Monday, January 13, 2014

God Spede the Plow

God spede the plow
And send us ale corne enow
Our purpose for to mak
At crow of cok
Of the plwlete of Sygate
Be mery and glade
Wat good ale this work mad.*
14th Century Poem
In rural England the first Monday after Twelfth Day (Epiphany) was celebrated as "Plough Monday".  This was the day on which all work resumed after the feasting of the 12 days of Christmas and was seen as the start of the agricultural year in many regions.  The first reports of the traditional celebrations of the day appear in the late 14th century.  

The previous day (Plough Sunday) farmers and ploughmen would have their ploughshares blessed for the coming planting season.  On the Monday a decorated plough was hauled in procession from door to door by stout young ploughmen wearing beribboned hats and clothing with white linen or wool smocks worn over their vests and pants   Often they were accompanied by bullock horn players and dancers.  Amongst the company would be a man (or boy) dressed as a grotesque old woman or "Bessy" and another dressed as a Fool with a donkey's tail hanging from his behind.  A member of the troupe would rattle a box and collect money from the spectators.  Originally the money was to provide candles before certain shrines to pray for a good harvest.  However with the English Reformation such Popish practices were banned and the money collected served a less holy purpose:  it was used to buy ale and refreshments in the local.  On the rare occasion when some small token was not given the "stingy" home owner could find their front yard had been ploughed up. 

A Straw Bear and his Keeper in Whittlesey, 1906
Customs varied from region to region - and often from village to village: in some towns Morris dancers would join the procession, in others it would be sword dancers doing a round-dance with origins in Scandinavia.  In  Cornwall everyone in the procession cross-dressed and there was "guise dancing".

In the Fenlands, a small area on the border region between Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, the strange custom of the "Straw Bear" was central to the celebration but on the Tuesday.  A man (sometimes a boy, often both) was dressed from head to toe in straw and lead from house to house by his keeper.  Once again monies were collected, though to what end other than another trip to the pub, I'm not sure.  It appears that in former times the tradition was so highly regarded that farmers would save their best straw for the costume.  At the end of festivities the costume was burnt in a solemn ceremony.   The Straw Bear appears no where else in England but is often seen on Shrove Tuesday festivities in parts of Germany, Austria and Poland.  

The Straw Bear tradition has been revived in Whittlesey and turned into a four day event, attracting 
performers and tourists from all over.  Here's a video of the 2011 celebrations.

With the coming of industrialization and modernization in the late 19th-early 20th centuries there was no need for the plough and the labours of the ploughman were done by machines.  Though they remained in a handful of small communities the customs of Plough Monday slowly died off.  However the last few years have seen a revival of interest in the old customs and it is not unusual to see forms of Plough Monday celebrations in Cornwall, Essex and the eastern Shires. In many places the "festival" has become a major tourist attraction.

Though most people have returned to their jobs long before the end of Epiphany I wish that in your labours "God spede your plow".

*This is taken from a carving on a wall plaque in the Church of St Agnes in Cawston just north of Norwich.  The livelihood of the parishioners and the well-being of the church depended on a good crop of ale-corn or barley which leads to the pun in the last line:  what good ale this work (the Plough Monday processions) makes.  The reference probably refers to the use of the money donated to buy candles to be lit at the various shrines in the town in hope of a good harvest.  The "plwlete" was the Ploughman's Guild which according to this rhyme were meeting just outside of town at Sygate to begin their procession.  

13 January - 1698:  Matestasio (Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi), poet and librettist was born in the Rome, the Papal States.

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1 comment:

Ur-spo said...

I love posts like this one!