'Plough Sunday' this marked the start of Plough Tide a short agriculture festival marking the return to work after the Christmas season and the start of new year ploughing.
The origins of Plough Sunday go back a long way, at least into medieval times. On the first Sunday after Epiphany, the parish ploughs, bedecked with ribbons, would be dragged to church to be blessed, as the ploughing season began. On Plough Monday the teams would drag the ploughs round the village, seeking contributions for an 'Ale' or night of revelling at the tavern. They were often accompanied by musicians, molly dancers, an old woman or a boy dressed as an old woman, called the "Bessy", and a man in the role of the "fool". Plough Tuesday would be spent, more often than not, in recovering. Then on Wednesday the work would begin in earnest.
Click here to read an interesting article about 'Plough Monday in Dorchester' by Jo Draper and how this ancient custom was revived in the county town
Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days 11th January 1864, details the tradition.
This being In 1864 the first Monday after Twelfth Day, is for the year Plough Monday. Such was the name of a rustic festival, heretofore of great account in England, bearing in its first aspect, like St. Distaff's Day, reference to the resumption of labour after the Christmas holidays.
In Catholic times, the ploughmen kept lights burning before certain images in churches, to obtain a blessing on their work; and they were accustomed on this day to go about in procession, gathering money for the support of these plough-lights, as they were called. The Reformation put out the lights; but it could not extinguish the festival. The peasantry contrived to go about in procession, collecting money, though only to be spent in conviviality in the public-house. It was at no remote date a very gay and rather pleasant-looking affair. A plough was dressed up with ribbons and other decorations—the Fool Plough. Thirty or forty stalwart swains, with their shirts over their jackets, and their shoulders and hats flaming with ribbons, dragged it along from house to house, preceded by one in the dress of an old woman, but much bedizened, bearing the name of Bessy. There was also a Fool, in fantastic attire. In some parts of the country, morrisdancers attended the procession; occasionally, too, some reproduction of the ancient Scandinavian sword dance added to the means of persuading money out of the pockets of the lieges.
A Correspondent, who has borne a part (cow-horn blowing) on many a Plough Monday in Lincolnshire, thus describes what happened on these occasions under his own observation: —Rude 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; for 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, having put on 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; and 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, while even the smith and the miller were among the number, for the one sharpened the plough-shares and the other ground the corn; and Bessy rattled his box and danced so high. that he shewed his worsted stockings and corduroy breeches; and very often, if there was a thaw, tucked up his gown skirts under his waistcoat, and shook the bonnet off his head, and disarranged the long ringlets that ought to have concealed his whiskers. For Betsy is to the procession of Plough Monday what the leading figurante is to an opera or ballet, and dances about as gracefully as the hippopotami described by Dr Livingstone. But these rough antics were the cause of much laughter, and rarely do we ever remember hearing any coarse jest that would call up the angry blush to a modest cheek. No doubt 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. The rubbishy verses they recited are not worth preserving beyond the line which graces many a public-house 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. Even the poorest cottagers dropped a few pence into Bessy's box.
But 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; but 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, and were it but little the men never murmured, though they might talk about the stinginess of the giver afterwards amongst themselves, more especially if the party was what they called " well off in the world." We are notaware that the ploughmen were ever summoned to answer for such a breach of the law, for they believe, to use their own expressive language, " they can stand by it, and no law in the world can touch 'em,' cause it's an old charter;" and we are sure it would spoil their " folly to be wise."
One of the mummers generally wears a fox's skin in the form of a hood; but beyond the laughter the tail that hangs down his back awakens by its motion as he dances, we are at a loss to find a meaning. Bessy formerly wore a bullock's tail behind, under his gown, and which he held in his hand while dancing, but that appendage has not been worn of late.
Some writers believe it is called White Plough Monday on account of the mummers having worn their shirts outside their other garments. This they may have done to set off the gaudy-coloured ribbons; though a clean white smock frock, such as they are accustomed to wear, would shew off their gay decorations quite as well. The shirts so worn we have never seen. Others have stated that Plough Monday has its origin from ploughing again commencing at this season. But this is rarely the case, as the ground is generally too hard, and the ploughing is either done in autumn, or is rarely begun until February, and very often not until the March sun has warmed and softened the ground. Some again argue that Plough Monday is a festival held in remembrance of " the plough. having ceased from its labour." After weighing all these arguments, we have come to the conclusion that the true light in which to look at the origin of this ancient custom is that thrown upon the subject by the ploughman's candle, burnt in the church at the shrine of' some saint, and that to maintain this light contributions were collected and sanctioned by the Church, and that the priests were the originators of Plough Monday.'
At Whitby, in Yorkshire, according to its historian, the Rev. G. Young, there was usually an extra band of six to dance the sword-dance. With one or more musicians to give them music on the violin or flute, they first arranged them-selves in a ring with their swords raised in the air.
Then they went through a series of evolutions, at first slow and simple, afterwards more rapid and complicated, but always graceful.
Towards the close each one catches the point of his neighbour's sword, and various movements take place in consequence; one of which consists in joining or plaiting the swords into the form of an elegant hexagon or rose, in the centre of the ring, which rose is so firmly made that one of them holds it up above their heads without undoing it. The dance closes with taking it to pieces, each man laying hold of his own sword. During the dance, two or three of the company called Toms or Clowns, dressed up as harlequins, in most fantastic modes, having their faces painted or masked, are making antic gestures to amuse the spectators; while another set called Madgies or Madryy Pegs, clumsily dressed in women's clothes and also masked or painted, go from door to door rattling old canisters, in which they receive money. Where they are well paid they raise a huzza; where they get nothing, they shout " hunger and starvation!" '
Domestic life in old times, however rude and comfortless compared with what it now is, or may be, was relieved by many little jocularities and traits of festive feeling. When the day came for the renewal of labour in earnest, there was a sort of competition between the maids and the men which should be most prompt in rising to work. If the ploughmen were up and dressed at the fire-side, with some of their field implements in hand, before the maids could get the kettle on, the latter party had to furnish a cock for the men next Shrovetide. As an alternative upon this statute, if any of the ploughmen, returning at night, came to the kitchen hatch, and cried 'Cock in the pot,' before any maid could cry 'Cock on the dunghill!' she incurred the same forfeit.