In past centuries the people of rural ENGLAND observed the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS with rest and recreation. Daily tasks resumed after Epiphany. Women returned to their spinning the day after Epiphany dubbed ST. DISTAFF’S DAY. Men took up their ploughs again on the first Monday after Epiphany which was called Plough Monday.
In earlier times Plough Monday marked the beginning of “Plough-tide,” one of the four agricultural seasons recognized by both folk and Church custom. After having lain fallow during the coldest, darkest months of the year, the earth was ready to be turned over in preparation for the sowing of the spring harvest. In the sixteenth century English writer Thomas Tusser (1524-1580) commemorated this return to the plough in verse:
Plough Monday, next after that Twelftide is past bids out with the plough, the worst husband is last [Hutton, 1996,126].
The earliest records of Plough Monday date back to medieval times. In those days ploughmen organized themselves into guilds, associations of men working the same trade. Plough guilds or other farming associations often kept a light burning in front of an image in the local church, which was believed to confer blessings on all those who plied the trade. It appears that some groups stored a communal plough in the church as well. On Plough Monday bands of ploughmen collected money to keep these “plough lights” burning. Some pulled a plough in procession throughout the community while others collected coins from the populace. In addition, some writers suggest that in medieval times ploughs were blessed on Plough Monday.
In the sixteenth century the changes in religious thinking brought about by the Reformation partially halted these practices (see also PURITANS). Many reformers condemned plough lights and plough blessings as a form of superstition and therefore forbade them. Plough processions persisted, however, as a way of celebrating the beginning of a new agricultural cycle. The parading ploughmen continued to collect offerings as well, only now they put them towards their own amusement instead of some communal or religious purpose.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, those participating in these processions still dragged a plough throughout the community. They referred to it as a “fool plough” and often decorated it. The young men who participated in these processions were known by a variety of names, such as the plough boys, plough lads, plough jacks, plough bullocks, plough witches, or plough stots. They often blackened their faces and wore some kind of homemade costume. Frequently, one lad dressed as a woman, called Bessy, and another as a fool or clown. These two stock figures engaged in playful banter while the others, their clothing embellished with ribbons, patches, straw or other fanciful items, played along. The plough boys accepted food and drink as well as money, but threatened the householder who refused to give anything with the prospect of having his or her garden ploughed under. In some areas the lads enticed greater generosity from their audiences by performing MUMMERS’ plays and folk dances, such as sword dances and other kinds of morris dances.
These practices finally died out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The mid-twentieth century, however, witnessed a curious revival of religious customs surrounding Plough Monday. With the founding of the Council for Church and Countryside in 1943, a number of agriculturally oriented services from the medieval era were reintroduced into local worship. Some churches now observe the Blessing of the Plough on the Sunday before Plough Monday. In this ceremony farmers and others whose work is related to agriculture carry a plough up to the chancel steps where they and the plough are blessed “that the people of our land may be satisfied with bread.” The congregation prays for the ploughmen and for all who “offer the work of the countryside to the service of God.” In some areas local people have also revived the various folk celebrations associated with this day, such as morris dances and mummer’s plays.