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