BACK WHEN: The history of a strange profession — sin eaters

“AND NOW, FOR something completely different.”

For those dork dads out there, you will remember that is a quote from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

This month I am writing about sin-eaters. This topic has nothing to do with local history. In fact, I know of no one ever employed in this trade around here.

The origin of the professional sin eater dates to the Middle Ages. The whole idea may have come from the Bible in Hosea 4:8 where it is written, “They feed on the sin of My people.”

As is so often the case, when you take a text out of context you end up with a pretext.

The prophet Hosea was really condemning the priests of his time.

The priests were allowed to eat the meat which was sacrificed as a sin offering, which was meant to wipe away the sin of the people.

The priests, though, longed for the people to sin more so they would receive a steady supply of meat to eat.

Who was a sin eater?

The “sinne-eater” was a poor person hired to absorb the sins of recently deceased souls.

Families wanted to spare their deceased members the discomfort of purgatory.

The sin-eater would ceremoniously consume food prepared by the deceased’s family. This was often bread and ale. The food would be consumed in the vicinity of the corpse.

While the idea was commonplace, the custom was modified to suit local circumstances such as the person’s social class.

Observing the world, we can see funeral rites as varied as the numbers of people groups around the world.

According to customs the sin-eater was called, or presented himself, at the home of the deceased.

A crust of bread, which had been laid on the chest of the deceased was given to him to eat.

Then a small coin was placed in his palm.

Finally, he was covered in ashes and driven from the house with sticks.

The act itself was one of extreme humiliation and degradation.

Later, the custom was modified and ale and bread were partaken directly from the chest of the deceased.

The custom continued to be refined and became more elaborate. Later, banquets were provided for the sin-eater.

The scale of this banquet depended a great deal upon the status and wealth the deceased’s family.

The degree of the deceased’s sinfulness also entered into the matter.

In 1687 John Aubry wrote a book titled “Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme”.

It is a wonderful book you can use to cure any form of insomnia you might be experiencing.

You may need to research 17th century spellings and meanings of the words.

Aubry wrote of this custom describing first a man who was a “long, lean, ugly, lamentable poor raskal.”

This man would be called over to the deceased’s home. The corpse would be brought out and laid on the casket.

“A loafe of bread was brought out, and delivered to the Sinne-eater over the corps, as also a Mazar-bowle of maple (Gossips bowle) full of beer, which he was to drink up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he tooke upon him (ipso facto) all the Sinnes of the Defunct, and freed him (or her) from walking after they were dead.”

In 1714, John Leland described this custom.

When someone died, the sin-eater was notified and would arrive at the place where the deceased lay.

There, he stood before the door of the house.

He was furnished a stool to sit upon.

The family would give him some money, a piece of bread to eat and a bowl of ale to drink.

When he had finished eating and drinking, he got up and pronounced that the soul of the departed was at ease and rest.

He had thereby pawned his own soul instead.

Early sin-eaters were wretched people.

They were social outcasts who personified evil for the people in their community.

Since the custom inflicted the sins of the dead person upon the sin-eater, it was a popular idea that the sin-eater continued to be possessed by evil.

Sin-eating was a profession chosen by some.

They would typically live alone away from everyone else.

If someone encountered this person, they would avoid them like a leper.

Only when someone died were they sought out.

A small coin was usually sufficient to carry out the ceremony. But larger payments were never rejected.

Successful sin-eaters gained some popularity by looking and acting the part.

They could be humble, repulsive, and fiendish at the same time.

For the shrewd, sin-eating was lucrative.

They would simply exploit the superstitions of the masses.

In old literature you can find references to “funeral biscuit,” “funeral wine,” “funeral cakes,” and “dead cakes.” Shakespeare used the term “funeral meats.”

The ceremony may have existed into the start of the 20th century.

As with all customs, they change over time.

We know that Christmas, Easter and New Year’s Eve do not resemble the customs of an earlier time.

The function of the sin-eater was eventually replaced.

Family members would partake in wine and cakes prepared for the occasion.

Some went as far as to make cakes that resembled the deceased. It would feel weird to us to be eating a deceased relative’s face.

It all, in some way, conveyed the idea of having the edibles embody the sins and evil spirits of the departed.

Eventually the breads and cakes no longer represented the sins and evil spirits, but rather were provided to provide refreshment for the mourners.

Those baked goods also would be a token of remembrance.

It sounds like the reception after a memorial service or a grave-side service.

So, it really did become something completely different.

________

John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at woodrowsilly@gmail.com.

John’s Clallam history column appears the first Saturday of every month.

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