Sin Eaters – Part 1

A leading cause of death in the 18th century was a myriad of infectious diseases which kept cropping up, such as cholera, smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, measles and typhus and along with it, a non-existent knowledge of germs, bacteria and antibiotics

tuberc

Hygiene was not commonplace and people still believed that bathing in hot water allowed germs into the body and when they did bathe, they rarely removed all their clothes and the entire family bathed in the same water with the vulnerable baby being last. There was no indoor plumbing for the masses and chamber pots were emptied into the streets which flowed into rivers. Toilet paper was only invented in the late 1800’s. Bed bugs and head lice were rampant and the common cure was dousing the body in mercury which ate away the brain of the infected and eventually led to death

surgeon

Surgery was performed without basic hand washing procedures or anaesthesia and bloody instruments were wiped clean on the nearest shirt sleeve as the following patient was dragged in. Prior to the 15th century, the local barber acted as the surgeon as the logical train of thought was if he could cut hair he could cut into bodies. So he trimmed hair, powered wigs, pulled teeth, performed amputations and bone settings. On many occasions butchers were called in as they had the same skill. Surgeons after that had little more knowledge of the human body as dissection of cadavers was pretty much illegal all over Europe. (It was a religious thing.) So unless you could find a skilled practitioner and had the funds to pay him (apparently they were not picky about hard or soft cash), you were pretty much stuck with somebody that could only apply leeches, lance boils and treat piles

dentist-quack

Chloroform was first used 1847 and by 1884 cocaine was the local anaesthetic of choice. If you managed to survive surgery, you woke up with another, more pressing problem

Wounds were irrigated with cheap wine (because the dirty water would probably kill you) and if the patient died on the table, depending on who was attending, the surgeon, the barber, butcher or candlestick maker would hang about to make sure that the recently died patient was in fact dead and did not arise half an hour later as was known to happen; and then take the remaining wine home for dinner

Murder rate was high and so were executions at the time. Not just for murder. Petty criminals and pick pockets occasionally found themselves with a hangman’s noose around their neck

And although the funeral business was clearly booming, people were dying and many were dying without their Last Rites and that’s where the story beings

Humans have all sorts of peculiar superstitions and this one revolves around the premise that if you died unexpectedly, either through disease, murder, misadventure, negligence, ignorance or defiance before getting absolution from your holy man of choice, then your soul would wander around for all eternity or hang about in purgatory for a bit until you paid off your sins. This probably involves sweeping dark corridors and keeping the furnaces of hell blazing

last-judgement

Apparently, unrepentant sin is the greatest obstacle in entering the kingdom of heaven and the only way to overcome this is to receive absolution from a priest, irrespective of whether it’s on your death bed, walking up to the gallows, sitting in the barber’s chair or thereabouts. This priestly and very earthly absolution would free the soon-to-be-dead person from mortal sin. Of course this forgiveness is conditional that the person receiving the absolution shows sufficient contrition upon confession otherwise not to bother. According to the belief, if you were not baptised in the Catholic Church, forget about it, you don’t qualify for absolution. You just wandered about the halls of hell for the rest of eternity with the other heathens

Naturally, this put the holy fear into the everyday man. (Other religions have their own take on this matter but that’s neither here or there)

However, during the 18th and 19th century, crafty people managed to circumvent the whole “going to hell thing” by employing a Sin Eater

The idea was that the deceased family would leave a piece of bread on the deceased tombstone for the Sin Eater and in eating the bread, the Sin Eater would take on the sins of the deceased and the soul of the dearly departed would be free to enter into heaven

It’s not clear how the placing of the bread on tombstones arose but in all probability it came from observing the Jewish custom of laying small stones and pebbles on tombstones instead of flowers. While flowers are a good metaphor for the shortness and sweetness of life, stones seem better suited to the permanence of the persons memory as stones last forever unlike flowers that fade and die. Furthermore, stones placed on graves not only marked the site as “visited” by family and friends to the community (as well as to the debt collector making sure you were in fact really dead and not just dodging debtors prison) but it was also a means by which to assist “the dead in staying put.” Two birds with one stone

The non-Jewish person viewing the Jewish custom of laying stones thought they would go one better and place down bread as maybe they did not understand the connotation of the pebbles

The usage of the bread itself might stem from a Middle Age tradition in Germany which had a symbolic eating of the corpse ritual that involved placing a newly baked loaf of bread upon the chest of the dead person to rise and in doing so it absorbed the deceased finer qualities, which in turn would be passed around to the mourners who ate of the “corpse bread.” As previously mentioned, hygiene standards were somewhat lacking. It’s not documented whether rapists and murderers had bread placed upon their chests once dead but one would image that this ritual would be reserved for the pompous, sanctimonious and pious

And the concept of the Sin Eater?

sin-eater

That is thought to originate from a flimsy take on another old Jewish custom of releasing a goat on Yom Kippur to carry away the sins of the people into the wilderness (or to Azazel, the debate is still on) and in the same vein, the Sin Eater would have to wander around on this earthly plane as a scapegoat carrying the sins of the dead

As the tradition took momentum, family members also thought that if the deceased had committed an egregious crime, such as blasphemy against the church, holy spirt or God, which could never be forgiven in this life or was refused forgiveness by the church and its priests, that a Sin Eater would be able to exonerate that offence as well. Even deceased Atheists and Agnostics in the family were subjected to this ritual, in all probability to absolve the family’s guilt and remorse for having such a despicable heathen in their family. Keep in mind, that even today in some cultures and religions, espousing ideas deemed as heretical is still subjected to not merely punishment such as excommunication or a couple of lashes before lunch, but includes death by decapitation (which then is proudly posted onto YouTube), so imagine how nerve wracking it must have been to even be associated with heresy and blasphemy a couple of hundred years ago

As the custom grew, it was no longer sufficient just to provide bread to the Sin Eaters as gobbling up a magnitude of sin was exhausting work, so wine or beer was offered as well and in the traditional spirit of entrepreneurship in a free market system, the Sin Eaters started charging half a shilling to one shilling per corpse. The amount probably depended on the preceding gossip, reputation and status of the deceased. In todays currency (including inflation) the amount would be approximately £ 33 or U$ 48 (N$ 760 in Namibian currency)

Not bad for 3 minutes worth of work and a monks feast of bread and beer

End of part 1

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14 thoughts on “Sin Eaters – Part 1

  1. It is amazing how Europe resisted bathing. Greeks and Romans had been bathing for thousands of years.
    I have never heard of ‘sin eaters’. How fascinating! Humans can be so corrupt 😦

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  2. Interesting stuff. I was always intrigued by the part played by the monastic communities in providing hospital care for large sectors of the community in those plague-ridden times. There is a theory worth countenancing, I think, that religious chants were used to create a euphoria, as a sort of anaesthetic; and it was largely this that created the almost tantric relationship between religion and pain. Even into the 20th Century Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Scientists were using prayer as a substitute for medicine – something which never ceases to amaze me.

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    1. It’s actually amazing what music does to the body. A recent study confirmed that chanting reduces activity in the limbic system, (part associated with stress, emotion, learning, motivation and other functions). It also reduces levels of cortisol (the fight-or-flight response). Probably why it’s a good idea to play (appropriate) music in all types of institutions but whether it’s a cure all for major calamities such as kidney failure is still up for debate but if music puts the sick and dying into an altered state and relieves the “stress” of being sick, then that in itself is worthy enough

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  3. I love history, and I read, study and research everything from the early 10th century to current day.

    Most of the famous ancient period television shows or movies like Vikings, Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Rings, with men displaing neatly trimmed beards or clean-shaven men during a time before four or five blade razors. The women wearing pure white clothing before the invention of bleach.

    All of the clothing worn was designed with a heavy wool fabric and no deodorizers were a part of the construction.

    None of these productions ever depict the horror of smells nor the lack of cleanliness during a period when most Europeans live in horribly filthy conditions. 🙂

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