behalf. Ianto is trapped into the position (and the only means by which the family can earn a living) by a sense of family duty, but is also saved from death by starvation by his strong-minded mother, with whom the reader is meant to sympathise.

Aaron notes that following World War II the sin-eater was a less common trope in literature in general, resurfacing in the 1960s in the voluntary public-service guise.

The Walk Home (1962) by Glyn Jones is set in nineteenth-century Wales, and his sin-eater, Jethro Coleman, has taken on the role voluntarily as ‘a necessary cleansing and healing act in the service of others’ (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 187). Typical of Jones’s work, which often features a young, unreliable narrator who comes to idolise an older boy or father-figure, the novel’s young narrator, David Rowlands, comes to idolise the man in black, and assists him in his rituals. David witnesses the ghoulish nature of the communities, noticing ‘a lip-licking quality to the mourners: the Sin-Eater was a relish on their Sunday meat, a Sunday extra’. They throw stones at them as they leave after the ritual, and when David returns to Borth later in the tale, he is singled out as ‘the Sin-Eater’s boy’, beaten up and urinated upon.

The community show themselves to be more abject and vicious than the sin-eater, whose self-respect and dignity is a stark contrast to those he serves.

The Sin-Eater, (1971) by Gerry Jones, takes place during the First World War. In a similar way to Fynon, no sin-eating actually takes place, but the main character David James returns to his bleak, impoverished home to discover his pregnant and unmarried sister has committed suicide. He feels as if all the family’s guilt is being laid on his shoulders, and he in turn blames the coldness of their mother, supported by the hellfire-and-damnation preaching of the minister every Sunday. By the end of the novel, their mother is mad, their father is dead (also possibly suicide) and their brother Iorwerth, who had taunted their late sister with her ‘crime’, is discovered to be illegitimate and not their father’s son. The high standards of chapel culture are presented as perversely encouraging falls from grace, but simultaneously then creating too great a burden of guilt and shame for the fallen party to sustain life or reason after falling.

“What in God’s name is it about Wales? What terrible primeval power seems to lurk in this place?” David laments, almost glad to flee to the far less complex horrors of the Trenches (Jones, The Sin-Eater, p. 48).

The Sin-Eater, (1977) by Alice Thomas Ellis also reflects this in her contemporary 1970s-set novel, in a place where the cold chapel culture has lost its grip. Here, though, Welsh families can still be doomed by ‘the slow decline of the patriarchals and what they had stood for’ (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 189). The novel follows the family of Captain Ellis, an irascible, angry man who is not mourned by his children, although his daughter-in-law believes (sardonically) that Captain Ellis had an agreement with his housekeeper Phyllis to consume bread and salt off his dead chest in line wit the old primitive custom.

After the Captain’s death, Phyllis does get angrier and angrier, and when she learns that Michael, one of the Captain’s married sons, has seduced her grandson Gomer, she tampers with the brakes on Michael’s car. Unfortunately, it’s not Michael who drives off in the sabotaged vehicle, and by allowing her anger to consume her, Phyllis brings about the deaths of more than her intended victim and decimates the family.

In this novel, it’s not only the patriarch of the family who is destroyed but also the younger generation, the family’s hope for the future. The burden of guilt for this sin is on Phyllis, the sin-eater, who had also performed the ritual for her late husband. The sin-eater trope here is used to show how each generation inherits the sins of the previous generation, and how this serves to ruin each generation in turn.

Aaron concludes the chapter by looking at the postcolonial literary uses of the trope outside of Wales (primarily in American literature) and how these themes transpose into the abjection of colonial subjects, such as the enforced use of Native Americans as sin-eaters to the White settlers in Sherman Alexie’s The Toughest Indian in the World (2000).

The Sin-Eater Figure is one that over-arches a lot of the main themes Aaron picked out through the course of the book, such as Gothicising Dissent, Welsh subjugation and complicity in abjection, etc., and can be used to personify these themes. It makes this a good post to round off the series!

I hope you’ve enjoyed the Welsh Gothic series of posts… and that you’ve been inspired to check out Aaron’s book for yourself and read all the stuff I’ve not mentioned. I’ll be taking a break over the holidays but will be scheduling more posts on other Gothic themes in the New Year!


[In the meantime, check out my book The Crows, buy links on my homepage… and check out the previous posts if you missed any! Au revoir xx]

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