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‘God Speed the Plough’

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

These are a few verses of an Old English work song which originated in the 15th century. The song was sung by ploughmen on Plough Monday, when farm laborers would go door-to-door, dressed in white and carrying a plough, to solicit “plough money” to spend in celebration. Plough Monday heralded a return to work in the fields after yuletide or the Christmas holidays.

Let the wealthy and great live in splendor and state.
I envy them not, I declare it,
For I grow my own rams, my own ewes, my own lambs,
And I shear my own fleece and I wear it.

By plowing and sowing and reaping and mowing
All nature provides me with plenty –
With a cellar well stored and a plentiful board,
And my garden affords every dainty.

For here I am king, I can dance, drink and sing.
Let no one approach as a stranger.
I will hunt when it’s quiet. Come on, let us try it!
Dull thinking drives anyone crazy.

I have lawns and bowers. I have fruits and flowers,
And the lark is my morning alarmer.
So you jolly boys now, here’s godspeed the plow.
Long life and success to the farmer.

“Speed the Plough” is an expression that has always resonated with me.

I knew I was somehow familiar with it, but had to look it up to be reminded of why, how, when and where.

Turns out, Speed the Plough is famous and oft-used.

It’s an old English song and a popular artistic title.

It was the name of a 15th century English poem, an 18th century English play performed at the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden, a David Mamet play performed on Broadway in the 1980s and a contemporary American musical group.

The idea for the expression must have originally come from celebrations which originated in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland hundreds of years ago.

Plough Monday is the name given to the first Monday after January 6, a day which marked the return of agricultural workers to their farms after Christmas festivities.

This year Plough Monday falls on Monday, January 13.

Here in Pocahontas County, where agriculture is such an important aspect of our culture, it seems appropriate that we should tip our hats to a day on the calendar set aside in “the old country” to honor the work of farmers.

Plough Monday became the ceremonial start of the English agricultural year in the 15th century.

The day before Plough Monday was traditionally known as Plough Sunday – the first Sunday after Epiphany on the church calendar.

On Plough Sunday farmers sought the blessing of the church for their labors.

As far back as the 13th century, historic documents note that “plough candles” were being lit in churches on the first Sunday after Epiphany to bless farmers and crops during the month of January.

Ploughs were decked out with evergreens and dried flowers, taken through the parish and into the church to be blessed.

After Plough Sunday came Plough Monday – a day of revelry for the young men who plowed the fields.

If you know any farmers, you know that it’s unusual for them to have any down time at all, even in winter. There is always work to be done on a farm.

The weather around Christmastime might well have been so cold and the ground so hard that it’s not hard to believe that the young men who worked Britain’s farms weren’t begrudged a day off to enjoy Plough Monday revels.

One day a year, youthful farm workers were free to run around their villages singing, dancing, parading in the streets and entertaining the public with their antics.

Some farmers would take their plows and visit folks who had hired them to farm their land, singing songs and acting out little plays, by way of politely reminding their patrons to pay for their services.

Some would dress in white muslin and drag their plows along as they went begging door-to-door – perhaps as a precursor to our modern custom of trick-or-treating.

Then there were some who were seemingly more threatening. They’d don masks and dress in costume or blacken their faces with soot. They would not be easily identifiable if they resorted to plowing up the front walks or gardens of those ungenerous enough not to make a contribution to the cause.

The “plough money” received on Plough Sunday and Plough Monday would not have gone amiss in the homes of poor farm workers and was probably a matter of subsistence in many cases.

Plough Monday became known for its plays, which were akin to mummers’ plays – pantomimes performed by the poor of the parish. Most were spur of the moment – a series of impromptu skits – but many eventually became enshrined in written form.

Like the mummers’ plays, a ploughman’s play was formulaic. The parts would be performed by country lads whose parents farmed or young men hired by the year to live and work on the farm.

It would usually begin with an entrance by a farmer or a “horse lad,” sometimes carrying a whip or walking behind a plow being drawn by boys portraying horses or oxen.

There would be scenes depicting the hard life of the farmer, bawdy jokes, roughhousing and often mock combat between two figures – maybe St. George and the Dragon.

Typically, someone in the cast would die and be revived by a doctor before the play ended in a merry dance that included the actors and the spectators.

There were also plough processions.

“The Bessy,” which was an old woman or a boy dressed as an old woman, or a “Plough Fool” would lead the parade made up of merry-makers, pulling ploughs and piles of straw tied together, called straw bears.

Of course, there would be drinking in addition to the general tomfoolery associated with the day.

Clergymen were typically outraged by the plays and some of the other Plough Monday customs, which they thought went too far.

In 1538, Henry VIII forbade “plough lights” to be lit in churches, and later, his son, Edward VI condemned Plough Sunday, which he called the “conjuring of ploughs,” in churches altogether.

Following the strict English Protestant Reformation, as with a lot of other celebrations, Plough Monday steadily declined.
But the custom refused to die completely.

It managed to continue here and there among country folk.

Plough Sunday and Monday regained popularity during Victorian times and experienced a “folk revival” in the 1960s and 1970s. The celebration is once again part of the annual calendar of events in many British cities and towns.

As Plough Monday falls on the 13th of January this year, those of you who wish to honor the farmers among us have time to prepare to do so.

God Speed the Plough!

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