Jan 112016


Today is Plough Monday in England, the first Monday after Epiphany. It is, therefore, a “movable feast” and not a fixed date in the Gregorian calendar. When I enter the fourth year of this blog – this May – I am going to shift from fixed dates to movable feasts to add some variety. I thought I would inject a little foretaste here as an experiment, especially because I have always celebrated Plough Monday as a way of gently moving from the Christmas season into the rest of the year.

Plough Monday celebrations were a great deal more popular a century ago, and more, when England still had a sizable rural, agricultural population. A large number of rural customs that flourished in England in the mid-19th century were dying or dead by the beginning of the 20th as people migrated from the country to cities and lost their ties to rural life. Antiquarians and, later, folklorists and anthropologists took to the task of recording the remains of these customs, as well as hunting down snippets of information from archives. The data we have to go on about these customs are notoriously unreliable, and have been hopelessly generalized by recent generations of scholars and revivalists. Certainly this is the case with Plough Monday.


As best as I can gather, Plough Monday was a celebration during a slack time of the agricultural year, with the serious purpose of making money when there was no work. What part of the activities was money making for necessities and how much was simple fun is impossible to say nowadays. ALL customs associated with begging in England in the 19th century had an eye to making ends meet at a time when wages alone barely covered necessities, even though having fun was a major element.

If you want to get into the details of old Plough Monday customs you can go here http://petemillington.webspace.virginmedia.com/PloughMonday/Origins.htm This is a very useful article for exploring the history and distribution of Plough Monday activities, although it gets carried away with a pointless search for “origins” – a meaningless endeavor. The essentials are that Plough Monday celebrated the beginning of the ploughing season after Christmas. The commonest element was taking a decorated plough by “ploughboys” around the village from house to house, begging for money or a treat of some sort, such as food and drink. This custom may have been widespread in England at one time, but by the 19th century it was commonest in the east, in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, east Anglia and the east Midlands.


Other elements of the Plough Monday festivities were more localized. Some Yorkshire villages had a linked sword dance, while east Anglia had either a folk play (similar to mummers plays found widely throughout England) or dancing. Molly dancing was part of some east Anglian festivities, although very little is known about the specifics. The dances appear to be based on country dances, performed in sets of four by men in costume and blackface (often with one of the men dressed as a woman). Go here for more information http://www.amazon.com/Truculent-Rustics-Dancing-Anglia-Before/dp/0903515180/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8


William Hone in The Every Day Book (1825) has this to say:

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.

I doubt that Hone actually saw such celebrations, but is conflating accounts he read. Nonetheless you get the general idea. The last sentence is telling. What does “well managed” mean? The thing is that the ploughboys went around with their plough looking for a handout, but if it were not forthcoming they could exact a penalty, chief of which was to yoke themselves to the plough and plough a furrow in your lawn. There are also instances of them smashing windows. How often this actually happened cannot be known now. Not often, I suspect.

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Plough Monday activities were dying out (or suppressed by authorities) in the early 20th century, with a few shards hanging on as children’s activities (that is, suitably emasculated). What remained was noted by a few researchers and formed the basis of modern “revivals” – in the sense that Plough Monday is now celebrated once again, but the dances used are recent inventions only very loosely based on the older dances, and the dancers are not ploughboys.

I always celebrate Plough Monday with a bread and cheese platter (ploughman’s lunch), and sometimes with a Norfolk plough pudding. Here are images taken from previous posts.

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You can find my recipe for plough pudding here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/julian-norwich/

Today I am making oxtail stew as a suitably festive dish (oxen were used to pull ploughs in regions with heavy soils). This is an old favorite of mine dating back to my youth when I used to enjoy packaged and canned oxtail soup until I discovered home made was miles better. The secret is in the seasonings of the broth.


Oxtail Stew

Begin with a good meaty oxtail cut in chunks. Brown the oxtail pieces on both sides in a little oil in a heavy pot. Add a chopped onion and one or two cloves of garlic (minced) to the pot, and continue to sauté until they are soft. Then cover with good beef stock, seasoned with Worcestershire sauce, ginger, allspice, and freshly ground black pepper. Simmer gently until the meat is tender (about 2 hours). About 30 minutes before the end, add carrots and potatoes cut coarsely. Adjust the seasonings if necessary. Serve in bowls with crusty bread.