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Tales Of Plough Monday

Updated on January 1, 2015

Plough Monday is the first Monday after Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. It evolved from an ancient tradition or set of ancient traditions from afar that became a very important ritual for agricultural workers in the east of England for several centuries.

There is intrigue why this became popular in Eastern England, particularly in the Fens and East Anglia.

Like many traditions, Plough Monday was assembled, probably in the 14th century, from fragments of ritual traditions from the Celts, Norse, Saxon and Picts with an intent of community gathering and appreciation for the land and the bounties it brings us.

Like all similar traditions folks found ways to extort money from people to improve their own means. This became ugly and the tradition faded.

Today there is a revival in a new Plough Monday tradition that is starting to extend wider than just in the Fens and East Anglia, wider than in Yorkshire and Nortumbria too. It is another potential tradition that returns us to appreciate the land, the farmed land, and how we depend on it to be blessed, nourished and healthy through the year.

The timing of Plough Monday also seems to give us a bridge of appreciation between the gifts imagery of the kings of Epiphany and the new life birth rituals of Imbolc and Brighid's day in February.

I hope you enjoy this exploration into Plough Monday and suggestions of how it could be wider revived ...

the Farmers return to work, but first ...

Plough Monday is the first Monday after Twelfth Night. This day marks the start of crop based agricultural work and return to work after the Yule and Christmas festivities.

Today this is mainly celebrated in East Anglia, The Fens, Yorkshire and Northumbria areas of England with the tradition also spreading through more counties recently, small alternative versions in Scotland, Wales and Ireland and in some places overseas.

There is some mystery of how and why this tradition revived and concentrated itself in the Fens and East Anglia region originally.

The creation of Plough Monday, was around the 14th century that commenced as a Plough Sunday intended as a blessing upon the plough and the ploughboys who were supposed to return to work on Plough Monday. Plough lights were lit in the church on the Sunday where the plough was blessed and the candlelight maintained through the Monday too.

Instead of returning to work on the Plough Monday the ploughboys took the opportunity to make some extra up front money for themselves through intimidating the local wealthy landowners.

They disguised themselves with straw costumes with straw helmet just like the earlier traditions of straw boys,

Their first money-making ventures included creating entertainment with dances, songs and a mummer's play style folk drama that they would travel with and perform on the steps on the in lobbies of wealthy landowner homes. They would ask for money, saying that it was to cover the cost of the Plough Light candles in the church burning to bless them. If the landowner did not pay up this was followed by the threatening of destruction of property.

When the church heard of this ploughboy behaviour they demanded that money collected was actually handled by the church for the benefits of the parish, so the tradition became closely connected to the local churches.

The Plough Monday celebration of the farmworkers varied throughout different parts of Eastern England,

In Cambridgeshire and Norfolk the ploughboys performed a dance called molly dancing,

In the North East they danced with swords,

In the East Midlands they performed mummers plays.

The plough boys, were and are often known as Plough Jacks in Lincolnshire and the Fens

Plough Stotts in Yorkshire and Northumbria

Plough Bullocks everywhere else

In the Cambridgeshire Fens children performed simple plays and songs and collected money. In days past this was before school, and this was known as Ploughwitching.

Sadly, In 1538 the reformed church made these Plough Monday celebrations and activities illegal throughout England, claiming that the ploughboys were too intimidating and pocketing too much of the funds intended for the parish.

revival, Plough Monday returns, 17th century

The laws that had banished Plough Monday faded and were repealed by sometime in the late 17th century. Plough Monday returned, but with a different interpretation.

Gone were the straw costumes and helmets, which were replaced with white smock shirts outside of their other garments. In later years the white smocks were covered with gaudy-coloured ribbons. For disguise, their faces were blackened with soot and their heads topped with fancy hats.

Extortion of landowners changed into being an extortion from all of the "common" folk. The ploughboys became ruthless, breaking up steps and ploughing up the gardens of dwellers that were unwilling to make contributions to their house to house, and cottage to cottage, performances.

The vandalism, destruction and extreme bawdiness and drunken behaviour ruined the essence of why the day was being celebrated so eventually Queen Victoria, in the 19th century, ordered that these traditions were outlawed again.

Of course they Plough Monday, often Plough Saturday now, is enjoying revival today as a re-enactment of the good wholesome elements of this tradition, often for the benefit of local community charities and fundraising.

This show, taken from the streets and village greens into the theatre serves us with an entertaining collection of the music and dances that would have been included, and still are in some places, of Plough Monday Northumbria ...

a journalist's report of Plough Monday

somewhere in Lincolnshire

I do not know who or when this information was written, but here are some contents of that account.

"Crude though it was, the Plough procession threw a life into the dreary scenery of winter, as it came winding along the quiet rutted lanes, on its way from one village to another. The ploughmen from many a surrounding thorpe, hamlet, and lonely farm-house united in the celebration of Plough Monday.

It was nothing unusual for at least a score of the "sons of the soil" to yoke themselves with ropes to the plough. They would wear clean smock-frocks in honour of the day.

There was no limit to the number who joined in the morris-dance, and were partners with " ossy," who carried the money-box. All these had ribbons in their hats and pinned about them wherever there was room to display a bunch.

Many a hardworking country Molly lent a helping hand in decorating out her Johnny for Plough Monday, and finished him with an admiring exclamation of, "Lawks, John! thou does look smart, surely." .

Some also wore small bunches of corn in their hats, from which the wheat was soon shaken out by the ungainly jumping which they called dancing.

Occasionally, if the winter was severe, the procession was joined by threshers carrying their flails, reapers bearing their sickles, and carters with their long whips, which they were ever cracking to add to the noise. Even the smith and the miller were among the number, for the one sharpened the plough-shares and the other ground the corn.

They were called "plough bullocks," through drawing the plough, as bullocks were formerly used, and are still yoked to the plough in some parts of the country.

Many a public-house graced a sign of "God speed the plough".

At the large farm-house, besides money they obtained refreshment, and through the quantity of ale they thus drank during the day, managed to get what they called "their load" by night.

The great event of the day was when they came before some house which bore signs that the owner was well-to-do in the world, and nothing was given to them.

Bossy rattled his box and the ploughmen danced, while the country lads blew their bullocks' horns, or shouted with all their might. If there was still no sign, no coming forth of either bread-and-cheese or ale, then the word was given, the ploughshare driven into the ground before the door or window, the whole twenty men yoked pulling like one, and in a minute or two the ground before the house was as brown, barren, and ridgy as a newly-ploughed field.

But this was rarely done, for everybody gave something, though they might talk about the stinginess of the giver afterwards amongst themselves.

Sybil Marshall describes Plough Monday

Sybil Marshall, who lived from 1913 to 2005, was raised and lived in the Cambridgeshire Fens. She was a strong activist in changes to childhood education. She developed teaching methods based on integrating subjects and encouraging children's creativity. Her methods started to enter into primary education in Britain after she retired in the early 70s.

In retirement Sybil wrote several childhood memoirs and fiction novels that included descriptions of Plough Monday celebrations and activities.

This is perhaps her earliest account, published in the Fenland Chronicle in 1967 describing Cambridgeshire Plough Monday customs ...

"Just after Christmas there'd be Plough Witching to look for'ard to. This were Plough Monday, and of course I know that this is still kept in churches all over the land. But our Plough Monday ha'n't got

nothing to do with churches as I knowed.

There were two or three different things about it. For one thing there were the pranks the young fellows got up to, playing tricks on their neighbours. Very often these were real nasty tricks, and they'd wait until Plough Monday to get their own back on somebody what had done them some injury during the year. Perhaps they'd take a plough in the middle o' the night and plough the other fellow's doorway up, or move the water but so as it stood resting on a bit of its bottom rim, a-leaning up outside the door.

Then when the man o' the house opened the door afore it were light, next morning, the tub 'ould fall in and the water slosh all over the floor 'o the house-place, for the poor woman to clean up on her hands and knees afore the young children could come out o' the bedroom.

Very often a gang o' young men 'ould go round the fen taking gates off their hinges and throwing 'em in the nearest dyke, so that all the horses and cows got out. This sort o' nasty trick gradually died out in my young days, and a good thing too, I reckon.

Then there were the Straw Bear and the Molly Dancers ...

Sybil Marshall describes Molly Dancers

The Molly Dancers 'ould come round the fen from Ramsey and Walton all dressed up. One would have a fiddle, and another a dulcimer, or perhaps a concertina and play while the rest danced. This were really special for Christmas Eve, but o' course the dancers cou'n't be everywhere at once on one day, so they used to go out on any other special day to make up for it.

They'd go from pub to pub, and when they'd finished there, they'd go to any houses or cottages where they stood a chance o' getting anything. If we ha'n't got any money to give 'em, at least they never went away without getting a hot drink.

Sometimes it 'ould be hot beer.

In pubs they used to hot the beer by sticking a cone-shaped metal container down into the glowing turf fire, with the beer in it. Then it would be made syrupy sweet with brown sugar, and spiced with ginger, served with a long rod o' glass to break the sugar up and stir with for 2d a pint.

At home it might be done in the same way, or simply have a red hot poker plunged into it.

Sometimes the Molly Dancers got home-made elderberry wine, and their elderberry would be so dark and rich as you could hardly tell it from port wine. So a good tumbler full of that, all sweet and hot and spicy, were worth dancing for, and kept the cold out till they got to the next cottage."

Enid Porter, former curator of Cambridge Folk Museum wrote this about Molly Dancers ...

"In the late afternoon the Molly Dancers gathered at the inn where the day’s collection was counted and a list of the old women in the district was drawn up. After a meal of bread and cheese and ale, the men went along to the village store, where they purchased an assortment of women’s drawers into which they stuffed tea, sugar, flour and other groceries with, if funds allowed, a bottle of ginger wine.

These were then carried round to the old women, the dancers singing as they went from house to house:

Here we come gathering nuts in May
So the old folk won’t feel the cold
On a sharp and frosty morning

At each woman’s house they handed over the grocery-crammed garment with the greeting: ‘Here you are Granny, here’s a share of what the plough turned up.’ In the evening there was singing and dancing in the taproom of the local inn.”

Sybil Marshall describes the Straw Bears

Before I continue the Sybil Marshall text,

I was amused by this Straw Bear pic to the right, published by Fergal O'Feersa on the

Facebook Yule Traditions group page

"The Straw Bear were a sort o' ceremony that took place on Plough Monday when I were a child, though my husband says it used to belong to some other day and only got mixed up with plough witching time by chance. A party of men would choose one of their gang to be 'straw bear' and they'd start a'dressing him in the morning ready for their travels round the fen at night. They saved some of the straightest, cleanest and shiniest oat straw and bound it all over the man until he seemed to be made out of straw from head to foot, with just his face showing.

When night came they'd set out from pub to pub and house to house, leading the straw bear on a chain. When they were asked in, the bear would go down on his hands and knees and caper about and sing and so on. Some parties used to do a play about 'Here come I, old Beelzebub', and there were another place where one man knocked another man down, and then stood over him and said

Pains within and pains without
If the devil's in, 
I'll fetch him out
Rise up and fight again.

My sister, who is very nearly as old as I am, says it were the straw bear party as used to perform the play, and she remembers it the year when our father were the straw bear. There's no accounting for what tricks memory'll play, so we shall never know which one of us is right. I do remember hearing about the year when Long Tom were the straw bear, though.

His mates had spent the whole day from early morning getting him 'dorned out, and they were just about ready to start when he were took short and they had to pull all the straw off him quick to let him go to the closet. They weren't half savage with him I can tell you, and they di'n't let him forget it for a goodish while."

Sybil Marshall describes Plough Witching

"What us children like best were the Plough Witching, ‘cos we could take part in that ourselves. We dressed up in anything we could find and blacked our faces with soot from the chimney to disguise ourselves. Then we went to our neighbours’ houses and capered about on their doorways, or sang a song till they opened the door and let us in.

There were a special song as we sung while we shook our collecting tin up and down

‘Ole in yer stocking
‘Ole in yer shoe
Please will yer give me a penny or tew
If yew ain’t got a penny
A a’penny’ll dew
An’ if yew ain’t got a ‘a’penny
Well God bless yew!
Just one! Just one! Just one for the poor old ploughboy!
Just one! Just one! Just one!

This went on right up to the time my own children were little, and for all I know there’s still some places where they don’t let Plough Monday pass without somebody going a-ploughwitching, but I dare say folks are all too educated and clever to take pleasure in such simple things as that, nowadays.”

Now here is a video of some Witch Men ...

Plough Monday Sword Dances

In Northumbria, in England, Plough Monday celebrations include traditional local sword dances.

This is an example of the regions Sword Dance, note the clever finish to this dance ...

other accounts of Plough Monday festivities

Enid Porter, former curator of the Cambridge Folk Museum from 1948 to 1976 and writer of "Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore" wrote ...

"Then, to the accompaniment of 'music' made by beating sticks on pails or old tin baths, a plough was dragged round the village and money demanded. Should any housewife refuse to give a copper or two, then the'females'of the party took off the long-legged drawers they wore and tied them round the ungenerous woman's neck while everyone chanted:

She has bags of money

And not a chest of drawers;

Once she had a pair but she married a coalman

Who brings the coal in the bags she used to wear.

does ploughing start on Plough Monday?

or the next day on Tuesday?

You would think this tradition is about commencing of the ploughing for the year's harvest. During most years the ground is too hard with frost, ice, maybe snow, to actually work the plough.

Some of the ploughing is done late October, maybe early November but stopped at Samhain. If possible, ploughing is commenced at Imbolc, early February, but often the gound is still too hard. Often ploughing cannot re-commence until the March sun has warmed and softened the ground.

It seems the origin of various traditions being brought together to honour the plough and the ploughboy was to connect to the "ploughman's candle", that was burned in churches from Epiphany until the following Monday. It seems that the priests were the originators of Plough Monday by announcing their honour on the Sunday and the people making their own interpretation to celebrate this on the Monday.

Plough Days in Scotland and Ireland?

There are fragments of information to indicate that parts of Scotland engaged in a ploughing ritual on the Monday after Epiphany too. Tales tell of ploughboys attempting to cut a first furrow in the hard ground. If they succeeded then a woman would be waiting at the end of the furrow line with good food and ale.

This tradition was wiped out by the Reformation Purists, of course.

Some say the Burns Night in late January is a sort of return and revival of that custom, but to tribute the bard instead of the ploughboy.

In Ireland there are also fragments of tradition like the Scottish ones, that seem to have been wiped out when Cromwell and his Purists invaded. Then its return into Irish tradition was totally discouraged because of its revived popularity in very Protestant Fens and East Anglia.

Its replacement in Ireland has entered into the spirit of some St. Brighid celebrations on February 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th where Brighid is claimed by some to be the saint or goddess of the plough and the smithing of new blades for the plough ro cut the ground to sow the new harvest that she will care for.

There are a few folk drama style rituals to tell this Brighid blessing, but usually this is done through, prayer, affirmations, and maybe some chanting.

The Breton, Gaelic and Norse connections

The Plough Monday folk plays performed when pulling the plough door to door are very similar, or have become very similar to Mummers Plays. All of these folk drama plays have evolved from ritual performances celebrating the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring. This ritual of celebration appears to have been around in some form for thousands of years.

The Plough Monday folk play, song and dance ritual is obviously rooted in and intended to ensure agricultural fertility though recognition of a new turn in the "life cycle".

Plough Monday is much more than a day just to perform a folk drama play, dance and sing songs as it appears to be an extemely important part of the much wider Yule and even Samhain tradition.

This is something that is very limited for archaeologists to discover. Anything that is from pre-scribing days is mere speculation from connecting clues we can pick up from orally descended myths at the mercy of our own interpretations.

I do believe this day is a merging, at one point ordered merging, of Norse, Saxon, Angles, Gaelic, Pict, Breton and other Brythonic traditions.

how Plough Monday became a celebration

So this is my speculative interpretation of how we got to Plough Monday.

At Samhain the people of Gaelic, Pict and other brythonic cultures observed this time as a closing of the old year when all harvests are gathered and stored and all is being prepared for the new year. I feel this was the time of closing debts as well as preparing for the shortening days ahead and the stillness of winter, the hibernation.

The Norse awareness of midwinter solstice being the time of shortest daylight and longest night became a relieving moment for us as we would be told, we would now that after five tides the sun's position would start to become closer to us and the daylight of days would again start to be longer. it was a time to recognise fertility such as the tale of the Yule Log of Odin fueling the fire hearth womb of Freya to ignite the birth of all new life for the spring and year ahead.

16 days later, 12 days after the daylight of days started to become longer, there was huge celebration. It is on this day and from this day it is truly noticeable that the daylight of days is getting longer.

The joy of this happening and the awareness that winter could be on its way out naturally inspires feasting and celebration.

I do believe that the origins of the turkey, beef and ham dinners of Christmas Day, the plum puddings, mince pies, black buns etc. were all from this time that we call Epiphany.

This was also a time to perform ritual plays of goodness of light challenging the evils of dark with them coming together in balance and tolerance. Around these plays many dances, songs, chants and tunes have been created, shared, forgotten and revived again.

Over time all of this celebration and feating around what is now January 6th on our calendars became spread backwards so new interpretations were applied to such events as the Scottish Hogmanay, St. Stephen's Day in Ireland with the Wren Boys, Christmas Day and its bounty, mid-winter solstice rituals, observations and banquetting and then to Samhain with all of its interpreted times of being whether full moon, dark moon, cross quarter time, moon 10 degrees Scorpio or December 31st, November 1st, 2nd or 5th. I believe the Guisers of Halloween in Scotland were once the Ploughboy players of Epiphany.

With our modern calendars and working week starting Monday as Sunday is a day of rest, then the Ploughboys moved their events to the Monday after Epiphany, the practical time to return to work, but still made it a sort of day off called Plough Monday.

Why this settled into a concentration of celebration in Eastern England, particularly in East Anglia, the Fens, Yorkshire and Northumbria is a muddling mystery, but these were areas under Danelaw for awhile and this could have affected the tradition.

I have another chapter on that ...

As I say, this here, in this chapter, is my own mere speculation. Being a trained astrologer too, from my distant past of various holistic studies, I cannot escape an awareness of this time also being when the transit Sun conjuncts my Moon and Midheaven in Capricorn in 10th house so January 6th is astrologically a time for personal illumination, a time I personally celebrate ... and that does influence what I have written here, I think.

I look forward to your comments below both in agreement and challenging, along with your own ideas.

was Plough Monday a Danish tradition?

Because Plough Monday is most densely celebrated in a region of England that was once ruled by "Danelaw", it is assumed that the tradition came with the Danes from the 9th century onwards. This becomes a mystery, though, as Denmark does not have any information or relics of a similar tradition on their own lands.

The next assumption is that Plough Monday is a unique celebration that was once an ordered synthesis of Saxon, Anglo, Breton and Danish traditions. This celebration may have been originally an attempt to merge the conflicting cultures together to provide opportunity for tolerance, unity and peace and trade treaties for the year ahead.

It is important to consider that Danish Vikings did not just consist of people from Denmark. Danes would include people from parts of what is now Southern Sweden, Skåne, Halland and Bleklinge, which were provinces of Denmark until the seventeenth century.

There were two ages of Danish influence in England. The first was through the ninth and 10th centuries when Danes created their own settlements, their own cities and introduced their ancient traditions and mythologies of several gods and goddesses.

Then through the eleventh century, under the leaderships of Sven and Cnut the Great the Danes had become quite Christian with a one god faith. It was these later Danes that created what is known as "Danelaw".

In the Danish part of England land was assessed as Ploughlands for calculation of the annual land tax known as Danegeld. This tax was originally raised as a kind of protection racket to insure non invasion of home by excitable Danes. It is interesting to note that Ireland has a similar taxation system created by the Gaelic chieftains. Addressing in rural Ireland is by townland names and not streets or parishes. The townlands were once known as ploughlands measured as gurteens, carrows and bailles.

The Ploughlands taxation system suggests that maybe the collection of different culture traditions organised together for this time was part of the tax payment celebration like Samhain was in ireland and Hogmanay in Scotland. The Danegeld tax also seemed to be exclusive to England, which may explain why there are no relics of Plough Monday celebrations in Denmark. This was an exclusive Danish-English way.

were Sokemen the first Ploughboys?

There was also a complex form of land tenancy, that commenced around the 14th century, called "socage". The tenant paid both taxes on the land to the state and a rent to the manor for both land use and temporary labour for ploughing, sowing and harvesting provided by the manor at busy times on the land. The manor that the "socage" paid to was known as the "soke" and the temporary labour known as "sokemen".

Sokemen were required to bring their ploughs for one day's ploughing at the winter sowing time so we wonder if that was on or around Plough Monday, or was the ground still too hard from frost.

Was it the "sokemen" that were the first ploughboys of Plough Monday?

The sokemen would indeed first approach the wealthy lord of the manor for some kind of advance payment, maybe on Plough Monday, which would be in food and drink to nourish them ahead of their labours to come.

The culture of the "sokemen" had vanished by the 15th century and labour services were paid for by coin and note payments direct from the land tenant or owner. At this time it seems that though the Plough Monday as a time of commencing labour from the sokemen had faded away the social customs that had developed had not faded.

This tradition also took other directions, as being another medium to collect for the church and the community it serves rather than favour the ploughboys, land tenants and land owners.

a ploughman of the 17th century

Gervase Markham gives an account of this in his Farewell to Husbandry, 1653.

"We will,' says he, 'suppose it to be after Christmas, or about Plow Day, and at what time men either begin to fallow,or to break up pease-earth, which is to lie to bait, according to the custom of the country.

At this time the Plow-man shall rise before four o'clock in the morning, and after thanks given to God for his rest, and the success of his labours, he shall go into his stable or beast-house, and first he shall fodder his cattle, then clean the house, and make the booths clean; rub down the cattle, and cleanse their skins from all filth.

Then he shall curry his horses, rub them with cloths and wisps, and make both them and the stable as clean as maybe. Then he shall water both his oxen and horses, and housing them again, give them more fodder and to his horse by all means provender, as chaff and dry pease or beans, or oat-hulls, or clean garbage, with the straw chopped small amongst it, according as the ability of the husbandman is.

And while they are eating their meat, he shall make ready his collars, hames, treats, halters, mullers, and plow-gears, seeing everything fit and in its due place, and to these labours I will also allow two hours; that is, from four of the clock till six. Then he shall come in to breakfast, and to that I allow him half an hour, and then another half hour to the yoking and gearing of his cattle, so that at seven he may set forth to his labours; and then he shall plow from seven o'clock in the morning till betwixt two and three in the afternoon.

Then he shall unyoke and bring home his cattle, and having rubbed them, dressed them, and cleansed them from all dirt and filth, he shall fodder them and give them meat. Then shall the servants go in to their dinner, which allowed half an hour, it will then be towards four of the clock; at what time he shall go to his cattle again, and rubbing them down and cleansing their stalls, give them more fodder; which done, he shall go into the barns, and provide and make ready fodder of all kinds for the next day.

This being done, and carried into the stable, ox-house, or other convenient place, he shall then go water his cattle, and give them more meat, and to his horse provender; and by this time it will draw past six o'clock; at what time he shall come in to supper, and after supper he shall either sit by the fireside, mend shoes both for himself and their family, or beat and knock hemp or flax, or pick and stamp apples or crabs for eider or vinegar, or else grind malt on the querns, pick candle rushes, or do some husbandly office till it be fully eight o'clock. Then shall he take his lanthorn and candle, and go see his cattle, and having cleansed his stalls and planks, litter them down, look that they are safely tied, and then fodder and give them meat for all night.

Then, giving God thanks for benefits received that day, let him and the whole household go to their rest till the next morning."

Let's Morris On

Ashley Hutchins and friends here providing an excellent set of Morris tunes and songs, sometimes in contemporary folk rock format, sometimes just like the village green :-) ...

what say ye about Plough Monday?

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