Today is Plough Monday – the first Monday after the feast of the Epiphany (6th January). The origins of the day are not clear but one possibility is that it was the first day when the peasants returned to work after the Christmas holiday. Medieval peasants did not own land but were given an area of land to farm in return for working two or three days a week farming their lord’s land. During the twelve days of Christmas they were given a holiday from working their lord’s lands, but once Epiphany had passed the lord would want his land ploughed ready for the spring seed to be sown and so all his serfs would be obliged to turn up with their ploughs and do just that.
At this time it was usual for a light to kept burning in the local church before the image of a saint that was known as the plough light. This was probably a semi-Christian ritual to ensure a good harvest. The first practice of going around the village with a plough on this day and begging for money was to ensure that there was enough to pay to keep the plough light burning throughout the year. The Reformation put an end to plough lights, but the tradition continued although in a slightly different form. On the day before Plough Monday, sometimes called Plough Sunday, the ploughs were taken to the local church to be blessed. On the Monday the decorated ploughs were paraded through the streets by ploughmen dressed in their clean white shirts with the sleeves decorated by brightly coloured ribbons. They would call out for ‘a penny for the ploughboys!’ from the local landowners and to prevent themselves being recognised there began a tradition of the ploughboys blackening their faces. They were usually accompanied by an old woman – or a boy dressed up as an old woman – called the Bessy and there was often also a fool, dressed in skins complete with a tail whose job it was to collect the money. Anyone who refused to pay up would have a furrow ploughed outside their home. One record from 1597 tells of a court case in which ten men from the village of North Muskham in Nottinghamshire were ordered to turn back the furrow they had ploughed across the churchyard on ‘Plow Daie’!
The money was intended to be given to the poor, though from some accounts that did not always happen as the event became associated with rowdiness and drinking and damage to property. It become less popular as industry took the place of farming though it was still marked in many places and by the 19th century it had become associated with straw bears – men or boys clothed in a layer of straw who danced to encourage the crops to grow in the spring.
Although not widely celebrated today the tradition does live on and in some places has been revived as folk dancing event.