09 January 2012

Plough Monday

Weather: the weather for today indicates the weather of September.

The first Monday after Epiphany is called "Plough (Plow) Monday", as that is the day that men are supposed to return to their work after the Christmas holidays.  It is said to come from the custom of “leading the plough about the fire for a good beginning of the year, that they should fare the better at the year following.”  Ploughs would also be censed and blessed today, before beginning the year's work.

Thomas Tusser in his Redivivus (1710) wrote: " After Christmas (which formerly, during the twelve days, was a time of very little work) every gentleman feasted the farmers, and every farmer their servants and task men. Plough Monday puts them in mind of their business." 

Remember us poor ploughboys,
A-ploughing we must go;
Hail, rain, blow, or snow,
A-ploughing we must go.

As with Distaff's Day, it was partially (if not mostly) a day of frolic.  There were races between the farmhands and the housemaids as to which group started their work that day before the other, with forfeits for the losers.  During the day, a group of fantastically-dressed men would go in procession from house to house and from one village to another, dragging a gaily decorated plough and begging "plough-money" from the bystanders.  This largesse was originally collected to purchase candles (called ‘plough-lights’) to burn in the shrine of a local saint as a way of obtaining a blessing on their work, but shrine and candles being destroyed by the Reformation, the money thereafter collected on this day was instead spent in celebration at the nearest public house.  Sometimes the processions were quite elaborate with costumed participants, morris-dancers, small pageants, and sword-dancing.

From Chamber's Book of Days, here is the plowman's day, as depicted by Gervase Markham in his Farewell to Husbandry (1653):

"We will suppose it to be after Christmas, or about Plow Day, (which is the first setting out of the plow,) and at what time men either begin to fallow, or to break up pease-earth, which is to lie to bait, according to the custom of the country. At this time the Plow-man shall rise before four o'clock in the morning, and after thanks given to God for his rest, and the success of his labours, he shall go into his stable or beast-house, and first he shall fodder his cattle, then clean the house, and make the booths clean; rub down the cattle, and cleanse their skins from all filth. Then he shall curry his horses, rub them with cloths and wisps, and make both them and the stable as clean as may be. Then he shall water both his oxen and horses, and housing them again, give them more fodder and to his horse by all means provender, as chaff and dry pease or beans, or oat-hulls, or clean garbage (which is the hinder ends of any grain but rye), with the straw chopped small amongst it, according as the ability of the husbandman is.

“And while they are eating their meat, he shall make ready his collars, hames, treats, halters, mullers, and plow-gears, seeing everything fit and in its due place, and to these labours I will also allow two hours; that is, from four of the clock till six. Then he shall come in to breakfast, and to that I allow him half an hour, and then another half hour to the yoking and gearing of his cattle, so that at seven he may set forth to his labours; and then he shall plow from seven o'clock in the morning till betwixt two and three in the afternoon. Then he shall unyoke and bring home his cattle, and having rubbed them, dressed them, and cleansed them from all dirt and filth, he shall fodder them and give them meat. Then shall the servants go in to their dinner, which allowed half an hour, it will then be towards four of the clock; at what time he shall go to his cattle again, and rubbing them down and cleansing their stalls, give them more fodder; which done, he shall go into the barns, and provide and make ready fodder of all kinds for the next day.

“This being done, and carried into the stable, ox-house, or other convenient place, he shall then go water his cattle, and give them more meat, and to his horse provender; and by this time it will draw past six o'clock; at what time he shall come in to supper, and after supper he shall either sit by the fireside, mend shoes both for himself and their family, or beat and knock hemp or flax, or pick and stamp apples or crabs for cider or vinegar, or else grind malt on the querns, pick candle rushes, or do some husbandly office till it be fully eight o'clock. Then shall he take his lanthorn and candle, and go see his cattle, and having cleansed his stalls and planks, litter them down, look that they are safely tied, and then fodder and give them meat for all night. Then, giving God thanks for benefits received that day, let him and the whole household go to their rest till the next morning."

That is quite a day's work – a day’s work, mind you – and worth an evening of conviviality.

Today, remember to thank the men whose labors have contributed to your well-being: fathers who spent long hours in factory or office, and then long hours teaching the finer points of riding a bicycle or driving a car; husbands who dig up a plot of land for your garden and haul in the fertilizer (ignore the "Green Acres" song); neighbors who plow the snow from your driveway; employers who travel and schmooze and put up with a lot of nonsense from the buying public in order to keep the business (and your job) going...

God speed the plough!