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Last year, I wrote an extensive post on Plough Monday, which is the first Monday after Epiphany:

The English tradition of Plough Monday

I thought I had covered the waterfront with regard to this ancient festival but found more history about the day that signalled a return to full time agricultural work on the Tuesday.

Ploughing matches

When Plough Monday was widely celebrated, some farmers would have had their ploughs blessed at church on Sunday. Other villages had a communal plough at the church which was blessed annually.

In some areas, ploughing matches took place, which gathered crowds of onlookers. The Cottage at the End of a Lane has an old colour photo of one such contest, likely to have been in Suffolk.

The author points out:

The men who walked 10 miles a day in all weathers back in the day would have smiled to see people nowadays doing it for fun or to keep the memory alive. Most of them welcomed the arrival of tractors.

I bet they did.

Traditional poems

The Cottage at the End of a Lane also has a traditional poem:

Plough deep while sluggards sleep:
and you shall have corn to sell and keep.

Turn out for Plough Monday
Up, fellows now
Buckle the horses 
And Follow the plough. 

Plough Monday started with chores before everyone moved on to festivities. This was to show willingness to work hard in the year ahead. As I mentioned in last year’s post, a kitchen maid was given a cockerel for Shrovetide before Lent. A contest between the maids in the kitchen and the men in the fields took place to see if the maids could keep their cockerels. If one of the men was able to get some of his farming implements by the fireside before the kitchen maid got her kettle on, then she forfeited her cockerel — ‘cocke’ in the poem which follows.

In the 1500s, a gentleman farmer by the name of Thomas Tusser penned these lines, featured on Legendary Dartmoor:

Good huswives, whom God hath enriched ynough,

forget not the feasts that belong to the plough:

The meaning is only to joy and to be glad,

for comfort with labour is fit to be had…

Plough Monday, nest after that twelftide is past,

bids out with the plough, the worst husband is last:

If plowman get hatchet, or whip to the skreene,

maids loseth their cocke, if no water be seen.

Thomas Tusser (1524-1580) was born in Essex, the county to the east of London. He was part of the choir at St Paul’s Cathedral before studying at Eton and going up to King’s College, then to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, for his university education.

He spent ten years serving as a musician for William Paget, 1st Baron Paget of Beaudesart, before marrying and farming in Cattawade, Suffolk, near the River Stour. His first wife was sickly, and he abandoned farming so they could move to Ipswich. After her death, he remarried and resumed farming, with interruptions for illness or escaping the plague of 1572-1573. When he died in London in 1580, he owned a small estate at at Chesterton, Cambridgeshire. According to contemporary accounts, he not only farmed arable land but also raised livestock. He did not make much money and lived frugally.

Tusser wrote many agricultural poems which laid out the best traditional methods of farming and raising livestock, most famously in A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie, first published in 1557. In 1573, he expanded his original work and published Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry.

Tusser most likely saw his fair share of Plough Mondays.

Devon customs

Legendary Dartmoor‘s post, ‘Plough Monday’, reveals a local custom that invokes ‘The Spirit of the Harvest’:

In order to add some extra clout to the devotions to the ‘Spirit of the Harvest’ it was also imperative to plough the ‘neck‘ or ‘corn dolly‘ which was taken from the previous harvest into the first furrow ploughed either on or just after Plough Monday. To do this would ensure a good harvest but to fail to observe this tradition was to invite ‘tare and rook’ to decimate the growing crop.

Another is more modern:

I don’t know if it was just a family thing but I can remember uncle always sprinkled a, “drap o’ firejuice,” on the plough shares before the first furrow was cut. It must have been a pretty serious belief because it was unheard of for any relation of old ‘John Barleycorn’ to go anywhere but down his throat.

This is encouraging:

It appears that the tradition of Plough Monday died out on the moor around the late 1900’s but the church blessing has been revived by some Young Farmer’s clubs.

Regional celebrations

In 2018, Plough Monday was January 8.

Durham

Durham held their festivities on Sunday, January 7 (photo at the link):

Come and join us in our drawing of the Plough from Durham Market Place to the Palace Green to be received by the Dean of Durham Cathedral.

There we’ll welcome in the traditional start of the agricultural year with Morris and Sword Dancing, Music and Ceremony!

Celebrations for Plough Sunday, a traditional English festival, are being revived in Durham this weekend. Drawing a plough into the Cathedral, they will be invited inside by the Dean, who will give them a commemorative four pence in a re-enactment of Plough Sunday celebrations that took place in 1413.

The afternoon will continue with a music session and bar at the John Duck, Claypath.

All welcome!

That sounds very traditional.

Balsham

In Cambridgeshire, the village of Balsham revived Plough Monday festivities in 1972.

The Balsham Ploughmen site has their whole modern-day story. Incredibly, Plough Monday has been celebrated there every year since to raise money for charity.

In 1972, the original organisers studied the village plough, built between 1680-1720, and constructed a new one based on the design of the old one using 100-year-old wood.

The organisers and a team of volunteers go to houses and pubs to collect money and sell raffle tickets:

Money is collected at each stop and along the streets, from one end of the village to the other and there is a raffle at the finishing pub. However, the chief means of fundraising, which justifies such activity in what is usually one of the coldest nights of the winter, is the traditional “horseplay”. There is a great deal of banter among the Ploughmen, Cambridge Morris Men and the followers.

The cries of “pity the poor ole ploughboy” together with the rattle of collecting tins and the jingle of the Morris Men’s bells signals that Plough Monday is with us again.

Then:

The day following Plough Monday has evolved into “Harrowing Tuesday” when Ploughmen, members of the team and their families traditionally meet for lunch of bangers and mash and discuss the events of the previous evening – the name does tend to reflect the fragile state of the team rather than an agricultural reference.

The Balsham Ploughmen have been highly successful:

Plough Monday 2017 has broken all fundraising records!

We were once again out and about on 9th January 2017 with the Cambridge Morris Men fundraising for Balsham 2nd Brownies, Buttercups Community Pre-School and a village defibrillator …

This year’s total was a massive £3,219.50!

I hope they had another great success this year.

It is marvellous that people in England still care about Plough Monday, an ancient tradition that deserves to keep going for generations to come.

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In parts of England, mainly to the east and the north, the first Monday after Twelfth Night is known as Plough Monday.

This is an ancient day which probably came to England from the Nordic countries’ invasions. Later, it was associated with the Church and by the 18th century purely with secular folk traditions. It is so called because it was when field workers returned to their labour after the Christmas holiday to till the soil. Back then, they celebrated twelve days of Christmas. Because of the cold weather, it was impractical to till the soil to ready it for sowing.

Origins and traditions

It is thought that the tradition of dancing for Plough Monday originated with the Northern Goths and Swedes when they were still pagans.

The man to document this was the last Catholic Archbishop of Sweden, Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), who fled to Italy and became a historian once the King of Sweden, Gustav Wasa, adopted Lutheranism as the country’s Christian denomination.

In Italy, Magnus became a cartographer and historical researcher. Among his works was History of the Northern Nations, printed in Rome in 1555. Pope Julius II granted a ten-year copyright which saw the 22-volume work translated into Italian, English, Dutch, French and German. (Ironically, it was not translated into Swedish until the 20th century.)

Elaborate dances to music

Hymns and Carols of Christmas gives a summary of what Magnus wrote about the Sword Dance and accompanying music which must have become a custom after the Nordic peoples invaded England in the Dark Ages. Later it would become part of Plough Monday festivities, as the Revd John Brand (1744-1806), an antiquarian and Anglican clergyman, documented (emphases mine):

He [Magnus] says that the Northern Goths and Swedes have a sport wherein they exercise their youth, consisting of a Dance with Swords in the following manner. First, with swords sheathed and erect in their hands, they dance in a triple round : then with their drawn swords held erect as before: afterwards, extending them from band to hand, they lay hold of each other’s hilts and points, and, while they are wheeling more moderately round and changing their order, throw themselves into the figure of a hexagon, which they call a rose: but, presently raising and drawing back their swords, they undo that figure, in order to form with them a four-square rose, that they may rebound over the head of each other. Lastly, they dance rapidly backwards, and, vehemently rattling the sides of their swords together, conclude their sport. Pipes, or songs (sometimes both), direct the measure, which, at first, is slow, but, increasing afterwards, becomes a very quick one towards the conclusion. (Citing Brand) Olaus Magnus adds of this dance that “It is scarcely to be understood, but by those that look on, how gamely and decent it is, when at one word, or one commanding, the whole armed multitude is directed to fall to fight: and clergymen may exercise themselves, and mingle themselves amongst others at this sport, because it is all guided by most wise reason.” (“See also Strutt’s Sports 8vo. p. 214.”)

Olaus Magnus calls this a kind of Gymnastic rite, in which the ignorant were successively instructed by those who were skilled in it: and thus it must have been preserved and handed down to us- “I have been” says Mr. Brand “a frequent spectator of this dance, which is now, or was very lately, performed with few or no alterations in Northumberland and the adjoining counties: one difference however is observable in our Northern sword dancers, that, when the Swords are formed into a figure, they lay them down upon the ground and dance round them.”

Disguises and begging for money

By the Middle Ages, Plough Monday was the time when boys with ploughs were to return to working in the fields. However, because the socioeconomic system of that era was so oppressive, the ploughboys disguised themselves and went to the houses of wealthy landowners instead to extort money. The ploughboys received no pay when they were not working, and the gulf between rich and poor was so great that it was one way they could redress the balance.

These itinerant workers — also known as Plough Jacks, Plough Bullocks or Plough Stots — blackened their faces so that the landowners would not recognise them. This tradition continued for centuries afterwards. PloughMonday.co.uk says:

In the Cambridgeshire Fens children would collect money, often before school, this was known as Ploughwitching.

The Church

By the 1400s, Plough Monday was dedicated to raising funds for local parishes — boundaries of which were determined by church location. The church collected money to help the parish, comprised of a village or two and surrounding land. Groups of skilled ploughmen formed plough guilds which had a plough light in the local church, possibly as a way of asking for God’s blessings on the fields, in the same way we light a candle or votive light for a special intention today. A portion of the funds collected on Plough Monday helped to keep these lit throughout the year. Some priests also blessed ploughs on this day.

By 1538, when the Reformation took hold in England, plough lights were forbidden and plough guilds were disbanded. Anyone who conducted a drive for money on Plough Monday was fined.

Depending on the political and monarchical climate, Plough Monday waxed or waned until the early to mid-1600s.

17th century and after

Once Plough Monday revived in full, its ecclesiastical character disappeared.

By then, landowners ensured all their workers were well fed and watered throughout the twelve days of Christmas.

More farmworkers participated and used the day for personal gain by collecting money, joining in revelry and ending with a feast. Wikipedia describes a typical festival:

The customs observed on Plough Monday varied by region, but a common feature to a lesser or greater extent was for a plough to be hauled from house to house in a procession, collecting money. They were often accompanied by musicians, an old woman or a boy dressed as an old woman, called the “Bessy”, and a man in the role of the “fool“. ‘Plough Pudding’ is a boiled suet pudding, containing meat and onions. It is from Norfolk and is eaten on Plough Monday.[2]

Householders who refused to give money often saw their doorsteps or gardens pulled up by the farmworkers with the plough.

The procession with the plough went like this, according to an old account:

Long ropes are attached to it, and thirty or forty men, stripped to their clean white shirts, but protected from the weather by waistecoats beneath, drag it along. Their arms and shoulders are decorated with gay-coloured ribbons, tied in large knots and bows, and their hats are smartened in the same way. They are usually accompanied by an old woman, or a boy dressed up to represent one; she is gaily bedizened, and called the Bessy. Sometimes the sport is assisted by a humorous countryman to represent a fool. He is covered with ribbons, and attired in skins, with a depending tail, and carries a box to collect money from the spectators. They are attended by music, and Morris-dancers when they can be got; but there is always a sportive dance with a few lasses in all their finery, and a superabundance of ribbons. When this merriment is well managed, it is very pleasing.

Although the day was one of revelry, farmworkers as well as farmhouse cooks and servants got up as early as they could to show willingness to work during the season ahead. According to the aforementioned account, a kitchen maid was given a cockerel for Shrovetide before Lent. However, Plough Monday determined whether she received it:

Then Plough Monday reminded them of their business, and on the morning of that day, the men and maids strove who should show their readiness to commence the labours of the years, by rising the earliest. If the plough-man could get his whip, his plough-staff, hatched, or any field implement, by the fireside, before the maid could get her kettle on, she lost her Shrove-tide cock to the men. Thus did our forefathers strive to allure youth to their duty, and provided them innocent mirth as well as labour. On Plough Monday night the farmer gave them a good supper and strong ale. In some places, where the ploughman went to work on Plough Monday, if, on his return at night, he came with his whip to the kitchen-hatch, and cried “Cock on the dunghill,” he gained a cock for Shrove Tuesday.

The Revd Francis Blomefield was, like the aforementioned John Brand, an Anglican clergyman and antiquarian. He lived between 1705 and 1752. He documented the histories of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.

In his History of Norfolk, he described the Plough Monday processions in that county. Although they were secular in nature then, men still collected for the ancient plough light, requesting ‘money for light’. However, instead of collecting for the church — as had been done in the 15th century — they were collecting money to be spent at the local alehouse.

Blomefield also wrote of the mummer play — folk play with local amateur actors — typically performed on that day, ‘The arraigning and indicting of Sir John Barleycorn’. It was a humorous sketch featuring characters from all walks of life: some admired, some despised. In the end, Sir John Barleycorn was always acquitted, but as Blomefield concluded:

From this facetious little narrative may be learned the folly of excess, and the injustice of charging a cheering beverage, with the evil consequences of a man taking a cup more of it than will do him good.

Regional variations

Plough Monday festivities died out in many places from the 19th through to the 20th centuries. However, some towns are reviving these old traditions.

Project Britain has a fascinating summary with recent pictures of Plough Monday where it has been revived.

Yorkshire

An account from 1808, describing the custom in the North Riding of Yorkshire, says that any new tenant farmer received the labour of his neighbours as well as their ploughs on this day in order to prepare his land for sowing.

The account, written by Miss Hutton in her ‘Oakward Hall’, describes the great feast of homemade bread, dumplings, beef and Cheshire cheese at the end of the day.

Cambridgeshire

In an area of the Huntingdonshire Fens (fens are lowlands):

a straw bear was led through the streets on Plough Monday. It is speculated that this may have grown out of a pagan ritual or just maybe an extension of disguising oneself using straw, inspired by dancing bears that used to tour the fenland villages.

Plough Monday traditions died out here in the 1950s but were revived in 2009:

Five hundred children from Ramsey Junior School and 14 other primary schools had been learning about Molly Dancing and other Plough Monday customs as part of the Heritage Lottery funded project “Cambridgeshire Roots”. The children from eight local schools came together to parade through the town of Ramsey and to dance on the Abbey Green. This was recorded by BBC Countryfile.

This custom has gone from strength to strength and the children now sing their own song as they process through the streets as taught to them by two ladies who went “ploughwitching” in the area 1950’s. It was thought that Plough Monday customs had largely died out in the Cambridgeshire Fens in the 1930’s until Gordon Phillips and Nicky Stockman met Anne Edwards and her husband during a performance by the children of Benwick Primary School. Anne told us about the antics of her peers who grew up in Ramsey Heights and visited local houses, dressed up with blackened faces to sing and beg for money. More local people who remembered the custom came forward during the intergenerational project “Ploughwitches and Bears”.

These videos from 2016 give you a good idea of Plough Monday past and present with Molly (Morris) Dancers, a play, sooty faces and a straw bear:

Another Fenland town, Whittlesey, holds a Straw Bear Festival:

a direct descendant of the Plough Monday customs, and there are revivals with a variety of names, often performed by local morris dancers. Look out for Plough Jags, Stots, Witchers and Bullockers … and Old Glory (see Cutty Wren) also perform on Plough Monday.

In other areas, sometimes the Straw Bear was paraded through the streets in lieu of a decorated plough in the 19th century.

Isles of Scilly

The Isles of Scilly are far away from the usual Plough Monday areas. They are in the Irish Sea, far off the coast of Cornwall. However, even there:

locals would cross-dress and then visit their neighbours to joke about local occurrences. There would be guise dancing (folk-etymologically rendered as “goose dancing” by either the authors or those whom they observed) and considerable drinking and revelry.[7]

—————————————————————————-

I look forward to comments from anyone who has seen or participated in a Plough Monday event.

Sources:

Plough Monday (Hymns and Carols of Christmas)

Olaus Magnus – History of the Nordic Peoples (Avrosys)

Plough Monday in England (PloughMonday.co.uk)

Plough Monday (Calendar Customs)

Plough Monday (Wikipedia)

Photos of Plough Monday in England (Project England)

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