Plough Monday is an ancient rustic holiday that became attached to the Christmas holiday tradition. Plough Monday may trace its descent back to the Roman Compitalia, celebrated by slaves when plowing was over. By the mid-15th century it became traditional to end the Christmas season on Epiphany; the following Monday became Plough Monday. Also known as Fool Plough or Fond Plough, Plough Monday was observed in England up through the late 1800s with music, dancing, processions, mumming and other forms of ritualized begging.
For medieval farmers the end of the winter holiday season was also the beginning of the plowing season. Arable fields would have been left in stubble from the previous harvest. The soil, wet through by autumn and winter rains, would then be turned under by the plow as soon as the ground was accessible.
As early as the 13th century, this return to work was presaged with a plow race or in some cases the drawing of a plow around a bonfire. In typical celebrations, a group of farmers — or plow-men, as they were called — would hitch themselves to a plow and drag it through the village streets, accompanied by dancers and musicians. The plow-men would shout the refrain “God-speed the plough” and beg for money or gifts (Henderson). There was often an element of coercion to this begging. One late 18th century observer noted “If you refuse them, they plough up your dunghill” (Hutton). At times spurned plow-men would leave an even more conspicuous message by digging up the front yard. Thus even the poorest cottagers dropped a coin or two into the donation box.
The custom of blessing the plow is still followed in some English villages. A plow is decorated and brought into the village church on the day before Plough Monday to receive blessings that confer fertility on the plow. Some communities maintained a ceremonial plow for Plough ceremonies — an elaborate creation, several times larger than a functional plow and often made of wood even after metal blades were in use.
Only the richer landowners could afford their own plow; others took turns borrowing a communal one. In some communities, money was lent with the town plow to enable farmers to begin the work season. This money was collected through the custom of maintaining plough lights, often under a local guild dedicated to the cause. Plough lights, special candles, were kept burning in churches before images of saints to ensure a successful harvest. The plough lights were largely extinguished with Henry VIII’s ban on candles and lamps in churches. However, even after the 16th century Reformation wiped out saint veneration, the celebration of Plough Monday remained. The money originally raised for plough lights and community charity now paid for for ale in the local tavern.
From the beginning, dances were performed around the plow. The dance sometimes acted out the revival of the earth in spring. One tradition had it that the year’s grain would grow as high as the dancers could leap, leading to rather wild dancing. Some villages would also drag the plow or a heavy log over the winter fields, symbolically plowing the fallows to ensure fertility in the coming year. But the most typical dance was some form of the Morris or Sword Dance, accompanied by mumming a very roughly standardized “Plough Play”.
The processional characters varied in dress and name across England, though the whole group itself was commonly known simply as Plough Boys, or sometimes Plough Bullocks and even Plough Witches. Several stock characters were included in the pantomime. One man known as “the Bessy” would dress in women’s clothing (the Maid Marion character of Morris Dance). The Bessy is a stock character in pantomime and mumming, but she is particularly associated with Plough Monday as she normally carried the donation box.
Another character known as “the Fool” wore animal skins or a fur hat and tail. In the Sword Dance versions, the Fool was often “decapitated” at the climax of the dance. The other dancers would then call for a doctor who would appear and proceed to revive the Fool with “medicine” from a bottle. The death and resurrection of the Fool of course symbolized the miraculous rebirth of nature in spring.
In some variants of the play, one of the plough men would woo a lady (sometimes the Bessy, others merely a generic woman, or rather a lad in drag) who would invariably choose the Fool over the amorous farmer. In some localities, another coarser transvestite named “Dame Jane” would show up to accost the Fool and accuse him of fathering her child. This wooing element was believed older than any combat or resurrection motifs though there is scant evidence for any of the Plough Play themes before the mid-16th century. Mumming seems to have been grafted onto the plough procession when the original reason to hold that procession — to raise money for the poorer farmers through the custom of plough lights — was suppressed by the Reformation.
Plough Monday parades and plays have seen a regeneration, riding on the renewed interest in folk traditions which took hold in the 1960s. Colorful festivals can now be found in many localities throughout the UK. While these are not notable for their ancient pedigrees, they are quite like the original Plough Monday parades in that they support and derive from the entire community and lack the tension between a special group coercing money from the rest of the villagers.
Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. 1999. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Henderson, Helene, ed. Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. 2009. Omnigraphics, Inc.: Detroit, MI.
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun.1996. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance.1976 reproduction. Dover: New York.
© Elizabeth Anker 2021