East Anglian roots of Plough Monday

PUBLISHED: 09:45 06 January 2006 | UPDATED: 11:27 04 May 2010

JANUARY 9 is Plough Monday. Traditionally the farm workers celebrated the first Monday after Twelfth Night before getting back to the land after the Christmas festivities. The oldest reference to Plow Mundy is from Boxford in Cambridgeshire dating from

JANUARY 9 is Plough Monday. Traditionally the farm workers celebrated the first Monday after Twelfth Night before getting back to the land after the Christmas festivities.

The oldest reference to "Plow Mundy" is from Boxford in Cambridgeshire dating from 1529.

This revelling was an oral tradition so evidence is hard to amass, but one thing that is clear is that it was male-dominated.

There are many theories as to the origin of Plough Monday. Whether it derives from pre-Christian times or has its foundations in Viking Danelaw, the general consensus is that the day has strong East Anglian roots.

It would appear that traditions varied from region to region and even village to village. So for example, in Yorkshire sword dances are common Plough Monday celebrations, whereas in East Anglia it is Molly Dancing.

On the Sunday before Plough Monday, ploughs were taken to church for a special blessing. This signified the start of the new harvest, the shortest day was over and spring was on the way.

The following day the ploughs were decorated and dragged through the village where residents were called upon to give a collection to the farm workers who cracked whips and shouted "Penny for the Ploughboys" as they went.

The men wore white shirts decorated with coloured ribbons tied in knots and bows and their faces were blackened to disguise themselves. Some even dressed up as women as a way of flouting the social norm.

Two men were specially dressed as a gentlemen and a lady and it was their role to lead the dances. At some point during the day a play was also performed, again this varied from place to place.

The performers called Plough Witches or Molly Dancers would drag the plough around the village knocking at the door of each house where they would dance and sing.

They would then demand payment in the form of money or food and beer. Any reluctant householder failing to comply with the expectations of a donation were liable to have the plough used on their property in some destructive way. I suppose our equivalent is now trick or treat at Halloween.

Before the Reformation, the church had sanctioned the collection of money on Plough Monday. Some of it went toward providing the plough-light; a candle or rush light placed before the altar and never allowed to go out, thus bringing good fortune to the harvest.

After the Reformation, this practice of the plough-light was stopped, but Plough Monday was continued. At this time of year the farm work was scarce, due to the weather and condition of the ground, so the Plough Monday collection was a means to provide support for the lowest workers who were normally paid by the day.

Plough Monday seems to be akin to the Medieval days assigned to the Lord of Misrule, when the world was turned upside down for the day. For one day a year the farm labourers had the right to go around the village shouting and singing and no doubt drinking far too much and feasting after their collection was complete.

The plays they performed at this merrymaking were very crude and in particular attacked the hierarchy, such as the church and the social structures to which they had to conform to for the rest of the year.

Clergymen were often very worried about the out-of-control and disorderly behaviour, commenting that the plough plays and other Plough Monday traditions were obscene profanities.

Conversely, others viewed Plough Monday as a way of letting off steam and a reminder to the farm workers of their place in society.

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