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Strange rural tradition

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We have a wide variety of folk traditions in Britain. Some, like harvest suppers and May Day frolics, are fairly widespread. Others have been of a more local nature and one of the oddest of those must be the practice of sin-eating.

Sin-eating seems to have been restricted to the area along the border between England and Wales. It took place at the funeral of someone who had not had a chance to seek repentance of his sins. It was feared that the restless spirit of such a person might roam the local village so a sin-eater was appointed to take on his burden.

The sin-eater chosen was usually desperately poor. He would stand opposite the deceased’s family at the funeral. A plate of bread and a bowl of ale was passed across the coffin. The sin-eater consumed the food and drink while stating: “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.”

He was then given a few coins and sent away from the village to be excluded from any life in the community. He was avoided, treated as unclean, like a leper.

Sin-eating is believed to have its roots in pre-Christian times. The church took a dim view of it but local ministers quietly allowed the practice to continue until it died out during the 19th century.

The novelist Mary Webb set many of her stories in rural 19th century Shropshire and used local traditions in her plots. In ‘Precious bane’, for example, she described a scene where Gideon Sarn became the sin-eater at his father’s funeral.

Richard Munslow, one of the last known sin-eaters, was buried in the graveyard of St Margaret’s Church at Ratlinghope. This isolated village is tucked into the western slope of the Long Mynd, one of the Shropshire hills. The church has launched an appeal to restore Munslow’s much weathered gravestone as a reminder of this curious ritual.

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