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 Sin Eaters

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Caro
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PostSubject: Sin Eaters   Mon 09 Jul 2012, 01:28

I am reading (slowly) Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian set sometime in the late 18th century, I'm not sure when. At one point he talks of one of the seamen being very unpopular with the other men, because he has let slip that he is a sin-eater.

I have never heard of such a thing, but apparently it was someone who, on the death of a person, took their sins onto him. I would have thought such a person should have a Jesus-like aura, but the sailors shunned him. (Sailors are very superstitious, so I don't know how his land neighbours felt about him. Or how someone got chosen for such a calling/occupation.

One of you is bound to know more about this and be able to enlighten me, please.

Caro.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: Sin Eaters   Tue 10 Jul 2012, 23:58

The sin-eater was traditionally a transient person (beggar or vagabond) who undertook through a ritual eating of bread or similar at a funeral to absorb the sins of the deceased and then quit the community. It is a social phenomenon very akin to the ancient scapegoat.

Its popularity in rural England seems to have mushroomed in post-reformation times. The priests's traditional role of absolving the dying person's sins was not reproduced within the reformed church's rites though there obviously continued a very real perceived need for the service. The vagabond did it for a fee.
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PostSubject: Re: Sin Eaters   Wed 11 Jul 2012, 00:44

Fascinating stuff. I for one had never heard of this. The vagabond would have been an unbeliever, I guess - and they must have been rare. Modern shrinks would have a field day with this one - assuming the vagabond goes for treatment.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: Sin Eaters   Wed 11 Jul 2012, 00:52

I assume the vagabond, besides his entrepreneurial bent, was as much a believer as the rest of the community. Just how you classify their set of beliefs however is a moot point in the context of established religion.
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PostSubject: Re: Sin Eaters   Wed 11 Jul 2012, 01:01

To assume someone else's sin might be considered a virtue. This leads to a convoluted appraisal of virtue - and in whose sight? In my opinion, religions have a tendency to underestimate the God image they each sustain.
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PostSubject: Re: Sin Eaters   Wed 11 Jul 2012, 01:13

Catholic priests do it all the time and consider it a virtuous occupation. I remember as a child raising this very point with a Christian Brother - at what point does the person who has to listen to all this vice decide that he's becoming inured and therefore susceptible to falling (to use their phrase)? The answer I got was that God can be used as a buffer. I wasn't convinced. Recent history has indicated I was right.
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PostSubject: Re: Sin Eaters   Wed 11 Jul 2012, 19:46

1906 - the Last Sin-Eater of All England?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-shropshire-11360659

And he was no vagabond, but "a well-established farmer".

Being deprived of the comfort of Extreme Unction must have been terrible for many devout folk after the Reformation.

There's an interesting discussion of the efficacy of this sacrament in the last chapter of "Brideshead Revisited" ("A Twitch Upon the Thread"). Charles Ryder is appalled at what he calls "a lot of witchcraft and hypocrisy", to which statement Julia Marchmain angrily replies: "Is it? Anyway, it's been going on for nearly two thousand years. I don't know why you should suddenly get in a rage now... For Christ's sake, write to "The Times"; get up and make a speech in Hyde Park; start a "No Popery" riot, but don't bore me about it. What's it got to do with you or me whether my father sees his parish priest?"

Cara, Lord Marchmain's mistress, is perhaps more convincing. She simply says that when she is dying she will make very sure she receives that particular sacrament - one which is denied to Protestants.

Actually I think the CofE does do a watered down version of Extreme Unction (on request). The local (rural) sin-eater would perhaps be more use, but who's to say?
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PostSubject: Re: Sin Eaters   Wed 11 Jul 2012, 23:00

Quote :

The sin-eater was traditionally a transient person who undertook through a ritual eating of bread or similar at a funeral to absorb the sins of the deceased and then quit the community. Its popularity in rural England seems to have mushroomed in post-reformation times. The priests's traditional role of absolving the dying person's sins was not reproduced within the reformed church's rites though there obviously continued a very real perceived need for the service.

I don't think this quite equates with priests giving absolution for sins - they don't accept the sins onto themselves, presumably. However it still seems odd to me that such a practice, very reminiscent to my mind of the sacrament of taking bread and drink as a symbol/substitute for Jesus - "This do ye in remembrance of me" - should result in the person being shunned and turned from the parish.

Though I have always found the idea of the sacrament a little too akin to cannibalism for my liking. I always thought in the Presbyterian religion it was a symbolic gesture, but I think I read later that Presbyterian theology was also that you are actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ. In the Presbyterian religion you joined the church and then took communion, if I remember rightly, and I don't think I got to that stage, though I do remember taking communion on occasions - you could if you wanted to, I think.

The book I read about the plague in the 15th C described how difficult the lack of people to take absolution was for the community, and how one solution was for women and laity to be given more leeway in this. Not always to the satisfaction of priests or the public. But not to be absolved was a matter of panic and absolute distress to those close to them. I suppose the sin-eaters had something of the feel of those corrupt priests that came after this, wanting bribes for such services.

I had difficulty with the end of Brideshead Revisited. (I think I had difficulty with quite a bit of it - some wonderful paragraphs of writing and thought, but their lives seemed at times, well, silly. I wasn't sure the characters were completely realised.)

Caro.
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PostSubject: Re: Sin Eaters   Wed 11 Jul 2012, 23:29

I'd never heard of this practice either and it does seem a strange amalgamation of different ideas and beliefs. As Nordmann said, it has a lot in common with the rites of Yom Kippur with the goat being sent into the wilderness carrying the sins of the nation but set in the context of the medieval view of death as being more of a process than a single event so the expiry of the person would not preclude the transmission of his sins to someone else.
I suppose that the identification of Christ with the scapegoat could explain the consumption of bread and wine over the corpse; Christ bore all sins and the consumption of his blood and body would transfer them to the sin eater.

I'm pretty certain that any reformed church would baulk at the idea of transubstantiation, there have been a lot of corpses piled up over that idea.
In the far off days when I attended church, largely to show off my hat collection and bellow some good old Moody and Sankey hymns, communion was only given to those who had a communion card, the elder would deliver these before the service, and when attending a different church, as when on holiday, this had to be arranged beforehand. Most people joined the church by taking communion classes, usually in their very late teens or early twenties. I'd cast myself adrift long before that.
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PostSubject: Re: Sin Eaters   Thu 12 Jul 2012, 00:04

Sin eating was performed only in connection with near dead or recently dead "clients" and only if the sin eater was contracted to do so, either by the dying person or their family. It was particularly common in the English counties bordering Wales (though not in Wales as far as I know) and was actually the subject of a House of Lords debate in 1835. At that time all Church of England policy was decided essentially by act of parliament (until 1919 when the Church Assembly - now the General Synod - was formed to facilitate passing legislation which applied only the C of E). The debate was prompted, rather surprisingly, by an inquiry then being conducted under the Lords into the prison system and in which one issue that arose was the fear expressed by both inmates and staff in West Country prisons that sin eating would be outlawed. This led to a secondary debate concerning the religious significance of the practice and revealed that even the C of E bishops were divided geographically on the matter. Those in the west knew about it and condoned it. The rest were as ignorant about it as anyone else. Lord Melbourne, then also chief minister in the Commons, insisted that the C of E rule on the matter. They outlawed it.

In prisons (and I assume on Royal Navy ships) it was the practise to force already unpopular inmates (or crew members) to take the role of the vagabond in rural life and "eat" the sins of the departed. O'Brian has changed this a little by having his sin-eater act voluntarily and thereby incur unpopularity.

During Edward Edwards' courtmartial following the sinking of the Pandora, the doomed voyage to recover the mutineers of the Bounty and bring them back to English justice, it was revealed that he had himself narrowly avoided a mutiny during his earlier command of the Narcissus for flogging a sin-eater on board (though not for sin-eating, for theft). I imagine this was what inspired O'Brian.
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PostSubject: Re: Sin Eaters   Thu 12 Jul 2012, 00:33

I walked out during a communion service when I was about 15 - it was all too theatrical and lacking in sincerity. I would have made a useless catholic though I suspect our vicar of that time would have relished a bit of sin confession; the murkier the better. Lugging ones sins about is a trial but not wasted effort if they get brought into the light occasionally for painful review.

There was a custom - pre Roman - in ancient Massalia where a convicted person could walk into the sea to drown, bearing the sins of the community in preference to a nastier alternative, I assume. I am unsure if that was for sins of the population or its Council. I used the notion in a novel. It was an annual event and if there was no criminal to hand then it was a fun thing for youths to do - leaving out the drowning bit. The idea of sin eating I find as repulsive as the church tower goat hurling that has only just ceased somewhere - can't recall where but it sounds a sort of Spanish thing to do.
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