Sunday, 13 January 2008

Plough Sunday & Plough Monday

Plough Sunday is the first Sunday after Twelfth Night, Epiphany, in other words the Sunday that falls between 7 January and 13 January: Plough Monday is the following day when work was supposed to resume on the farm after the Christmas holiday. I say, supposed, because Tuesday was usually spent recovering from the festivities and work often didn’t start until Wednesday!

Plough Sunday is one of the four agricultural festivals (after this is Rogationtide, Lammas and, finally, Harvest Thanksgiving) that date from pagan times. When ploughing was undertaken in the new year, the Christmas holiday was an extended one. As the fields were too frozen to work, the wooden plough would be kept indoors until Plough Sunday.

The Christian church embraced and adapted this pagan festival and on Plough Sunday the plough, or part of it, would be dragged to the church. There (where in Catholic times a ploughman’s candle was kept alight before an image throughout the year to obtain blessing for their labour) the plough would be blessed, prayers said and hymns sung: “Plough the fields an scatter, the good seed on the ground,” is still heard in churches throughout England today.

On the following Monday celebrations would be held - and these vary from county to county – but central to all was the need to raise funds for the ‘plough light’. Although the Reformation did away with these candles it couldn’t do away with the festival. Instead funds were raised for the working lads and lasses – often spent at the inn.

The young farm labourers would rise early and dress in clean white shirts. With bright bows and bunches of ribbons on their shirts and hats they would gather in the village. In some areas their faces would be blackened – so they couldn’t be recognized – but the white shirt and hobnailed boot of the labourer were universal.

There would be a Fool, dressed in animal skins and carrying a bladder, and a Betsy (sometimes Bessy, Ossy or Molly), a boy dressed as a woman often with a large nose and a tall hat. The lads would form a file and each take a rope attached to a well scrubbed, beribboned and decorated plough. The leader took the shafts and they proceeded through the village blowing cow-horns, whilst the fiddle and drum played and the Fool ran about and Betsy shook her box for pennies.

Any well-to-do householder too mean to stump up a ‘plough penny’ was likely to find a furrow cut through their front garden when they woke the next morning. When the procession reached the centre of the village they formed a circle and sword dancers stepped in. Similar in some respects to a Mummer’s Play of the North Country, many Foresters’ Plays or The Reversby Play of Lincolnshire, for example, the circular dance was derived from a prehistoric fertility rite.

When the dance reached its climax, the Fool kneels in its midst: the swords are locked and lowered over his head and the dancers, holding the swords still, whirl around. A shout, and suddenly they release the swords and the Fool lies dead. Everyone who took part had a very merry time and gained refreshment where they could – either offered by householders or at the local inn.

Over the last half century Plough Sunday and Plough Monday are enjoying a small revival: churches often have Plough Sunday services where, in the medieval manner, ploughs are blessed and with it the farm worker’s labour. And in many towns at festivals, or outside crowded pubs, Morris dancers, Molly dancers or sword dancers entertain the crowds and, although there may be no ploughing in the offing, the men dance and drink with the same skill and enthusiasm as did those young swains of years ago.

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