‘Forget not the Feasts that belong to the Plough’*
Plough Munday, the next after Twelftide be past, biddeth out with the plough, the worst husband is last. If Ploughman gets hatchet or whip to the skreene. maydes loseth their Cocke if no Water be seene. Thomas Tusser* 1557
Writing in 1557 the Essex writer and farmer, Thomas Tusser, is describing a game then played on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night. The game’s origins are unknown. It would certainly liven up the dark days after of Christmas. Until last century this was an important time of the year but today the feast day of Plough Monday is largely forgotten.
In the Middle Ages there were Twelve Days of Christmas, the season celebrated with a healthy dose of misrule for some and religious piety for others. Entertainment and excess were certainly order of the day, if you were lucky. For those who were not, charity was encouraged at this cold, hard time of year. But the desires and passions of powerful men and kings led to great changes and by Tusser’s time in the sixteenth century many of the old ways were obsolete. King Henry had dissolved monasteries and forbidden the ancient traditions that did not conform to the new ways. Thankfully some customs survived, either adapting or evolving even, perhaps beyond the recognition of our medieval ancestors.
Life went on. There was still a harvest to plan and much to prepare for. Certain feasts and games endured albeit often altered according to the time; a few even lasted until the 1930s. It is in the east of England that we find many such customs. connected to Plough Monday. Many communities had their own unique and vital customs marking the beginning of the ploughing season which bought communities together, important in times of need and want.
Plough Lights & Plough stots
In the early 1400s someone wrote somewhat contemptuously about the practice of ‘leading the plough abouten the fire as for good beginning of the year’ regarding it as superstitious nonsense. On the Sunday after Twelfth Night ‘plough lights’ were burnt in the local church, sometimes sponsored by specialist medieval guilds. The plough would be blessed, perhaps standing in front of the ‘lights’. Some churches had their own ceremonial plough which was kept inside for the purpose of plough blessing, More practically, many villages shared a plough as only the rich could afford their own.
People also celebrated the new working year with games and feasting. Plough races were recorded in the thirteenth century with the winner having first use of the plough. By the early fifteenth century there are references to ploughs being pulled around villages from house to house by men collecting money for the parish. These men became known as Plough Bullocks, Plough Witches, Plough Kits or Plough Stots (a stot is an old name for a bullock).
Thomas Tusser included Plough Monday in his list of ‘Farmers Feast Days’. Around Tusser’s time of writing there had been a brief revival of some customs under the reigns of Mary Tudor. Mary had come to the throne after the death of the ‘fanatically protestant’ Edward VI. Many of the guilds that supported the ‘plough shrines’ had been dissolved and following Elizabeth’s ascent to the throne the focus of such feast days would be set to change.
In a later edition of Tusser’s writings published in 1710 a note contemporary with the period was added that in Leicestershire ‘Plough-boy night’ continued:
‘...the lads came around with old shares and irons, with which they use to plough up the earth into mud before the doorways of unpopular folk who did not subscribe to their ‘feast”.
This practice appears to have continued in certain parts into the nineteenth century much to the dismay of certain residents.
In the late nineteenth century Charlotte Burne, the Shropshire folklorist, wrote that spinning and ploughing started again on Plough Monday and that some ‘masters’ allowed a half-day holiday this day. But, for some reason the ‘extra allowance of beer was stopped and the maids would joke the waggoner on the small size of the wooden bottle he took out to the field at which he would drag his sleeve across his eyes in mock distress saying, ‘Ah it’s sorrowful Monday for me!’.
Ploughs was still being dragged around some villages in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. There are written accounts of the ploughboys dressing as mummers, blackening their faces or wearing masks. Some areas performed plough plays and most would sing and dance in their attempts to raise alms. Sometimes a Betsy, a man in woman’s clothing would accompany them. In the nineteenth century there are accounts of such occasions degenerating into drunken and bawdy affairs and some were banned as a result.
In Sussex the ploughmen dressed as mummers or Tipteers, as they were known locally, in white with garlands of paper flowers around their necks. They would ask onlookers for money and later celebrated with beef and plum pudding!
Ploughmen dressed in tatters would drag a decorated plough around certain Warwickshire villages collecting money for beer until the 1930s.
In 1927 a game called ‘Winning the Cock’ was played to mark the start of the ploughing season in Horsted Keynes, West Sussex. The ‘carters boy’ had to bring his whip into the kitchen on Plough Monday between sunrise and sunset and thrash the table while counting to nine. He had to do this three times without having a bowl of water thrown over him. If he was successful he had ‘won the cock’. Compare this with Tusser’s game written four hundred years earlier:
Plough Munday, the next after Twelftide be past, biddeth out with the plough, the worst husband is last. If Ploughman gets hatchet or whip to the skreene. maydes loseth their Cocke if no Water be seene.
The skreene was a screen by the fire. In this version a cockerel could be won if the man could get passed the maids and place his axe or whip upon it without getting soaked by the maids.
In Ettingham near Stratford Upon Avon in Warwickshire, another game involved servant girls from local farms racing from the kitchen door to the nearest field and grabbing a clump of earth from a furrow. The plough boys would chase them with whips back to the farm. If a maid got the clump back into the kitchen and stuck a feather in it the boys had to give up their share of the traditional Plough Monday plum pudding!
It is fortunate that many traditions were recorded by antiquarians and later folklorists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries although it is likely that some original content and meaning was occasionally lost or reinterpreted. These accounts where nonetheless important and contributed towards later revivals during twentieth century. These include the Straw Bears of Whittlesea and the Goathland Plough Stots.
The Straw Bears were successfully revived in 1980 and continue to endure. The tradition has been ‘updated’ and features a large procession with dancers and musicians from all over the UK.
The origin of the Straw Bears are unknown. They are thought to have been made to resemble the poor old dancing bears of old. Traditionally the ‘bears’ would be led from house to house, dancing and collecting alms in what is now known as a ‘visiting custom’.
The Goathland Plough Stots from nearby Whitby in North Yorkshire were revived in the 1920s by Frank Dowson and his friend, folksong collector and musician Cecil Sharp. Known for their sword dancing they also lay claim to the musician Eliza Carthy who was a member of the Plough Stots in her younger days. Sadly, the Straw Bears and the Goathland Plough Stots have been cancelled again this year due to fears over COVID 19.
There has also been a revival of plough blessing on Plough Sunday, This is now more a symbolic gesture as many farms no longer plough at this time of the year. Nonetheless it remains a recognition of the debt we owe the land. In the Middle Ages ceremonial ploughs were kept in some churches for plough blessings. Some were mounted upon special stands such as the one at Holbeach in Lincolnshire. But most were dismantled and destroyed. The one at Holbeach was removed in 1547 and its stand ‘sold off’. Any public gathering at this time was banned and so the plough processions also disappeared. The ‘powers that be’ certainly didn’t want any discussion concerning the radical reforms and destruction sweeping the country at the time amongst the peasantry for fear of rebellion.
Gatherings of certain groups are once again being discouraged in our own time, only in part to deter transmission of our modern ‘plague’ Covid 19. Maybe we can look to the past in more ways than one?
The connection and reverence for the land and its bounty is no longer widely celebrated by the mainstream or even acknowledged as it once was by our ancestors. With its passing we have perhaps lost more than feast days and plum pudding. Let us hope that the revivals can hang on and continue bringing communities together once more to celebrate the land and its gifts and to give people the opportunity once more to gather and celebrate again.
The Stations of the Sun. Ronald Hutton, 1996
The Folklore of Sussex, Jacqueline Simpson, 1973
The Folklore of Warwickshire, Venetia Nwell,1976
The Pattern Under the Plough, George Ewart Evans, 1996
His Good Points of Husbandry, Thomas Tusser, 1557