Soul-Destroying Job of a Sin-Eater Was to Consume the Sins of the Deceased
The Middle Ages had its fair share of terrible jobs, from cesspit cleaners to rat catchers and even royal bottom-wipers , but few were as soul-destroying as the job of a sin-eater, who carried the weight of people’s unconfessed sins to earn their daily bread.
No one knows exactly where the concept of sin eating began but it is generally associated with Christianity, even though it was never sanctioned by the Church. It could be traced back to belief that Jesus Christ sacrificed himself to purify humanity of their sins, to the Jewish tradition of manifesting sins on a goat, or the medieval custom in which nobles gave bread to the poor in exchange for their prayers for a recently deceased relative.
But regardless of its origin, the practice of sin-eating was most prevalent across England, Scotland and Wales from 17 th to 19 th centuries. The god-fearing villagers of this time would discretely hire a sin eater to absorb their loved one’s unconfessed sins.
Medieval burial. Source: Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe Stock
The sin-eater would soak up the misdeeds of the dead by eating bread placed on the corpse’s chest or face and saying: “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man/woman/child. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen.” Once the bread had been eaten, it was believed that the weight and consequences of the misdeeds were passed from the deceased to the sin-eater.
Afterwards, they were often beaten or chased from the home with sticks by family members anxious to rid themselves of the damned and cursed sin-eater, who was believed to be ravaged by the sins of the dead.
The sin-eater, typically destitute, alcoholic or impoverished, paid a high price for his work. They were despised and shunned from society for being willing to sell their soul and risk eternal damnation for just a few pence.
Top image: Skull on medieval tombstone. Source: devnenski / Adobe Stock
By Joanna Gillan