Plough Monday

Also found in: Dictionary, Wikipedia.

Plough Monday

In past centuries the people of rural England observed the Twelve Days of Christmas with rest and recreation. Daily tasks resumed after Epiphany. Women returned to their spinning the day after Epiphany, dubbed St. Distaff's Day. Men took up their ploughs again on the first Monday after Epiphany, which was called Plough Monday.

In earlier times Plough Monday marked the beginning of "Ploughtide," one of the four agricultural seasons recognized by both folk and Church custom. After having lain fallow during the coldest, darkest months of the year, the earth was ready to be turned over in preparation for the sowing of the spring harvest. In the sixteenth century English writer Thomas Tusser (1524-1580) commemorated this return to the plough in verse:

Plough Monday, next after that Twelftide is past bids out with the plough, the worst husband is last [Hutton, 1996, 126].


The earliest records of Plough Monday date back to medieval times. In those days ploughmen organized themselves into guilds, associations of men working the same trade. Plough guilds or other farming associations often kept a light burning in front of an image in the local church, which was believed to confer blessings on all those who plied the trade. It appears that some groups stored a communal plough in the church as well. On Plough Monday bands of ploughmen collected money to keep these "plough lights" burning. Some pulled a plough in procession throughout the community while others collected coins from the populace. In addition, some writers suggest that in medieval times ploughs were blessed on Plough Monday.

In the sixteenth century the changes in religious thinking brought about by the Reformation partially halted these practices (see also Puritans). Many reformers condemned plough lights and plough blessings as a form of superstition and therefore forbade them. Plough processions persisted, however, as a way of celebrating the beginning of a new agricultural cycle. The parading ploughmen continued to collect offerings as well, only now they put them towards their own amusement instead of some communal or religious purpose.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, those participating in these processions still dragged a plough throughout the community. They referred to it as a "fool plough" and often decorated it. The young men who participated in these processions were known by a variety of names, such as the plough boys, plough lads, plough jacks, plough bullocks, plough witches, or plough stots. They often blackened their faces and wore some kind of homemade costume. Frequently, one lad dressed as a woman, called Bessy, and another as a fool or clown. These two stock figures engaged in playful banter while the others, their clothing embellished with ribbons, patches, straw or other fanciful items, played along. The plough boys accepted food and drink as well as money, but threatened the householder who refused to give anything with the prospect of having his or her garden ploughed under. In some areas the lads enticed greater generosity from their audiences by performing mummers' plays and folk dances, such as sword dances and other kinds of morris dances.

Contemporary Customs

These practices finally died out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The mid-twentieth century, however, witnessed a curious revival of religious customs surrounding Plough Monday. With the founding of the Council for Church and Countryside in 1943, a number of agriculturally oriented services from the medieval era were reintroduced into local worship. Some churches now observe the Blessing of the Plough on the Sunday before Plough Monday. In this ceremony farmers and others whose work is related to agriculture carry a plough up to the chancel steps where they and the plough are blessed "that the people of our land may be satisfied with bread." The congregation prays for the ploughmen and for all who "offer the work of the countryside to the service of God." In some areas local people have also revived the various folk celebrations associated with this day, such as morris dances and mummer's plays.

Further Reading

Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Chambers, Robert. "January 11 - Plough Monday." In his The Book of Days. Volume 1. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. Howard, Alexander. Endless Cavalcade. London, England: Arthur Baker, 1964. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Plough Monday

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: January; first Monday after Epiphany
Where Celebrated: England
Symbols and Customs: Blessing the Plough, Plough Light, Sword Dance, The Bessy
Related Holidays: Compitalia


Plough Monday is an ancient rustic holiday that later became part of the Christian tradition. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

Also known as Fool Plough, Fond Plough, or Fond Pleeaf, the ancient rustic holiday Plough Monday was observed in England up through the late 1800s. It was believed to have started in the days of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, when farmers (or ploughmen, as they were called in England) kept candles called PLOUGH LIGHTS burning in churches before the images of their own special saints. Once a year, on the Monday after EPIPHANY, just before they resumed plowing after the CHRISTMAS holidays-or sometimes at the end of LENT, to celebrate the end of plowing-they gathered in villages to collect money to pay for the plough lights. They would draw a plow through the village streets, accompanied by dancers and musicians, and demand money from passersby. This custom can be traced back to an even older tradition whereby a decorated plow was dragged from house to house by plowmen who shouted "God speed the plough!" and asked for money or gifts. If they didn't receive anything, they plowed up the yard in front of the house.

The sixteenth-century Reformation put an end to the adulation of saints, but the festivities associated with Plough Monday continued. The money that was originally collected for plough lights was used instead for eating and drinking. By the nineteenth century, the festival had become a day filled with music, dancing, processions, and trick-or-treating (see HALLOWEEN) by local farmers. A man known as THE BESSY would often dress up as a buffoon in women's clothing, and another, known as "The Fool," would wear animal skins or a fur hat and tail. They would parade from door to door, demanding money to buy not plough lights, but ale in the local tavern.

Dances were often performed around the plow, as if the dancers were acting out the revival of the earth in spring. The grain was supposed to grow as high that year as the dancers could jump-which gave rise to some wild dancing. In some places a plow, or even a log, was dragged over the fields in a symbolic plowing motion to ensure that the earth would be fertile when the time for real plowing arrived.


Blessing the Plough

The custom of blessing the plow on the previous day, sometimes called Plough Sunday, is one that has survived in some English towns to this day. Plows that are to be used in preparing the fields for spring sowing are decorated and brought to the local church to be blessed.

Plough Light

The plough light or candle that was kept burning in the church before the image of the plowman's favorite saint was a symbol of the connection between the fertility of the fields and the blessings of God. Farmers believed that if they kept these lights burning, they would be assured of a successful harvest.

Sword Dance

It was very common at one time, especially in the rural areas of northeastern Yorkshire, for traditional Sword Dances to be performed on Plough Monday. Like the Morris Dance, the Sword Dance consisted of many intricate movements executed with precision and restraint. The dancers held swords in their right hands and at some point interlaced them to form a hexagon, known as "the lock," that was so firmly constructed it could be held aloft in a single dancer's hand. The geometrical figure would then be undone as each dancer took back his own sword.

The climax of the dance was the beheading scene. A character in the dance, often the one called The Fool, appeared to be decapitated by the swords. As he lay still on the ground, the other dancers would start shouting for a doctor, who would arrive and bring The Fool back to life with something from a bottle.

The Sword Dance was traditional in midwinter-as opposed to the Morris Dance, which was not confined to a particular season but usually accompanied EASTER, MAY DAY , or MIDSUMMER DAY festivities. The central feature of the Sword Dance was always a make-believe death followed by a magical resurrection, symbolic of the miraculous rebirth of nature in springtime. Such dances have enjoyed a rebirth themselves in recent years, and they are often performed at fairs and festivals in both England and the United States.

The Bessy

The female impersonator known as The Bessy is probably a remnant of an ancient mother goddess. Plough Monday itself is believed to have descended from the Roman COMPITALIA, celebrated by servants when their plowing was over. The Bessy remains a stock character in pantomime, mummers' parades, and SWORD DANCES , but is especially associated with Plough Monday.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Dunkling, Leslie. A Dictionary of Days. New York: Facts on File, 1988. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Helfman, Elizabeth. Celebrating Nature: Rites and Ceremonies Around the World. New York: Seabury Press, 1969. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hole, Christina. English Custom & Usage. 1941. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Yearbook of English Festivals. 1954. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.


Pulse of the Planet

Plough Monday

January, first Monday after Epiphany
This ancient rustic English holiday, also called Fool Plough or Fond Plough, or Fond Pleeaf, survived into the late 1800s. It is thought to have started in the days of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, when farmers, or ploughmen, kept candles called plough-lights burning in churches before the images of saints.
Once a year, on the Monday after Epiphany (before ploughing begins), or sometimes at the end of Lent (to celebrate the end of ploughing), they gathered in villages to ask for money to pay for the plough-lights. The Reformation of the 16th century ended this homage to saints, but not the day's celebration as a time to return to labor after the Christmas festivities.
By the 19th century, the day was observed with music, dancing, processions, and collecting money through trick-or-treat type means. "The Bessy"—a man dressed up to look ridiculous in women's clothing—and "The Fool," wearing animal skins or a fur cap and tail, solicited money from door to door so they could buy food and drink for their merrymaking. The ploughmen dragged a beribboned plough from house to house, shouting "God speed the plough," and if a home owner failed to make a contribution, they ploughed up his front yard. The money collected was spent not on plough-lights but on ale in the public houses.
The custom of blessing the plough on the prior day, Plough Sunday, was still observed in some areas in the 20th century.
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 94
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 38
DictDays-1988, p. 90
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 138, 410
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 610
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 19
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 24
OxYear-1999, p. 601
RelHolCal-2004, p. 89
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 63
References in periodicals archive ?
We'll definitely have more Plough Monday beers in the future.
Plough Monday recent debuted at the Seattle tavern he manages, Uber Tavern, a location spoken of reverently by beer fanatics.
The original plan was for Whedbee to move to Eugene and work full-time at Plough Monday, Vidoni said, but then the recession clobbered the housing market so Whedbee stayed put, driving down from Washington on his days off to help out.
In addition to putting in about 100 hours at the brewery, Vidoni also continues to supervise the hops farm, although they did hire a full-time employee to work the farm - the only employee of Plough Monday Organic Farm & Brewery besides a part-time sales person at the brewery.
Every parish seems to have had a plough guild, and ceremonies for blessing the land and cattle, and their stewards--on Plough Monday and at other times--were part of the fabric of religious life throughout the area.
Bowers, 'A Sixteenth-Century Plough Monday Play List, Review of English Studies 15 (1939), 192-4; W.
7) Dean-Smith, 'Cast of a Plough Monday Play', 394-6; Kahrl, Records, xxviii.
The chapter on the Hibaldstow Plough Play in fact gives a thorough overview of Plough Monday customs and plough plays for the whole of Lincolnshire, especially north Lincolnshire.
Some of the Plough Monday accounts that appear elsewhere in the book were new to me.