Happy Plough Monday!

Happy New Year, Farming Unearthed fans! (yes, all two of us)

And while we’re at it, Happy Plough Monday too!

As Farming Unearthed begins an exciting new year, full of “promise”, and hopefully containing a viva at some point, I thought I’d flag up an old article which, while not strictly about agricultural archaeology, nonetheless sheds an interesting light on what you could call “plough lore” in Great Britain, this being Plough Monday an’ all:

Davidson, T. (1959). “Plough Rituals in England and Scotland”, Agricultural History Review 7(1), pp.27-37.

We learn first of the old Scottish custom, observed upon the ploughing of the first furrow, “streeking the plough”, which is to say, laying some food upon and pouring a libation over it; likewise given to the ploughman, to consume by way of refreshment.

Conversely, ploughing on Good Friday – and, for some, on Fridays generally – was considered unlucky in the extreme. Davidson proffers a possible explanation, in the traditional belief that the nails of Christ’s crucifixion were made upon Good Friday – so, perhaps, an aversion to using metal tools on that day? (p.28)

Several more customs and tales are related, some involving colourful quotations in Scottish dialect. Well worth a read.

In England, meanwhile, we find Plough Monday (first Monday after 12th Night – i.e. today, in 2014): “the day for starting ploughing operations” (p.29). The occasion was marked with processions and plays: see the jolly illustrations on the relevant Wikipedia entry.

The Plough plays – apparently a central English speciality – sound particularly interesting. 19th century accounts are related. Naturally, this being an English custom, St George and inflated pig bladders were involved, besides an actual plough, with which to plough up the ground before any welcoming households who didn’t want to see the show. It must have been a harrowing experience for them.*

There follows some discussion of the relationship between these customs and “old fertility rites”, which is interesting food for thought but perhaps not quite so entertaining as the anecdotes offered earlier in the article!

And talking of entertaining anecdotes, I crave your indulgence for a shameless, irrelevant plug: some silly stories I penned about an Oxford city rat are now available as a cheap Kindle edition ebook (The Adventures of Filbert Nibbleif you’re interested). If you like rats, pigeons, or silliness, it may interest you.

But I digress.

If you have access to it, I’d certainly advise giving Davidson’s article a peruse. Whilst writing my thesis, I sometimes fell into the trap of thinking of farming as a kind of detached, practical, economic process, which of course is no more than half the story. The “lore” aspects are just as crucial, in their own way. When your health and wellbeing depend on the harvest, I guess you’re going to say “God speed well the plough” right heartily, and throw yourself into the relevant festivities, because it’s the vital stuff of traditional agrarian life – at least in the place discussed by Davidson, and presumably with variants elsewhere in the world too.

Perhaps I should have got into the spirit of the thing today, decking my thesis in ribbons and parading it through town, asking for refreshments. Then again, I wouldn’t want a libation poured over my graphs.

MJM.

* Harrowing is not the same as ploughing, of course, so I admit the pun falls a bit flat.

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