The Origins of Plough Monday - Appendix A


Traditional Drama '79, One Day Conference, University of Sheffield, 20th Oct.1979

Home   Article   Refs.   Fig.1   Maps   App.A   App.B   App.C

Appendix A - Background to the Dramatists Theory

Plough Monday plays are particularly important because they are considered to be immediately descended from certain early nineteenth century Lincolnshire "Wooing plays" published by Baskervill (1924). These in turn are considered important, not only because they are among the oldest known English folk plays, but also because they possess certain characteristics in common with several nineteenth century plays from the Balkans. This similarity is considered highly relevant since both the Balkan and the English plays are supposed to derive ultimately from Ancient Greek cults such as those of Dionysus.

There is certainly some textual resemblance between the early Lincolnshire plays published by Baskervill (1924) and the later Plough Monday plays such as those analysed in detail by Barley (1953). However as I have already pointed out, the plays only seem to have become attached to Plough Monday in the past two hundred years, and therefore any importance which may be placed on the Plough Monday time of occurrence is irrelevant.

It is important to note that the Lincolnshire plays published by Baskervill are of at least two distinct types, which can be conveniently be called "Recruiting Sergeant" and "Multiple Wooing" plays. They have different characters and lines. For instance one has "Bold Tom", whereas the other has "Noble Anthony", the lines of the respective "Farmers Men" and "Ladies" are totally different, and other key characters are distinct - one including "Recruiting Sergeant", "Threshing Blade", etc., and the other "Fathers Eldest Son", "Lawyer", "Ancient Man". etc. It is the Recruiting Sergeant plays which have become associated with Plough Monday, whereas the "Multiple Wooing" plays are unknown outside of Baskervill's paper (except for the highly untypical Revesby play).

The Recruiting Sergeant plays do not really feature in the dramatists theory of origin. The main emphasis is placed on the Multiple Wooing plays, and yet neither version appears to have either unique or very ancient sources. Even Baskervill, who was a great supporter of the ritual origin theory, had to conclude that "... the dialogue reflecting the old ritual motive of the wooing came to be simply made up from dialogue ballads, jigs and similar sources." (p.238). This was because his detailed study of the plays had revealed that much of the texts came from a variety of literary sources dating back to the sixteenth century. He continued his support for the theory however by dismissing the importance of the lines, and concentrating on the "actions" of the play. But even this did not improve matters for him, since he had to comment "Indeed, one of the greatest difficulties in dealing with the ritual elements of the plays lies in the fact that the very features in which these elements are clearest show a strong literary influence exerted at various periods" (p.229). His argument seems to be self contradictory therefore, and Chambers was wise to play down the importance of these plays - "My own impression is that it is best to regard the divergence of the Plough plays from the ordinary type of mummers play as due to the merging of the traditional ludus-motive of Death and Revival with an independent Wooing play of later origin." (Chambers, 1933)

Conversely, Cawte et al (1967) and Brody (1969) take an opposite point of view, feeling that the multiple wooing plays are older more complete plays which are closer to the "original". This view seems to contradict the factual evidence, and appears to have been adopted because of certain symbolic similarities they have with a handful of late nineteenth century Balkan plays.

As my wife said to me when I showed her the abstract to this paper "What has Balkan got to do with anything?" For a start, there is a geographical separation of over a thousand miles, and if foreign plays are to be used for comparison, then plays from other parts of Europe should have been used as well (e.g. Austrian Nikolausspiele, Russian Tsar Maksimilian plays, etc.). The similarities between these plays and English plays are no less marked. The reason the Balkan plays have been singled out is because like the English plays they are supposed to ultimately derive from the rites of Ancient Greek cults such as those of Dionysus (Chambers, 1933 & Brody, 1969). This choice of ultimate source is not based on factual evidence (there is a gap in the historical record of at least two thousand years), but rather on vague, general and esoteric symbolisms. It perhaps reflects the prejudices of Classical Frazerian disciples.

In short, the dramatists' hypothesis seems to have been developed by first assuming that the plays have some sort of pre-Christian ritual function, and then trying to fit the evidence to the theory. The scientific method should be to gather the evidence, formulate hypotheses from the evidence and then devise tests to prove or disprove them. This is the approach that Needham (1936) and Barley (1953) started to take with their Danish theories for Plough Monday origins. The advocates of the ritual theory never seem to have considered alternative theories, not even to discount them.

Appendix B >>>

© Copyright 1979-2004 Peter Millington ( Last Updated: 08-Apr-2016