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At the heart of English folk

A January custom – old and new

by Natalie Bevan, Librarian in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

Natalie BevanWhile we settle into the new year it seems an opportune time to consider folk customs traditionally associated with January. In the darkness of winter and after the Christmas festivities, what customs mark this turning point in the year? Delving into the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s wealth of folk resources, this blog article focuses on the practice of Plough Monday and draws together a selection of material and research on this January custom.

Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night) signified the end of the winter celebrations and marked the point in the calendar when folk went back to work, traditionally - for agricultural workers - back to the land. As Ronald Hutton says in The Rise and Fall of Merry England “The merry-making was over for everybody, and in arable districts preparations commenced for the ploughing” (Hutton, 1994. p.16)

This is a custom which has a considerable history. A number of researchers have cited historical accounts of it. In his research on Balsham’s Plough Monday - Pity the Poor Ploughboy - George Frampton believes Plough Monday to be an ancient custom, whose “earliest acknowledged history lies in the sixteenth century”. Hutton even finds mention of it in churchwarden’s accounts as far back as 1413.

Early accounts often link the custom to the Church. There are some references to churches lighting candles - ‘plough lights’ - that would be kept alight alongside ploughs that were mounted on stands in churches, and possibly maintained by guilds. In Vagrants, Rogues and Vagabonds, Frampton’s research finds “references to plough lights being maintained in the pre-Reformation church in East Anglia”. He also finds that at Whittlesey in 1542 St. Andrew’s church purchased machinery used in ploughing. Even today on Plough Sunday ploughs are blessed at churches across the country – at Exeter, Chichester and Long Marston in Yorkshire to name a few. Other historic accounts indicate that in some areas, notably East Anglia, a plough was dragged through the streets on this day and a collection of money taken. (Hutton, 1994. p.16)

Elaine Bradtke’s research in Truculent Rustics details how during the mid-1500’s Plough Monday customs began to be discouraged. Bradtke found that puritans had a hand in this after the Reformation, and served to put down seasonal church-related practices. Gradually the Church’s involvement in Plough Monday diminished – but the custom still hung on nonetheless, and it was (and is) especially evident in East Anglia. As Bradtke notes, “Plough Monday was never completely forgotten in East Anglia and the Fens.”

Outside of East Anglia, Plough Monday customs have been detailed in George Ridden’s research. Ridden’s work centres on Goathland in the North Riding of Yorkshire. The custom in Goathland lapsed in the 1870s but was revived in 1922 and Ridden looks at the history of the Goathland team - the ‘Plough Stots’ - their dances and folk drama, during these two time periods.

Plough Monday is closely associated with molly dancing – and this custom appears to have flourished in the mid-19th century. For a detailed study into molly dancing and how it developed it is well worth referring to Bradtke’s essay in Step Change: New views on traditional dance. The revival of molly dancing in the later part of the 20th century has seen the old custom of Plough Monday continue into the present day. The revival of molly dancing is largely down to the work of Russell Wortley in the 1970s and developed by the Cambridge Morris Men, with the Seven Champions, a Kentish team, as an example of one of the best known molly dance teams. In their article in 1978, Wortley and Cyril Papworth explain how by 1930, in south-west Cambridgeshire, molly dancing had severely diminished. However the authors were able to publish some of the figures danced by Comberton molly dancers around 1880-1900 thanks to the memories of the elderly dancers in the area. It was thanks to efforts by Wortley and others that molly dancing was revived.  Today there will be many molly dancing teams out and about. For further information:

A large historic photographic collection is housed in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library which depicts a variety of topics relating to folk customs, dance and song. Here are just a few images from this fabulous resource:

Plough Monday

The Goathland Plough Stots, 1930s.  

Plough Monday

The Plough Jags at Branston, Lincolnshire, c.1900.

The Full English digital archive contains a host of primary material relevant to Plough Monday, primarily in the Thomas Fairman Ordish collection, held by the Folklore Society. Ordish (1855-1924) was a member of the Folklore Society and had a passion for Shakespeare, theatre and folk drama. Here: we have a typescript of a play performed at Mansfield, Nottinghamshire on Plough Monday with the familiar characters shown as St. George; The Doctor; Bold Slasher; Beelzebub; Micky Bent; the Snake and Molly Mop.

A small selection of useful readings: 

Boyes, Georgina (ed). Step change : new views on traditional dance. London : Francis Boutle Publishers, 2001. Print.

Bradtke, Elaine. Truculent rustics : Molly dancing in East Anglia before 1940. London : The Folklore Society, 1999. Print.

Frampton, George. Pity the poor ploughboy – Balsham’s Plough Monday. Kent. George Frampton. 1993. Print.

Frampton, George. Vagrants, Rogues and Vagabonds – Plough Monday tradition in Old Huntingdonshire and the Soke of Peterborough. Kent. George Frampton. 1996. Print.

Hutton, Ronald. The rise and fall of merry England : the ritual year, 1400-1700. Oxford ; Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.

Needham, Joseph. “The Geographical Distribution of English Ceremonial Dance Traditions”. Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society 3.1 (1936): 1–45. Print.

Needham, Joseph, and Arthur L. Peck. “Molly Dancing in East Anglia”. Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society 1.2 (1933): 79–85. Print.

Ridden, Geoffrey M.. “The Goathland Plough Monday Customs”. Folk Music Journal 2.5 (1974): 352–388. Print. 


#3 Steven woodruff 2017-01-10 00:09
Wouldn't the Wortley attribution be more correctly traced to the English TM rather than the CMM themselves. In Wortley's era of activity the research and professional involvement in collecting would more aptly belong to the continuing efforts by TM dancers, historians, and musicians as an ongoing archival source.
#2 Paul Davenport 2017-01-09 19:10
The custom of celebrating Plough Monday was extensive and continued into the 20th century in all parts of Yorkshire and the East Midlands. One curiosity is that whilst North Lincolnshire seems to have celebrated with plays but little in the way of dance, in contrast Yorkshire and especially that area most directly opposite Lincolnshire, seems to have kept the dance and neglected the play. The incidences of reported Plough Monday and associated dances in Yorkshire extends into the hundreds of locations. The dances so reported include sword dances, as expected, but also two distinct forms of 'morris' type dance, one in Holderness involving blackface and the rattling of bones and waving of flags, the other in the Selby area more closely resembling the patterns and gait of the Abbots Bromley Horn dance. The last reported incidence of this latter form was as late as 1920 thus the custom had survived the First World War.
#1 Keith Thompson 2017-01-09 19:05
I might suggest that "plow lites" is the rustic spelling & that Goathland a Plough Stots were actually revived in 1921 by Frank Dowson & not 1922. We have a named copy of the 21 photograph in our archives along with a significant amount of other material that hopefully this year will go on show on the new Community Hub being built in our village as we create a Sword Dance Exhibition Centre. One in which Goathland Plough Stots are heavily involved & of whom I am President. We were at Church yesterday for The Blessing of The Plough Service & will be out on Saturday dancing the village
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