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.


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


Ploughing Ahead: Medieval Perspectives

Well, it’s that time of the year again when journals start coming through the post, and I hope to review some of the more agriculturally-themed articles on Farming Unearthed in the not-too-distant future.

For now, in a bit of shameless self-indulgence, I’m happy to note that March’s Ploughing Ahead  conference has had two short, medieval-slanted reports printed in the new Medieval Archaeology Newsletter this month. This seems like a good excuse to upload the “director’s cut” of my own write-up, copied below.

NB. The medieval bias here is due to the intended audience of the piece, and implies no disrespect to the excellent non-medieval papers and posters that were presented!


Ploughing Ahead

On Friday 15th March, 45 students, professionals and enthusiasts in agricultural history and archaeology assembled in Oxford for Ploughing Ahead, a one-day colloquium exploring the social, environmental and technological dimensions of Old World tillage practices. The event was organized by myself and Lisa Lodwick, both postgraduate students in the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford. Ploughing Ahead received generous financial support from both the School of Archaeology’s Meyerstein Fund and the British Agricultural History Society, whose sponsorship helped to subsidise the attendance of nine postgraduate delegates.

The colloquium aimed to highlight recent developments and the current state (or lack) of understanding in the history of ploughing, and also to initiate inter-disciplinary dialogues about this crucial topic in rural history. Through thirteen papers and four posters – all of excellent quality – we were taken from prehistoric China to early modern Ireland, from soil thin-sections to manuscript illuminations, from animal palaeopathology to LIDAR. Although the geographical and chronological scope of the colloquium was extremely wide, medieval topics featured prominently in the programme. Richard Thomas’ opening paper discussed the recognition of traction pathologies in cattle bones and, with a case study from Dudley Castle, introduced a compelling model for the eventual rise of horses as plough-beasts after the catastrophic impact of the Black Death upon cattle populations. Richard Macphail, meanwhile, reported on the multi-faceted palaeoenvironmental programme conducted during highway excavations in Vestfold, Norway, including the study of ploughsoil colluvia in Viking age soil sections, elucidating agricultural practices in the poorly preserved upslope settlements. Soil was also examined in Jan Nyssen’s study of lynchets which, in both excavated sections in east Belgium and current field observations in Ethiopia, were demonstrated to have emerged naturally – accidentally, even – on steep ploughed slopes.

After lunch, Gabor Thomas presented results from the conservation and analysis of the famous Lyminge coulter – highlighting in particular the sophistication of its workmanship, and the design indicative of a ‘swivel-plough.’ The broader continental context of this find was brought to light by Joachim Henning, whose wide-ranging work persuasively suggests that the swivel-plough’s eventual medieval dominance was previously delayed by the Roman villa system which, with its enslaved labour forces, restricted itself to the use of simpler ards.

Catarina Karlsson gave an interim report on her important experimental work, replicating medieval Swedish ard shares in order to gauge the loss of iron through wear over time. The work is on-going, and its results will surely have far-reaching implications not only for agricultural research, but also for studies of medieval metal consumption in rural communities. Continuing the technological theme, Charles Martell, trainer of oxen and owner of a Gloucestershire Long Plough, gave an entertaining and highly informative account of this tool’s design, usage, and local persistence from the medieval period through to the 20th century. In the final session, Niall Brady presented a new perspective on agriculture in early medieval Ireland, utilizing the wealth of archaeological data generated during the late lamented boom years, and highlighting an apparent growth in arable production from around the 7th century although, intriguingly, the adoption of the mouldboard plough is not evident before the 10th century. The colloquium was concluded by Debby Banham’s reassessment of the pictorial and documentary evidence for ploughing in Anglo-Saxon England, which provided a salutary warning, not only that such sources cannot be taken at face value, but also that the ‘face value’ itself should not be overestimated.

Besides these contributions, the colloquium benefited from a vast array of historical, ethnographic, environmental and experimental expertise concerning other periods and localities, and we hope that fruitful interchange of ideas will ensue. We are enormously grateful to all participants, travelling from across England, Ireland, Belgium, Sweden and Germany, for their involvement in such a rewarding and stimulating day.


Speed well the plough

Then cometh clerkys of Oxford and make their mone,
For their school here they must have money,
Then cometh the tipped-staves for the Marshalse,
And saye they have prisoners mo than inough;
Then cometh the mynstrellis to make us gle —
‘I praye to God, spede wele the plough.’

(from a medieval rhyme)

In fact, the “mone” coming from Oxford at the moment is not about a want of money, but rather the want of a conference about ploughing (and, well, maybe a bit of money too).

Plans are now afoot to hold such a colloquium, in Oxford next January, and blog-followers may have noticed the appearance of a new webpage on this site, dedicated to the event: Ploughing Ahead.Take a look for more details, a form to register interest, and our first call for papers.

As far as we know, this is the first such colloquium on the topic for a good many years – decades, perhaps – and promises to be an exciting event for those working in agricultural archaeology!