January 09, 2017 2 min read
Today folk across the country though predominantly in the East of England celebrate Plough Monday - the first Monday after Epiphany, or Twelfth Night.
Plough Monday was an important ritual for agricultural workers in the east of England for centuries, providing the opportunity to make some money at a difficult time of year. In medieval times the ploughboys were supposed to return to work on Plough Monday, the start of the new ploughing season. Instead the plough was paraded through the streets with the aim to extort money from wealthy landowners (for beer and other necessities!)
A few years ago the Good Easter Molly Gang visited Bishop Nick Brewery as part of their trails and treated us to a fabulous display of song and dance and some dodgy make up and elaborate tassels. This morning they kicked off at The Compasses, Littley Green and by now, no doubt, are quite inebriated after a 'pub crawl' in the name of tradition.
See here for a local history of the tradition - Essex Voices Past
The exploits of the farmworkers varied, largely depending upon the region of the country they hailed from. Generally, in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk the ploughboys performed a dance called molly dancing, in the North East they danced with swords and in the East Midlands they performed mummers plays. The penance for non-payment was to have the front doorstep pulled up with the plough. The itinerant plough boys, often known as Plough Jacks, Plough Bullocks or Plough Stots, depending on the locality of the custom, would blacken their faces as a disguise, a tradition still practiced today.
It is known that Plough Monday was recognised as early as the 1400s and at that time was often connected to raising parish funds through the church. Plough guilds often maintained plough lights in the church and money was raised to keep the plough light burning. The Reformation in 1538 forbade these plough lights and abolished the plough guilds and put strict fines in place against those gathering behind the plough.
With changing monarchs and political pressures the continuation of this custom, associated with the church, continued in a more patchy manner until the early/mid 1600s. After this time Plough Monday festivities became more disassociated from the church and became an opportunity for groups of farm-workers to collect money for their personal gain, often ending in a feast for themselves and their families.
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