The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Plough Monday

William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827.

Volume 1

The first Monday after Twelfth-day is called Plough Monday, and appears to have received that name because it was the first day after Christmas that husbandmen resumed the plough. In some parts of the country, and especially in the north, they draw the plough in procession to the doors of the villagers and townspeople. Long ropes are attached to it, and thirty or forty men, stripped to their clean white shirts, but protected from the weather by waistecoats beneath, drag it along. Their arms and shoulders are decorated with gay-coloured ribbons, tied in large knots and bows, and their hats are smartened in the same way. They are usually accompanied by an old woman, or a boy dressed up to represent one; she is gaily bedizened, and called the Bessy. Sometimes the sport is assisted by a humorous countryman to represent a fool. He is covered with ribbons, and attired in skins, with a depending tail, and carries a box to collect money from the spectators. They are attended by music, and Morris-dancers when they can be got; but there is always a sportive dance with a few lasses in all their finery, and a superabundance or ribbons. When this merriment is well managed, it is very pleasing. The money collected is spent at night in conviviality. It must not be supposed, however, that in these times, the twelve days of Christmas are devoted to pastime, although the custom remains. Formerly, indeed, little was done in the field at this season, and according to “Tusser Redivivus,” during the Christmas holidays, gentlemen feasted the farmers, and every farmer feasted his servants and taskmen. Then Plough Monday reminded them of their business, and on the morning of that day, the men and maids strove who should show their readiness to commence the labours of the years, by rising the earliest. If the plough-man could get his whip, his plough-staff, hatched, or any field implement, by the fireside, before the maid could get her kettle on, she lost her Shrove-tide cock to the men. Thus did our forefathers strive to allure youth to their duty, and provided them innocent mirth as well as labour. On Plough Monday night the farmer gave them a good supper and strong ale. In some places, where the ploughman went to work on Plough Monday, if, on his return at night, he came with his whip to the kitchen-hatch, and cried “Cock on the dunghill,” he gained a cock for Shrove Tuesday.

Blomefield's History of Norfolk tends to clear the origin of the annual processions on Plough Monday. Anciently, a light called the Plough-light, was maintained by old and young persons who were husbandmen, before images in some churches, and on Plough Monday they had a feast, and went about with a plough and dancers to get money to support the Plough-light. The Reformation put out these lights; but the practice of going about with the plough begging for money remains, and the “money for light” increases the income of the village alehouse. Let the sons of toil make glad their hearts with “Barley-wine;” let them also remember to “be merry and wise.” Their old acquaintance, “Sir John Barleycorn,” has had heavy complaints against him. There is “The Arraigning and Indicting of Sir John Barleycorn, knt. Printed for Timothy Tosspot.” This whimsical little tract describes him as of “noble blood, well beloved in England, a great support to the crown, and a maintainer of both rich and poor.” It formally places him upon his trial, at the sign of the Three Loggerheads, before “Oliver and Old Nick his holy father,” as judges. The witness for the prosecution were cited under the hands and seals of the said judges, sitting “at the sign of the Three merry Companions in Bedlam; that is to say, Poor Robin, Merry Tom, and Jack Lackwit.” At the trial, the prisoner, sir John Barleycorn, pleaded not guilty.

Lawyer Noisy.— May it please your lordship, and gentlemen of the jury, I am counsel for the king against the prisoner at the bar, who stands indicted of many heinous and wicket crimes, in that the said prisoner, with malice prepense and several wicked ways, has conspired and brought about the death of several of his majesty's loving subjects, to the great loss of several poor families, who by this means have been brought to ruin and beggary, which, before the wicked designed and contrivances of the prisoner, lived in a flourishing and reputable way, but now are reduced to low circumstances and great misery, to the great loss of their own families and the nation in general. We shall call our evidence; and if we make the facts appear, I do not doubt but you will find him guilty, and lord lordships will award such punishment as the nature of his crimes deserve.

Vulcan, the Blacksmith.— My lords, sir John has been a great enemy to me, and many of my friends. Many a time, when I have been busy at my work, not thinking any harm to any man, having a fire-spark in my throat, I, going over to the sign of the Cup and Can for one pennyworth of ale, there I found sir John, and thinking no hurt to any man, civilly sat me down to spend my twopence; but in the end, sir John began to pick a quarrel with me. Then I started up, thinking to go away; but sir John had got me by the top of the head, that I had no power to help myself, and so by his strength and power he threw me down, broke my head, my face, and almost all my bones that I was not able to work for three days; nay, more than this, he picked my purse, and left me never a penny, so that I had not wherewithal to support my family, and my head ached to such a degree, that I was not able to work for three or four days; and this set my wife a scolding, so that I not only lost the good opinion my neighbours had of me, but likewise raised such a storm in my family, that I was forced to call in the parson of the parish to quiet the raging of my wife's temper.

Will, the Weaver.— I am but a poor man, and have a wife and a charge of children: yet this knowing sir John will never let me alone; he is always enticing me from my work, and will not be quiet till he hath got me to the alehouse; and then he quarrels with me, and abuses me most basely; and sometimes he binds me hand and foot, and throws me in the ditch, and there stays with me all night, and next morning leaves me not one penny in my pocket. About a week ago, we had not been together above an hour, before he began to give me cross words: at our first meeting, he seemed to have a pleasant countenance, and often smiled in my face, and would make me sing a merry catch or two; but in a little time, he grew very churlish, and kicked up my heels, set my head where my heels should be, and put my shoulder out, so that I have not been able to use my shuttle ever since, which has been a great detriment to my family, and great misery to myself.

Stitch, the Tailor, deposed to the same effect.

Mr. Wheatly.— The inconveniences I have received from the prisoner are without number, and the trouble he occasions in the neighbourhood is not to be expressed. I am sure I have been often-times very highly esteemed both with lords, knights, and squires, and none could please them so well as James Wheatly, the baker; but now the case is altered; sir John Barleycorn is the man that is highly esteemed in every place. I am now but poor James Wheatly, and he is sir John Barleycorn at every word; and that word hath undone many an honest man in England; for I can prove it to be true, that he has caused many an honest man to waste and consume all that he hath.

The prisoner, sir John Barleycorn, being called on for his defence, urged, that to his accusers he was a friend, until they abused him; and said, if any one is to be blamed, it is my brother Malt. My brother is now in court, and if your lordships please, may be examined to all those facts which are now laid to my charge.

Court.— Call Mr. Malt.

Malt appears.

Court.— Mr. Malt, you have (as you have been in court) heard the indictment that is laid against your brother, sir John Barleycorn, who says, if any one ought to be accused, it should be you; but as sir John and you are so nearly related to each other, and have lived so long together, the court is of opinion he cannot be acquitted, unless you can likewise prove yourself innocent of the crimes which are laid to his charge.

Malt.— My lords, I think you for the liberty you now indulge me with, and think it a great happiness, since I am so strongly accused, that I have such learned judges to determine these complaints. As for my part, I will put the matter to the bench. First, I pray you consider with yourselves, all tradesmen would live; and although Master Malt does make sometimes a cup of good liquor, and many men come to taste it, yet the fault is neither in me nor my brother John, but in such as those who make this complaint against us, as I shall make it appear to you all.

In the first place, which of you all can say but Master Malt can make a cup of good liquor, with the help of a good brewer; and when it is made, it will be sold. I pray which of you all can live without it? But when such as these, who complain of us, find it to be good, then they have such a greedy mind, that they think they never have enough, and this overcharge brinks on the inconveniences complained of, makes them quarrelsome with one another, and abusive to their very friends, so that we are forced to lay them down to sleep. From hence it appears it is from their own greedy desires all these troubles arise, and not from wicked designed of our own.

Court. Truly, we cannot see that you are in the fault. Sir John Barleycorn, we will show you so much favour, that if you can bring any person of reputation to speak to your character, the court is disposed to acquit you. Bring in your evidence, and let us hear what they can say in your behalf.

Thomas, the Ploughman.— May I be allowed to speak my thoughts freely, since I shall offer nothing but the truth.

Court.— Yes, thou mayest be bold to speak the truth, and no more, for that is the cause we sit here for; therefore speak boldly, that we may understand thee.

Ploughman.— Gentlemen, sir John is of an ancient house, and is come of a noble race; there is neither lord, knight, nor squire, but they love his company, and he theirs; as long as they don't abuse him, he will abuse no man, but doth a great deal of good. In the first place, few ploughmen can live without him; for if it were not for him, we should not pay our landlords their rent; and then what would such men as you do for money and clothes? Nay, your gay ladies would care but little for you, if you had not your rents coming in to maintain them; and we could never pay, but that sir John Barleycorn feeds us with money; and yet would you seek to take away his life! For shame, let your malice cease, and pardon his life, or else we are all undone.

Bunch, the Brewer.— Gentlemen, I beseech you, hear me. My name is Bunch, a brewer; and I believe few of you can live without a cup of good liquor, no more than I can without the help of sir John Barleycorn. As for my part, I maintain a great charge, and keep a great many men at work; I pay taxes forty pounds a year to his majesty, God bless him, and all this is maintained by the help of sir John; then how can any man for shame seek to take away his life.

Mistress Hostess.— To give evidence in behalf of sir John Barleycorn, gives me pleasure, since I have an opportunity of doing justice to so honourable a person. Through him the administration receives large supplies; he likewise greatly supports the labourer, and enlivens the conversation. What pleasure could there be at a sheep-clipping without his company, or what joy at a feast without his assistance. I know him to be an honest man, and he never abused any man, if they abused not him. If you put him to death, all England is undone, for there is not another in the land can do as he can do, and hath done; for he can make a cripple go, the coward fight, and a soldier neither feel hunger nor cold. I beseech you, gentlemen, let him live, or else we are all undone; the nation likewise will be distressed, the labourer impoverished, and the husbandman ruined.

Court.— Gentlemen of the jury, you have now heard what has been offered against sir John Barleycorn, and the evidence that has been produced in his defence. If you are of opinion he is guilty of those wicked crimes laid to his charge, and has with malice prepense conspired and brought about the death of several of his majesty's loving subjects, you are then to find him guilty; but if, on the contrary, you are of opinion that he had no real intention of wickedness, and was not the immediate, but only the accidental, cause of these evils laid to his charge, then according to the statute law of this kingdom, you ought to acquit him.

Verdict, Not Guilty.

From this facetious little narrative may be learned the folly of excess, and the injustice of charging a cheering beverage, with the evil consequences of a man taking a cup more of it than will do him good.

Editor's Note: Compare: The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas (PDF)

 


William Hone, The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information. London: Thomas Tegg, 1832. January 7.

Plough Monday.

Is the first Monday after Twelfth Day, when agricultural laborers were accustomed to draw about a plough and solicit money with guisings, and dancing with swords, preparatory to beginning to plough after the Christmas holidays. In a very few places they still drag the plough, but without the sword dance, or any mumming.

From “A Briefe Relation of the Gleanings of the Idiotismes and Absurdities of Miles Corbet esquire, Councellor at Law, Recorder and Burgess for Great Yarmonth,” (by Anth. Roiley 1646. 4to) it appears, :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.” 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 ploughing was over.”(citing Sheridan's Persius, 1739, p. 67.)

Sword Dance.

There is a curious account of the Sword Dance in Olaus Magnus’s History of the Northern Nations. He says that the Northern Goths and Swedes have a sport wherein they exercise their youth, consisting of a Dance with Swords in the following manner. First, with swords sheathed and erect in their hands, they dance in a triple round : then with their drawn swords held erect as before: afterwards, extending them from band to hand, they lay hold of each other’s hilts and points, and, ,while they are wheeling more moderately round and changing their order, throw themselves into the figure of a hexagon, which they call a rose: but, presently raising and drawing back their swords, they undo that figure, in order to form with them a four-square rose, that they may rebound over the head of each other. Lastly, they dance rapidly backwards, and, vehemently rattling the sides of their swords together, conclude their sport. Pipes, or songs (sometimes both), direct the measure, which, at first, is slow, but, increasing afterwards, becomes a very quick one towards the conclusion. (Citing Brand) Olaus Magnus adds of this dance that “It is scarcely to be understood, but by those that look on, how gamely and decent it is, when at one word, or one commanding, the whole armed multitude is directed to fall to fight: and clergymen may exercise themselves, and mingle themselves amongst others at this sport, because it is all guided by most wise reason.” (“See also Strutt's Sports 8vo. p. 214.”)

Olaus Magnus calls this a kind of Gymnastic rite, in which the ignorant were successively instructed by those who were skilled in it: and thus it must have been preserved and handed down to us- “I have been” says Mr. Brand “a frequent spectator of this dance, which is now, or was very lately, performed with few or no alterations in Northumberland and the adjoining counties: one difference however is observable in our Northern sword dancers, that, when the Swords are formed into a figure, they lay them down upon the ground and dance round them.”

A Yorkshire Plough-Day

It is the custom in the North Riding of Yorkshire, when a new tenant enters on a farm, for his neighbours to give him what is called a plough-day; that is the use of all their ploughs, and the labor of all their ploughmen and ploughhorses, on a fixed day, to prepare the ground for sowing the grain. The following provision for a plough-day was actually made for such an occasion by a farmer's wife near Guesborough in 1808.

Twelve bushels of wheat were ground, and made into seventeen white loaves and fifty-one dumplings. In the dumplings were forty-two pounds of currants, and fourteen pounds of raisins. Seven pounds of sugar, with a proportionate quantity of vinegar and melted butter, composed the sauce for the dumplings.

One hundred and ninety-six pounds of beef, with a farther quantity which the farmer’s wife had not received the account of when she related the circumstance, succeeded the dumplings, and to this was added two large hams, and fourteen pounds of peas, made into puddings.

Three large Cheshire cheeses, and two home-made ones weighing twenty eight pounds each, concluded this mighty repast, which was washed down with ninety-nine gallons of ale, and two of rum.

At this ploughing there were about eighty ploughs.

Note from Hone: This account, extracted from Miss Hutton's “Oakward Hall” is obligingly communicated by a known and greatly respected correspondent who authenticates the fact.

Editor's Note:

Dr. Peter Millington has performed recent research into the topic of Plough Monday. You can find those articles at Peter Millington's Web Space, which I recommend. Mr. Millington is the former webmaster of the Traditional Drama Research Group's Folk Play Research Home Page, which contains an extensive discussion of English folk plays.

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