Plough Monday

It is early January, and Rock Day and Plough Day are upon us once again. Last year I spent a long time reading up on these holidays, as well as other possibly related celebrations including Twelfth Night and Perchtenlaufen. You can read my earlier posts starting with my first one about Rock Day. Last year I kept meaning to write a post about Plough Day specifically, but I was overwhelmed with information and I never finished writing it. When I got part way through The Night Battles by Carlo Ginzburg, I decided maybe I was out of my league and I’d better back off. However, even if I am not an expert I still find all this stuff fascinating. So, here at last is my Plough Day post.

In some parts of England, Plough Day or Plough Monday was traditionally the day that agricultural laborers began the arduous task of ploughing the fields in preparation for spring planting. Plough Day was traditionally the first Monday after Twelfth Night, roughly the 7th of January. When I first read about this, I could not believe that it was true. At the moment, January 3rd, here in Massachusetts it is snowy and extremely cold. Tonight’s low is forecasted to be -19 degrees F. No one will be ploughing anytime soon. Well, there was certainly snow plowing going on today, but the ground is frozen solid and it would be impossible to get a blade into the soil. However, I have now read enough to believe that mid-winter ploughing did and does occur in the warmer parts of England.

Plough Monday occurred shortly after Rock Day, also known as St. Distaff’s Day, which was the day after Twelfth Night. Rock Day marked the return of spinners to their spinning after the mid-winter holidays. However, neither Rock Day nor Plough Day was really a regular work day. They both seem to have been winter-time celebrations commemorated with traditional antics. On Rock Day the ploughboys would set the spinners’ flax on fire, and the spinners would douse the flax and the ploughboys with water. On Plough Day, a plough was involved in the festivities, as you might imagine, but lots of other things happened as well.

From what I have read, Plough Monday traditions reflect the fact that the plough was an essential piece of agricultural technology, yet was also extremely expensive. In many communities people would share one plough. In some cases communal ploughs were stored in a church, along with a plough light that was kept burning continually. This maintenance, as well as access to the plough, presumably, cost money. Agricultural wages were low, so workers had to raise funds. Depending what you read, the money collected on Plough Monday was either used to support the essential yet poorly remunerated work of ploughing, or to fund a party that evening with food and drink. Typical elements of a Plough Monday celebration included the blessing of the plough at a church service and a procession with the plough during which participants begged for money (or food or beer). A communal plough (or perhaps a symbolic plough) was dragged through town, with stops along the way where songs and dances might be performed. Stingy land-owners would suffer some damage to their property if they didn’t give generously, somewhat akin to trick or treat. Participants might paint their faces to hide their identities. Other components included dancing, music, and costumes. Some festivals also included straw “bears”, other interesting carnival-like characters, and bonfires!

Presumably some of these elements have a long history, but it’s hard to be sure which ones. According to Ronald Hutton in The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, activities commemorating the start of the ploughing season date back at least as far as the 13th century, and written references to Plough Monday date to the early 1400s.

There are a number of YouTube videos of contemporary revivals of Plough Monday celebrations in England that give a sense of what the modern-day festivities entail. If you search YouTube for Plough Monday you can find a variety of videos, or follow the link here. Some of the videos are about 10 or 15 minutes long and feature dances, music, and parades of brightly-clad children. If you want to see a brief torchlit, somewhat dramatic plough procession click here. If you want to see straw bears and a bonfire click here.

In my posts last year about Rock Day I speculated quite a bit about certain themes: spinning and weaving prohibitions and mandates; customs determining when work was supposed to be suspended or to commence; the seemingly gendered roles of “spinners” and “ploughboys”; why the necessary raw materials of daily life, including flax, might be ceremonially burned. At first I thought that burning was a special Rock Day thing, but it may well have been a Plough Day thing as well (witness the blazing straw bear). It also may be that Plough Day was not all about ostensibly male labors. Davidson notes in The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe that in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, Holde/Frau Holle and Perht/Berta were associated with ploughs as well as spinning wheels. In some places they were said to travel with a plough surrounded by a troop of children. Davidson also cites references to women’s ceremonial use of ploughs in 19th century eastern Europe and Russia to protect villages from disease (Roles of the Northern Goddess). So, ploughs were not necessarily an exclusively male tool, literally or symbolically. After too much reading, holidays that first appeared very distinct start to get a little blurry.

One of the reasons I find it hard to be succinct and get to the point about any of these holidays is that there are so many different yet seemingly related traditions associated with them. The specific practices differed from place to place and certainly changed over time. In Roles of the Northern Goddess, Hilda Ellis Davidson cautions that “frequent changes in the Plough Monday celebrations in the past hundred years show how unwise it would be to assume continuity with pre-Christian beliefs many centuries ago.” Agreed. Nevertheless, lots of scholars have puzzled over whether there are continuities, and if so, what they might be. Me, too.

Intellectually, I am more of a splitter than a lumper, meaning that I am inclined to think that the differences and distinctions between phenomena are significant enough that things usually deserve their own category. I don’t generally like to generalize (ha!) but I have to admit there certainly do seem to be a lot of common elements to these early-January festivals. One project, Carnival King of Europe, has drawn together footage of festivals around Europe, and highlights elements they have in common. It is definitely a lumpy undertaking. For some interesting footage of these different celebrations around Europe, check out clips here and here on YouTube and the full trailer for the film here. I’m not ready to go so far as these folks do in linking these various traditions but it is fascinating stuff nonetheless.