The very little evidence we have on how our northern European ancestors celebrated the return of spring, dates back only as far as the Medieval period. We can assume, however, that due to these festivals being closely connected to the agricultural year, that these rites have been passed down from generation to generation, in one form or another for thousands of years. Even up until the 1950’s, when these customs disappeared, there was still a deep desire to sow a successful harvest.
The timing of these spring festivals varied greatly and depended entirely on location and seasonal transitions; unlike today where most people who follow a nature based spirituality celebrate all on the same day, no matter where they are in the world. Our ancestors, however, having a much closer connection to the land, waited for the subtle signs before commencing their rites.
During the Middle Ages, the Christian church and its religious calendar appear to have taken control over these rites and the Plough Sunday and Monday celebrations always began with the local priest blessing a brightly decorated plough covered with ribbons and bows. These blessings would then have been said for whoever worked the land, as well as for a fruitful harvest. In the religious calendar ‘Plough Mundy’ or ‘Hansel Monday’ in Scotland, was traditionally the first Monday after the Epiphany (Twelfth Night). This date marked the beginning of the agricultural year and the end of the Christmas season.
Ploughtide was the time when farming tools were mended, cleaned and sharpened. The land having laid dormant since the last harvest was now ready to be ploughed. Everyone had to go back to work after the Christmas period with women returning to their spinning on St Distaff’s Day. Funnily enough St Distaff was never a real person or saint and a distaff was actually the name given to a spinning tool. It was customary on this day for men to try and steal the women’s flax and burn it; after which the women would pay the men back by throwing water over them!
After the blessing of the plough, thirty to forty men would assume the role of the oxen and pull the plough out of the church and into the village. Going from door to door the men would shout, “Penny for the Plough Boys”, as they collected money for the church. Other donations such as food was gratefully received especially as they would not have been paid during the Christmas holiday.
The money that was collected paid for the ‘Plough Candle’ which would burn before an image of a saint. The burning candle was believed to bless all of those who worked the land or who were connected with it in some way, such as the threshers, the reapers, the carters, the smiths and the millers.
The Plough Boys always wore white clothes that normally consisted of a shirt that was worn over a waist coat. Their arms and shoulders were covered in colourful ribbons tied in large bows and their faces were disguised under layers of black earth, soot or red ochre. On their heads sat a tall hat with small bunches of dried corn which fell to the ground when they moved.
The procession was accompanied by an old woman or a young boy dressed up as one, called the ‘Bessy’. Someone else would be dressed up as the ‘fool’, covered in fox fur, a hood and a tail. This character also carried a pig’s bladder on the end of a stick. It is believed that the character of the old woman might possibly be a remnant of an ancient mother/crone goddess from the Roman festivals called ‘Compitalia’. These extremely old festivals honoured the spirits of the family and home and could take place anytime between Saturnalia and 5th January.
It was traditional during Ploughtide to damage the front garden of anyone who refused to make a donation by using a plough. If this act of vandalism took place during Ploughtide it was not seen as a punishable crime.
The celebrations lasted several days and consisted of music, dancing around the plough and intricate sword fighting plays (folk plays that enacted a symbolic death and resurrection of one of the characters; a remnant of an ancient fertility rite). The dances were usually only performed by the farm workers who hoped that their high jumping would determine the height of the grain.
In Scotland, there used to be a rite called the ‘Streeking of the Plough, where the workers would symbolically wrap up a portion of their food and tie it firmly to the beam of the plough as well as pour some of their drink (normally whiskey) over it. The food that was tied to the plough was not to be touched or removed. This was seen as an extremely important custom to ensure a prosperous ploughing, sowing and subsequent harvest; perhaps an offering to the goddess. In Cairney, after the first furrow had been ploughed, bread, cheese and milk porridge was given to the ploughman and the first slice of cheese was always offered to the herd boy. The consistency of the porridge had to be just right because if it was too thin, then it didn’t bode well for the next season’s crops.
Good Friday was seen as a very unlucky day to start ploughing the fields in Scotland. This superstition was so strong that eventually all Fridays were seen as unlucky.
In Whittlesey, as part of the Ploughtide celebrations, a ‘straw bear’ man, completely covered in straw was led on a string and made to dance in front of every house in return for money. It is believed that the ‘straw bear’ represented the spirit of the corn bestowing its favours on every household and therefore ensuring a plentiful harvest. It is still a custom today and you can find plenty of photos online.
There is a strange tale that tells the story of a man and a boy who were in the fields ploughing one day when they both heard a little cry coming from a nearby copse. They stopped what they are doing and ran towards the sound where they found one of the little folk sobbing that he had lost his pick. The farmer searched for the tool and eventually found it for the little man, who rewarded them both with cheese, bread and cider. The man eagerly ate the food, but the boy does not because he was wary of the gift. As time went on a practice known as The Cake in the Furrow evolved and people began leaving offerings in the fields at the beginning of the ploughing season and some believe that this is how Plough Monday came to be in Worcestershire.
The Anglo Saxons, according to ‘De temporum ratione’ written by the Venerable Bede, named the month of February ‘Solmonath’; the month of mud or the plough (depending on how it is translated). People would offer cakes to the gods at this time of year, leaving them in the furrows. The only other time they did this was at harvest time ‘Hlaefmaesse’. It is interesting to note that they thanked the gods at the time of sowing and at the time of harvesting.
The Anglo Saxons also had a charm or blessing that they performed to encourage a plentiful harvest on a barren piece of land or to reverse a curse that had been placed on it. The aptly named ‘Field Remedy’ or ‘Aecerbot’ is a long complex ritual that requires specific list of ingredients to cleanse and heal the land. If you want to learn more about this incantation, then you can see it here http://www2.hawaii.edu/~kjolly/field.htm. You will notice that there is a mixture of pagan and Christian elements within it.
No one knows for sure where these specific festivals originate from, however, there is one theory that points to the Danes. There is a possibility that the Danes could have bought these traditions over with them when they settled in England. The only regions where there is evidence of this type of festival being celebrated is in the north east of England and the east Midlands; regions that were under Danelaw. I highly recommend that you read the research of Pete Millington who goes into great detail and discusses the similarities and differences between the old Danish customs and the old English ones. If you do not have the time to read the whole paper then I suggest that you just read ‘Discussions’ and ‘Conclusion’. You can find it here http://petemillington.uk/ploughmonday/Origins.php
Plough Monday is believed by many to have heralded the start of the ploughing season. I am of the opinion, however, that this was only the case for southern Europe because the earth would have still been far too hard to plough effectively in northern regions. Perhaps rituals were performed well before the ploughing season so as to have plenty of time to prepare before the earth had warmed up. In some areas ploughing would have actually taken place in the autumn.
Chambers Book of Days by Robert Chambers (1864)
The Every Day Book by William Hone (1825)
Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton (2001)
The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Weiser Francis (1958)
The English Year by Steve Roud (2008)
De temporum ratione by Bede (725)