Sunday, January 10, 2010

Men Behaving Festively: Plough Monday

Sunday, January 10, 2010
Susan reporting:

While Twelfth Night is usually regarded as the end of the Christmas Season, in rural England there was one final celebration: Plough Monday.

The first part of the festivities, on the Sunday after Epiphany, was serious and solemn enough. A ribbon-decked plough was carried into the local church to be blessed in the hope of a prosperous, productive new year, and a symbolic return to work after the Christmas season.

The next day, however - Plough Monday - was marked by more pagan excess, with the newly-blessed plough dragged through the neighborhood by burly ploughmen with their faces painted black, loudly demanding pennies for a frolic afterwards. Anyone who didn't oblige risked having their yard ploughed up; think trick-or-treating with an attitude.

Afterwards followed much drinking, kissing-games, bonfires, drumming, and general partying in the street, led by Molly Dancers (ploughmen in hobnail boots and black-painted faces) dancing around the plough and with each other. Overseeing it all would be their "queen", Bessy, a big guy dressed as a woman. Traditions vary from region to region, but the basics (and the plough) seems to be much the same.

These two 19th c. prints capture the spirit of the day pretty well. I particularly like the resigned women and children watching from the front of their cottage, doubtless wondering what is up with their cross-dressing Dad.

Here are two 19th c. reports of Plough Monday, already a bit gilded with nostalgia: from Chamber's Book of Days (1879) and Hone's Everyday Book (1825). However, lest you think Plough Monday is now to be found only to Thomas-Hardy-Land, here's proof via YouTube (and in the pub afterwards, of course) that it's still going strong – at least with these Molly Dancers in Suffolk, UK. The band's traditional music is fun, too.

Illustration, top: "Plough Monday", from George Wilson's Costumes of Yorkshire, 1814.
Below: "Plough Monday", from Hone's Everyday Book, 1825


Vanessa Kelly said...

I love the cross-dressing elements of the festivities - I bet there are some very interesting studies on that aspect!

Molly Dancers - that's an interesting name, too. I wonder what its origin is? I might have to go look that up.

LorettaChase said...

In the 18th & early 19th centuries, molly was usually slang for sodomite. But then as well as later it could refer to someone who was effeminate. These days it seems to either mean sissy boy or refer to men in drag.

knitlit kate said...

hmmm...interesting tradition. can't quite picture my pops playing along though...

p.s. thanks again for the catch on my snood patt.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Vanessa, I'm afraid I can't offer any enlightenment as to why ploughmen dressing in dresses was part of the celebration. But then there's a long tradition of Englishmen adopting female dress, from the boys-as-actresses on Shakespeare's stage to Monty Python. Anyone else who knows more than we do is welcome to explain!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

knitlit kate, I can't see my father getting into this either. But then, there are photos floating around my family of my father-in-law in college dressed in drag for an all-male version of "The Mikado" in the 1940s -- so who knows? *g*

And you're welcome for the snood-catch. What I'd like to know, though, (from a purely historical point of view, of course) is how the word "snood" has shifted its meaning in the last year or so, from a net-like bag over the hair to a huge-o looped neckscarf?

meghan said...

Huh, the plow part makes sense, you want a good plowing-season for your crops. But the dress-up? Did like the vids, tho. Thanks for writing this.

Vanessa Kelly said...

Loretta, that's what I thought a molly was. Man, some of these traditions are totally gender-bending!

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