The Origins of Plough Monday *


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

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Review of Previous Work
A Preliminary Re-Examination of Plough Monday Customs
A New Look at Theories of Origin
Figure 1 - Possible Date Ranges for Different Plough Monday Definitions
Appendix A - Background to the Dramatists Theory
Appendix B - Plough Trailing (from Als, Denmark)
Appendix C - Special Points for Future Plough Monday Research


This paper is divided into three parts. The first part reviews the work of the folk play and folk dance specialists that are of major relevance to Plough Monday, and puts the case that Plough Monday customs need to be examined afresh. The second part presents a preliminary survey of Plough Monday customs, producing a table of the relative frequency of the various features of the customs, and a distribution map. It goes on to detail various points which need to be taken into consideration during a systematic survey of Plough Monday customs. Thirdly, it examines possible origins, on the basis of this preliminary survey.

Review of Previous Work

As far as can be ascertained, there has never been a detailed comparative and analytical study of Plough Monday customs as a whole, although several large studies of folk plays and dance customs have included sizeable sections relating to Plough Monday. Naturally however, non-play and non-dance customs have only been mentioned as side issues.

The play and dance specialists have produced two theories concerning origins : (a) a theory that Plough Monday originates with the Danish Viking settlers, and (b) a theory that folk plays (embracing Plough Monday plays, and by implication Plough Monday customs as a whole) originate from some pre-Christian fertility ritual.

The Danish Theory

This theory was first proposed by Needham (1936), who observed that the geographical distribution of Plough Monday customs, in particular the "Sword" dances, corresponded to the ancient Danelaw. However, because he noted that one or two records occurred distinctly outside the Danelaw, he felt that further evidence was required.

Barley (1953) noted similar geographical evidence, and reasoned that if Plough plays had a Danish origin, then like customs could be expected in Denmark. His enquiries with the Danish National Museum failed to produce the folk plays he expected. He therefore concluded that the Plough plays did not have a Danish origin, but expressed the "cultural homogeneity" of the mixed Anglo-Danish population. However, further examination of the evidence he was given by the Dansk Folkemindesamling shows that it has many features in common with English Plough Monday customs, including a play-like monologue.

The Pre-Christian Fertility Ritual Theory

The Danish theory has not been widely adopted. The most widely discussed theory has been that folk plays (including Plough Monday folk plays) represent the relics of some pre-Christian ritual marking the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring, and intended to ensure agricultural fertility. The "actions" of recent folk plays are claimed to be "survivals" of the various ritual symbolisms of the "life cycle" in the "original" custom.

The main problem in applying this theory to Plough Monday is that it really only attempts to account for the play customs, and fails to take into account the substantial number of non-play customs. At best these are assumed to be decayed or badly recorded plays rather than customs in their own right. Another problem is that the folk plays in question are not unique to Plough Monday. In fact it is difficult to ascribe English folk plays to any particular season at all since their occurrence is spread over a five month time span (Halloween to Easter). Added to this, it seems probable that the plays were only transferred to Plough Monday festivities from Christmas sometime during the nineteenth century. The reasons for this are;

  1. The earliest recorded versions of the "Wooing Plays" usually regarded as typical of Plough Monday are recorded as having been performed at Christmas (Baskervill, 1924)

  2. Even some of the more recent performances of these "typical" plays were at Christmas (especially around Lincoln)

  3. Many of the plays known to have been performed on Plough Monday contain references in the text to Christmas (e.g. in Bold Tom's introductory speech, and in the ending song).

This version of the ritual theory therefore does not seem to apply to Plough Monday. If it comes to that, it has several other defects which make it a dubious theory all round, and I have described these in Appendix A.

Ridden (1974), a dance specialist, has given a slightly different version of this theory which is more acceptable than the play theory. He suggested that Plough Monday "... probably derives from a pre-Christian winter ploughing feast" (p.352) which as far as England is concerned probably originated in East Anglia. He looked briefly at most types of Plough Monday custom and concluded that plough trailing may originally have been the custom's sole element, the plays and dances having been added later. Unfortunately, he gives no concrete evidence as to why the custom should be considered specifically pre-Christian, and his evidence regarding the East Anglian origin is incomplete in failing to take into consideration the early references in Barley's key paper (1953).

A Preliminary Re-Examination of Plough Monday Customs

The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from previous work is that a re-examination of the evidence is needed. In particular, much more attention needs to be paid to the non-play and non-dance customs, and it follows from this that the sources used by the play and dance specialists need to be reassessed in order to obtain a more balanced view. Two immediate objectives suggest themselves. The first is to plot a distribution map for Plough Monday customs to see if their distribution does indeed correspond to some historical domain such as the Danelaw. The second is to determine the relative frequency of the various characteristics of the customs in order to get a better idea of which are the most important. This may perhaps enable more meaningful comparisons with historical and overseas evidence.


I have not conducted a rigorous systematic survey of Plough Monday customs, rather I have tried to scan as many sources as possible in the short time available. This has enabled me to make some initial observations on the nature of the evidence, suggest some possible origins for the customs, and therefore produce a useful set of requirements for the systematic survey which should follow this paper.

The sources I have used are too numerous for me to be able to mention them all individually, however there were several principle sources which contained large quantities of information. These were the Barley Collection, listings by Barley (1953 & 1955), by Cawte et al (1960, 1967 & 1978), by Needham & Peck (1933), by Needham (1936), Porter (1969), Wright (1903), and my own collection. One important source is the unpublished index to Plough Monday customs in the Alex Helm Collection compiled by Cawte and Helm, which was meant to complement their indexes to dances, plays and animal disguise. While examining these sources, I looked for;

  1. Customs which were recorded as having occurred on Plough Monday (i.e. the first Monday after Epiphany, the 2nd Monday in the year, etc.)

  2. Plough trailing customs and seasonal customs involving a plough (e.g. Town Ploughs)

  3. Customs with names incorporating the word "Plough" (e.g. Plough Bullocks, Plough Day, Plough Lights, Fond Pleafs, Plough Stotts, Plough Witches, etc.)

I have excluded plough customs which were definitely not calendar customs, such as rituals associated with ploughing the first furrow, etc.

Older records of Plough Monday

Like folk plays, Plough Monday records are not very frequent prior to 1800, but unlike folk plays, there is a fairly good record at least back to the sixteenth century. Barley reviewed many of these early records, which are mostly drawn from wills and Parish registers (Barley, 1953). A feature of the older records is that they do not usually say what happened, and this is particularly so of the Plough Light records. The only thing which can be said with certainty about all these early records is that money changed hands.

Although most of the older records are brief, several refer unequivocally to Plough Monday. For example there is a record of a court case dated 1597 in which ten men from North Muskham, Notts., were ordered to turn back the furrow they had ploughed across the church yard on "Plow Daie" (B.V.M., 1902).

On the other hand it is possible that some of these plough customs may relate to other times of year. For instance early Medieval "Plough Alms" were due for payment to the Church on the thirteenth day after Ascension. One such record is dated 1291-2 and comes from St.Ives, Hunts. (Fowler, 1886). This seems to relate to the wrong time of year - i.e. between Easter and Pentecost. Otherwise it would be the oldest Plough Monday reference.

The oldest reference naming the day is one mentioning "Plow Mundy" from Boxford, Cambridgeshire, and dated 1529 (Cox, 1913). Even older references mention plough customs at the relevant time of year, i.e. about Epiphany, and the oldest of these are three from Durham dated 1378, 1402 and 1413 (Surtees Society, 1898).

Descriptions of Plough Monday by folklorists often talk of it having been connected with Plough Lights maintained in churches by dancers. As far as I can tell, all such references ultimately derive from the eleven volume 'History of Norfolk' by Blomefield (1805). I have only been able to consult the later edition by Parkin (1808-9). Blomefield's note (or more properly, Parkin's note) seems to based on documentary evidence quoted from only three Norfolk locations - Aylmerton, Binham and Holm by the Sea (Parkin, 1805). This evidence is brief, ambiguous, and certainly does not provide a positive connection between the Plough Lights and Plough Monday. However, there are a couple of other references from elsewhere that seem to confirm the link between Plough Monday gatherings and Plough Lights. They are from Leverton, Lincs., (Peacock, 1868) and Louth, Lincs., (Bayley, 1834).

It has also occurred to me that some of the records of Hobby Horse customs discussed by Cawte may also relate to Plough Monday (Cawte, 1978, pp.13-23). This is because (a) the records are dated at about the right time of year, (b) the collections seem to be for the same purposes as contemporaneous plough customs, and (c) their geographical distribution is adjacent to the Plough Monday area. In addition it should be noted that some of the Plough Monday participants were named after animals, e.g. Plough Stotts and Plough Bullocks. I have not included these customs in this study.

Relative frequency of features of Plough Monday customs

The preliminary survey revealed the following common characteristics of Plough Monday customs. These are arranged according to their relative frequency;

  1. Features common to all Customs

    1. Receipt/Collection of money and/or refreshments

      In nearly all modern records, the reward was for the benefit of the participants. Older records indicate that the collection was for the benefit of the Church, but as the only records we have are Parochial we do not know if there were unofficial collections as well.

    2. Visiting of houses/farms

      There is no general preference for indoors or outside performances, although naturally the larger spectacles (e.g. sword dancing) tended to take place out of doors.

    3. Date of occurrence early in January

      Plough Monday is a moveable festival, but the range of days on which it can occur varies with the definition used (Figure 1). Often Plough Monday marked the climax of several day's activities. Handsel Monday in Northern Scotland occurred on the same day. In many cases the definition of Plough Monday as the first Monday in January appears to be the result of confused memory. Some customs occurring on neighbouring festival days (e.g. Epiphany) may be relevant. For instance many records describe Plough Monday as "around Epiphany time".

    4. Names include the word "Plough"

      This feature, to a certain extent, results from the way in which this preliminary survey has been carried out. I have already noted that Handsel Monday occurred on the same day as Plough Monday, and there could be other related customs which do not have this association with the plough. The precise terminology is regional (see Localised Features below).

  2. Features Not Found in all Customs, but Occurring Throughout their Geographical Range

    1. Plough trailing

      The trailing of a plough (or a model plough) is a unique feature of Plough Monday, but not surprisingly it is confined to areas of arable farming. It is reasonable to expect therefore that in other areas different objects could have been trailed. Consequently, in the fishing ports of Hull and Grimsby a "Plough Ship" was trailed, and the anchor trailed at Hartlepool on Twelfth Day may also be related.

    2. Retribution against non-givers

      The classic Plough Monday punishment was to plough up the non-giver's lawn or drive, but as many customs did not involve a plough, property was often damaged in other ways.

    3. Disguised faces

      The most common form of facial disguise was blackening, but some records talk of reddening with ochre. Facial disguise was mostly restricted to night time Plough Monday customs.

    4. White, decorated costumes

      Nearly all Plough Monday customs involved special costumes of some sort, but their form was highly variable. However there was an underlying tendency to wear white smocks or shirts, and a particular feature of Plough Monday is that these sometimes were decorated with cut-out shapes, as well as rosettes and ribbons. In some places tall decorated hats were worn also.

    5. Performance by male farm workers

      Child participants were often of mixed sex, but with a tendency towards male predominance. Adult performances seem to have been exclusively by men, and they were usually farm workers, sometimes only those who worked with horses.

    6. Day marks the end of the Christmas season

      This is a feature shared with Twelfth Night, and it would therefore probably be a useful future exercise to compare and contrast the two sets of customs.

    7. Day's activities split into two or more parts

      Two sorts of split occur, (i) a division by age - e.g. children do one thing and adults another, and (ii) division by activity - usually one part consists of the plough trailing, and the other one of the localised features such as a play or dance. The latter activities are usually concurrent, whereas different age groups tend to perform at different times of day.

  3. Localised features

    1. Yorkshire

      Performers were often called "Plough Stots". Sword dancing. Folk plays featuring King/Saint George but not the Recruiting Sergeant, etc. (This type of play is also found in western Nottinghamshire).

    2. East Midlands

      Performers were often called "Plough Bullocks" in Nottinghamshire, or "Plough Jags" elsewhere. Folk plays featuring the Recruiting Sergeant, Lady Bright and Gay, Tom Fool, etc.

    3. Fens and East Anglia

      Performers often called "Plough Witches" or "Molly Dancers". Distinctive set dance called "Molly Dancing".

Distribution Map

Map 1 illustrates the distribution of all known forms of Plough Monday custom. It has been plotted using a technique used extensively in biological mapping, in which the whole of a given l0km National Grid square is coloured in if there is at least one recorded occurrence in that square. This method both speeds the plotting of the map and makes general distribution patterns easier to see.

[Click on the map to view full-sized]
Map 1 - Distribution of Plough Monday Customs in England
Map 1 - Distribution of Plough Monday Customs in England

Only records which name a specific location could be could be plotted on the map, or to put it another way, it has not been possible to plot records which refer generally to a county. It is interesting to note that I have not been able to find records of specific occurrences in several counties for which there are general references (e.g. Northumberland), and it seems probable that these references may just be extrapolations from the customs of neighbouring counties. In the case of Northumberland however, it may be that some of the sources use the name in the literal sense of "land north of the Humber". However this would be unusual usage.

To a certain extent, the distribution reflects collecting patterns. There are concentrations in the areas where plays and dances have been extensively collected, i.e. Grid squares SK and TL, and the area just south of the Humber. Conversely, the distribution is sparser where non-play and non-dance customs seem to have predominated, e.g. Yorkshire and Northamptonshire.

A New Look at Theories of Origin

The distribution of Plough Monday customs shown in Map 1 exhibits distinct zoning in Yorkshire and the East Midlands. I have looked to see if the zoning corresponds to any historical or recent agricultural factor, but no correspondence is apparent (Blackman et al, 1963; Darby, 1973; Darby, 1977). Having said this however, the Plough Monday distribution does correspond approximately with the northern half of the region where the open field system of farming was used. The distribution of Plough Monday customs therefore appears not to be attributable to agricultural factors, but rather to cultural or political factors. As already noted by Needham (1936) and Barley (1953) this distribution approximately corresponds to the ancient Danelaw.

It is important to note at this stage that the Danish Vikings did not just consist of people from Denmark. For a start there would have been men from the part of Southern Sweden (Skåne, Halland and Bleklinge) which were Provinces of Denmark until the seventeenth century. In addition there would have been an admixture of adventurers from the rest of Scandinavia (Foote & Wilson, 1970).

There were two periods of Danish influence in England. The first was in the ninth century when the main settlements took place, and which was a period of pagan influence. The second took place in the early eleventh century under the leaderships of Sven and Cnut the Great, and which was a period of Christian influence.

The term "Danelaw" can however be interpreted in two different ways - (a) the area settled by the Danes, or (b) the more precise meaning of the area in which the Danish Laws were in force. The first interpretation implies a direct import of Danish culture, whereas this is not necessarily the case with the second definition. Consequently the two interpretations need to be dealt with separately.

The Area Settled by the Danes

[Click on a map to view full-sized]
Map 2 - Distribution of Danish Placenames Map 1 - Distribution of Plough Monday Customs in England
Map 2 - Distribution of Danish Placenames
(Names ending: Red = "-thorpe", Blue = "-by")

The geographical extent of the area settled by the Danes in England can be fairly easily determined using place names (Map 2). "... thorpe" is a typical "Danish" place name element, as is "... by", although "... by" is also found in place names of Norwegian origin. As can be seen, Maps 1 and 2 are fairly similar, but there are at least two major anomalies which need to be explained.

  1. Norfolk and Suffolk are almost devoid of Plough Monday records (and those there are brief). There are three possible explanations for this :-

    • It could be because no one has looked for the customs in the area.

    • Plough Monday customs may have been discontinued at an early date, for instance as a result of the Puritan movement which was particularly strong in the area (McGrath, 1967).

    • The customs may never have existed in the area, in which case any idea of them being a direct Danish import is untenable.

    Clearly more work is required in East Anglia, especially regarding the pre-Reformation records.

  2. Plough Monday customs are strongly present in the Fens, an area notable for its lack of Danish place names. This important anomaly could only be disregarded if there had been a mass immigration of people from the Danish areas. This might not be as far fetched as it sounds since the major draining of the Fens only took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when a large influx of farm labour would have been required. Any records of Plough Monday in the Fens prior to the drainage would disprove this explanation.

Let us assume for the moment that these two anomalies have been adequately accounted for. If Plough Monday was a direct Danish import, then one could reasonably expect to find similar customs in Denmark and Southern Sweden. Barley briefly followed up this reasoning through correspondence with the Dr. Inger M. Boberg of the Danish National Museum, Copenhagen, but as his reply from Denmark did not mention a play - or even a symbolic death and resurrection - he concluded that the customs were not Danish in origin (Barley, 1953, p.70).

The main custom to which he was referred was one from Als (see Appendix B). As can be clearly seen, although it is not a play, the custom has many features in common with English Plough Monday customs, and even includes a monologue very reminiscent of English folk plays. On the other hand it needs to be treated with extreme caution because as far as I am aware no other custom like it has been found in Denmark, with the possible exception of Valsølille in mid-Sjælland (Olrik, 1926; & Møller, 1933). It has been republished several times, and could be seen as being as atypical in Denmark as the Revesby or Ampleforth folk plays are in England

I have tried to find if there were any other relevant Danish customs. I have looked at available material in the Folk-lore Society library, examined a review of Danish disguising customs by Bregenhøj (1974), and corresponded with its author at the Dansk Folkemindesamling.

The only appropriate plough customs in Denmark are the Als and Valsølille customs already mentioned. There is no Danish custom with precisely the same date as Plough Monday, but Knutsaften has an undecided time of occurrence (6th/7th Jan. or 13th/14th Jan.) which would seem to suggest that it may once have been a moveable festival like Plough Monday. It also marks the end of the Christmas season, and there are one or two other features in common with Plough Monday (Bregenhøj, 1974). Helligtrekongers (Twelfth Night) was another festival popular in Denmark and elsewhere in Scandinavia. It occurs at about the right time, and has certain similarities with Plough Monday, notably white costumes and decorated hats (Schmidt, 1949). It may be useful to follow these lines of evidence further in the future.

The Area Governed by the Danish Law

If Plough Monday customs originated from some legal requirement of the Danelaw, then they would have affected both the Danish and the Anglo-Saxon populations, and so they need not necessarily have been a cultural import from Denmark.

Unfortunately, the boundaries between the English and Danish Laws are uncertain. Only one boundary is known with precision - that is the one settled between Alfred and Guthrum in 878 AD (see Map 2) - and even this could have changed with time. The western and northern, if not the eastern boundaries also, are not known at all, although the area seems to have included Yorkshire, the East Midlands, the Fens, and East Anglia. This could account for the presence of Plough Monday customs in the Fens, but it still presents the problem of the shortage of customs from Norfolk and Suffolk. Perhaps the one or two occurrences to the west of the Danelaw would also need explanation.

Mediaeval records of the early Norman period, in particular the Domesday Book of 1086, provide further evidence to help in investigating possible legal origins or influences of the Danelaw on Plough Monday.

Ploughlands and Carucates - A blind alley

One promising fact is that in Danish England, land was assessed in Ploughlands (Latin - Carucata - hence Carucate) for the annual land tax known as Danegeld. This tax, originally raised to buy off the Danish invaders, continued to be collected well into the twelfth century (Webb, 1756), and the famous Domesday Book was compiled in order to record the assessments. Interestingly in Denmark, an identical measure (plogland) was used in making assessments for a similar land tax (plovskat), (Rona, 1968-1971, Vol.13, pp.350-351).

To me, these facts were interesting because I could envisage Plough Monday having arisen from some annual tax gathering exercise. However, there area number of difficulties associated with this idea :-

  1. Only the northern part of the Plough Monday zone used ploughlands. The southern part used the Anglo-Saxon counterpart the hide, whereas in East Anglia a completely unrelated system of land assessment was used.

  2. Although levied annually, the Danegeld was collected in two six-monthly instalments.

  3. The Danish Plovskat was not in fact introduced to Denmark until the time of Valdemar Sejrs, which was well past the period of direct Danish influence in England.

In summary therefore, although land assessment using ploughlands could have been a factor in the history of Plough Monday, it can only have been a very minor factor. Furthermore, it would have been a purely English factor.

Sokemen, Socage and Sokes

Another possibility is that Plough Monday originated in the agricultural labour service associated with socage tenancy.

Socage was an ancient form of land tenancy in which the tenant was a personally free man and was responsible for paying the taxes on his own land, but owed suit of court, rent and often labour services at a manorial centre (Stenton, 1910 & 1927). Such tenants were termed Sokemen, and the district governed by the manorial centre was termed a Soke (e.g. the Soke of Peterborough).

The known history of Sokes is fairly extensive. For instance, it is well established that Sokes were Danish in origin (Stenton, 1910 & 1927), and indeed to this day the words 'Sogn", "Socken", etc., are used in Scandinavia to denote parishes (Rona, 1968-1971, Vol.16, pp.374-385).

The Domesday Survey of William the Conqueror enumerated the different classes of people in England, including Sokemen, and therefore it has been possible to map their approximate geographical distribution at around 1086. The result is Map 3, which indicates a zoning that correlates well with the Plough Monday area, bearing in mind the vagaries of both surveys (Darby, 1977, p.65). It was in fact this correlation which first led me to investigate socage as a possible factor in the origin of Plough Monday.

[Click on a map to view full-sized]
Map 3 - Sokemen in 1083 (Adjusted for slaves) after H.C.Darby (1977), p.65 Map 1 - Distribution of Plough Monday Customs in England
Map 3 - Sokemen in 1083 (Adjusted for slaves)
(After H.C.Darby (1977), p.65)

Judging from a number of sources, including Stenton (1910) and Massingberd (1905), who gives details of the service required in several Lincolnshire sokes, the type and quantity of labour required of sokemen varied considerably from place to place. However in most cases a certain number of days ploughing, harrowing and harvesting were required. Furthermore, in Lincolnshire at least, sokemen were required to bring their ploughs for one day's ploughing at the winter sowing. So far, I have not been able to determine if this day occurred on any particular date, but it is attractive to speculate that this could have been on or around Plough Monday. It may be relevant that at Hickling, Notts., various food tributes had to be rendered to Ramsey Abbey on St. Benet's Day, which is the 12th January (Stenton, 1910, p.38).

In several respects, the sokeman's ploughing days resemble the more recent Yorkshire custom of Plough Days described by Hone in which neighbours brought their ploughs to prepare the land of a new tenant when he entered his farm (Hone, 1878). It is not unreasonable to assume that the lord of a Soke would provide food and refreshment for his sokemen when they were ploughing for him, and whether or not this was on the same lavish scale as Yorkshire Plough Days, it is possible that the statutory ploughing days would have acquired an additional social aspect.

The duties required from sokemen generally diminished over the years, and commonly their labour services were replaced by monetary payments. This leads me to suggest that Plough Monday customs could have arisen from a desire to continue the social side of the ploughing days, even though the actual obligation to plough had passed by the board. This would account for most of the common features of Plough Monday customs, notably plough trailing. It could also add more sense to the commonly held belief that the Ploughboys could plough up the lawns, drives, etc., of non-contributors without fear of prosecution, since they could have pleaded that they were merely performing the duties that had formerly been required of them. At this stage however, these ideas should be treated with caution.

Before leaving sokes, it is worth briefly mentioning their jurisdictional side. As with all historical legal systems in Britain, courts or assizes were held on certain days, and in the higher courts, the legal year was divided into terms separated by major festivals and the harvest. Stenton mentions two courts that were held on St.Thomas's Day (21st December) in the soke of Orston, Notts (Stenton, 1910, pp.68-69). In the higher English courts, the term immediately after Christmas was the Hilary Term. Latterly, this commenced on the 23rd January, although the saint's day itself is on the 13th January. Whether any of these dates have any significance may be disputable. However they do illustrate the fact that the Christmas and New Year period formed one of the key turning points in the calendar of the provincial year. They also raise the possibility that legal dates could have influenced or been influenced by Plough Monday.

Finally, it is interesting to note that in the Scandinavian "Sogn' the inhabitants were formerly required to participate in a certain amount of communal labour. Also, there was a direct Danish parallel to the Yorkshire Plough Day - the "Plovgilde" (Schmidt, 1950).

Ecclesiastical Factors

So far, the factors I have considered as regards origins have been racial and administrative. A third possible factor is the Church, which could have had a strong influence on early customs. It is worthwhile therefore to see if there has ever been an ecclesiastical area which corresponds with the distribution of Plough Monday customs.

Since the time of St. Augustine, England has been divided into two ecclesiastical Provinces, York (covering Notts and the land north of the Humber) and Canterbury (covering the south). However, during the Danish invasions, the organisation of the Church was much disrupted, and the influence of York was extended much further south. The extent of the pre-Norman diocese and Province of York are probably reflected in the claims laid by Archbishop Thomas of York immediately after the Norman conquest of 1066. He claimed Lindsey and Lincoln for his diocese, and Lincoln, Lichfield and Worcester for the Province of York. The use of the name "Lincoln" in these claims is interesting since the diocese (which then extended from the Thames to the Humber) was not usually so named until the see was moved to Lincoln from Dorchester, Oxon in 1086. Probably therefore, only part of the diocese may have been meant, (probably the old diocese of Lindsey).

The possible boundary of the sphere of influence of York is indicated in Map 4, and is based on records concerning the early relationships between York and the southern monasteries, and between Dorchester and Ramsey (Barlow, 1963). The southern unshaded area within the boundary is also the area in which the Bishop of Dorchester held his feudal lands, would have been an area where his influence was significant.

There are no recorded links between York and Lichfield, and it may therefore be that this part of the claim was expansionist. On the other hand, the links with Worcester are well established because from the late tenth century onwards, the Bishop of York was also Bishop of Worcester in duality. Durham was a separate Palatinate, and did not come under the influence of York.

[Click on a map to view full-sized]
Map 4 - 11th Century Sphere of Influence of the Bishop of York Map 1 - Distribution of Plough Monday Customs in England
Map 4 - 11th Century Sphere of Influence of the Bishop of York

As can be seen in Map 4, the sphere of influence of the Bishop of York corresponds fairly well with the distribution of Plough Monday customs, and perhaps produces a better fit than Danish place names in that it excludes East Anglia, and includes the Fens, not to mention the outlying occurrences in the diocese of Worcester. If Plough Monday had an origin associated with the archdiocese of York, then one would not expect to find records of Plough Monday customs in East Anglia, or in the southern portion of the diocese of Dorchester, or in the diocese of Lichfield. Therefore an explanation would have to be found for the outliers in East Anglia. On the other hand one would expect more records from the diocese of Worcester.


To sum up, we now have at least three hypotheses with which to work. The first is that the original Plough Monday custom was introduced to England by the Danish settlers in the ninth century. If this was so then the custom could have had some religious function brought from Denmark (in which case it would have been a heathen affair), or it could have been a celebration of some event associated with the invasion. It is interesting to note that one of the Danes biggest victories against Wessex in 878 AD (the year in which the Danelaw was set up) is recorded as having occurred "at midwinter after Twelfth Night".

The second hypothesis is that the original Plough Monday custom was established as part of the Danish Law. If this was so, then it seems most likely that the custom could either have had some tax gathering function, or have originated from the legal customs associated with socage or its precursors.

The last hypothesis is that Plough Monday could have been established in the eleventh century in connection with the Archbishopric of York. This too could probably have had some money raising function, or alternatively could have been a displaced celebration of Epiphany (much like Bonfire Night is nowadays often celebrated on the nearest Saturday to November 5th). Epiphany is of course the festival of the Three Kings, and one could see the plough as representing the constellation of the Plough - i.e. the guiding stars. But here I am letting my imagination get the better of me.


Without further information, it is difficult to choose between the hypotheses. There could be a combination of factors involved, or indeed there could possibly be other new explanations. My personal view is that the weight of the evidence, though largely circumstantial, tips in favour of Plough Monday having arisen out of the Danelaw. This could have been a combinations of my first two hypotheses; i.e. the custom could have originally have been brought to England by the Danes and established in the whole of the territory governed by the Danelaw.

The Church would therefore appear to be not a factor in the origin of the custom, although it was demonstrably a factor in the later history of Plough Monday. It could also have been partly responsible for the later spread of socage and of Plough Monday to a few locations outside of the Danelaw, since in some cases sokemen were responsible to religious houses.

During the course of this paper I have noted various points which should be taken into consideration during a more systematic study of Plough Monday, and these are brought together in Appendix C. As regards proving or disproving the hypotheses I have presented, the key matters requiring attention are (a) records from East Anglia and the Fens, (b) older records, (c) records of Plough Monday customs from areas outside the "Danish" part of England, and (d) further investigation of socage and its Scandinavian equivalents.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from this study is that in researching a custom one must look at all forms of the custom, not just one or two interesting types. In the case of Plough Monday, previous theories have been dominated by folk play or folk dance evidence, and accordingly, they have not proved applicable when all forms of the custom have been taken into account. The same situation is possibly also found with other customs (e.g. Souling, Pace Egging, etc.), so the message is "Widen your horizons!"

* This paper was originally presented at the Traditional Drama 1979 Conference, and updated with a postscript in 1980. This version is a conflation of the two.

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