The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Plough Monday

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 2, pp. 495-96

The Monday after Twelfth Day (as Coles tells us) was anciently called Plough Monday, when our Northern ploughmen begged plough-money to drink. In Tusser’s "Husbandry," 1580, under the account of the Ploughman’s Feast Days are the following lines

"Plough Munday, next after that Twelf-tide is past,
Bids out with the Plough; the worst husband is last:
If Plowman get hatchet, or whip to the skrene,
Maids loseth their cocke, if no water be seen:"

which are thus explained in Hilman’s "Tusser Redivivus," 1710 : "After Christmas (which formerly, during the twelve days, was a time of very little work) every gentleman feasted the farmers, and every farmer their servants and task men. Plough Monday puts them in mind of their business. In the morning the men and the maid servants strive who shall show their diligence in rising earliest. If the ploughman can get his whip, his plough-staff, hatchet, or anything that he wants in the field, by the fire-side, before the maid hath got her kettle on, then the maid loseth her Shrove-tide cock, and it wholly belongs to the men. Thus did our forefathers strive to allure youth to their duty, and provided them innocent mirth as well as labour. On this Plough Monday they have a good supper and some strong drink." Coles tells us: "in some places, if the ploughman (after that day’s work) come with his whip to the kitchen hatch, and cry ‘cock in pot’ before the maid can cry ‘cock on the dunghill,’ he gains a cock for Shrove-Tuesday."

In Tusser we find the ploughman’s feasting days or holidays thus enumerated: 1. Plough Monday. 2. Shrove Tuesday, when, after confession, he is suffered "to thresh the fat hen." 3. Sheep-shearing, with wafers and cakes. 4. Wake Day, or the vigil of the church saint of the village, with flawns or pancakes. 5. Harvest-home, with a goose. 6. Seed-cake, a festival kept at the end of Wheat-sowing, when he is to be feasted with seed-cakes, pasties, and furmenty pot. No. 1 is peculiar to Leicestershire; 2, to Essex and Suffolk; 3, to Northampton; 4, to Leicestershire; 6, to Essex and Suffolk. We learn further from Tusser, that ploughmen were accustomed to have roast meat twice a week; viz. Sundays and Thursdays, at night. See edit. 1507, p. 137.

In a marginal note to Roiley’s "Poetical Relation of the Gleanings of the Idiotismes and Absurdities of Miles Corbet Esquire," 1646, p. 6, we are told that the Monday after Twelfth Day is called "Plowlick Monday by the husbandmen in Norfolk, because on that day they doe first begin to plough." In the "British Apollo," 1710, number 92, the following explanation occurs: "Plough Monday is a country phrase, and only used by peasants, because they generally used to meet together at some neighbourhood over a cup of ale, and feast themselves, as well to wish themselves a plentiful harvest from the great corn sown (as they called wheat and rye) as also to wish a God-speed to the plough as soon as they begin to break the ground to sow barley and other corn which they at that time make a holiday to themselves as a finishing stroke after Christmas, which is their master’s holyday time, as prentices in many places make it the same, appropriated by consent to revel amongst themselves."

Pegge, in the "Gentleman’s Magazine " for December, 1762, informs us "On this day the young men yoke themselves and draw a plough about with musick, and one or two persons in antic dresses, like Jack-Puddings, go from house to house to gather money to drink. If you refuse them they plough up your dunghill. We call them in Derbyshire the Plough Bullocks." Macaulay says: "On Plow-Monday I have taken notice of an annual display of morris-dancers at Clay-brook, who come from the neighbouring villages of Sapcote and Sharnford." Hist. of Claybrook, 1791, p. 128.

In the Churchwardens’ Accounts of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, 1494, is the following: "Item of the Brotherhood of Rynsyvale for the plowgere £0 4s. 0d." In similar accounts for Wigtoft, Lincolnshire, 1575, is "Receid of Wyllm. Clarke & John Waytt, of the plougadrin £1 0s. 0d." There is a custom in this neighbourhood of the ploughmen parading on Plow Monday but what little they collect is applied wholly to feasting themselves. They put themselves in grotesque habits, with ribands. &c. It appears that the ‘‘sign,’’ on which the plough used on these occasions stood, was charged to the parish sixteenpence or thereabouts in the reign of Edward VI. To the Churchwardens’ Accounts of Heybridge near Maiden, Essex, is the following account, "Item receyved of the gadryng of the white plowe £0 1s. 3d.’’ To which this note is affixed : "Q. does this mean Plough Monday on which the country people come and dance and make a gathering as on May-Day?"

There is a long and elaborate account in the "Book of Days" of this rustic festival, and in "Notes and Queries" for May 19, 1800, Cuthbert Bede alludes to the custom as then kept up in Huntingdonshire. It is still customary for the Lord Mayor of London to entertain the officers of the Corporation at a banquet on Plough Monday.

In a recent London newspaper occurred the subjoined paragraph: Yesterday, in accordance with an annual custom on Plough Monday (being the Monday following the Feast of the Epiphany), a Court of Wardmote was held at the Guildhall, the Lord Mayor presiding. The results of the election of members of the Court of Common Council and ward officers on St. Thomas’s-day last were officially reported to the court, and the ward beadles attended and made the usual declarations on re-appointment. With that the proceedings, which were of a formal character throughout, ended. In the evening the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress entertained the members of their household, several of the Corporation officials, and a few private friends, at dinner at the Mansion-house. The guests numbered about 30. The dinner was served in the Venetian Parlour.

Among the ancients the "Compitalia were feasts instituted, some say, by Tarquinius -Priscus, in the month of January, and celebrated by servants alone, when their plowing was over." Sheridan’s Persius, edit. 1739, p. 67. note.

Plough Light. In "Dives and Pauper," 1493, among superstitions censured we find the following: "ledyng of the plough about the fire as for gode begynnynge of the yere, that they shulde fare the better alle the yere followyng." In Gale's "Yet a Course at the Romyshe Foxe," 1542, the author declares: "than ought my lorde (Bonner) to suffre the same selfe ponnyshment for not sensing the plowghesse on Plowgh Mondaye." [Vol. 2, p. 495.]

Editor's Note: See from William Hone's The Every Day Book: Plough Monday.

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