Plough Monday – a Medieval Tradition

Macclesfield Psalter - folio 77v - The PloughDetail of a medieval plough (folio 77v) from The Macclesfield Psalter,
probably produced at Gorleston, East Anglia circa 1330
Gold & tempera on vellum, 17cm x 10.8cm,
© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


Today, the first Monday after the Christian feast of Epiphany, was traditionally the day of another money-raising celebration in the lives and times of our Catholic Medieval ancestors: Plough Monday.  My posts, Christmas in a Tudor Town, told the story of how the people of the North Essex parish of Great Dunmow celebrated Christmas with a Lord of Misrule who ‘reigned’ throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas, collecting money for the church.  In 1538 (or 1539), Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts show that the Lord of Misrule possibly also collected money for the yearly Plough-Feast.

Local history - Tudor Great Dunmow1538 (or 1539) In primo receyvyd of the lord of mysserowell & for the plowgh ffest – xls [40s] (folio 29r).  This entry is ambiguous – did the Christmas Lord of Misrule also collect money for the plough-feast?  Or have the churchwardens simply lumped the two events together in one entry?  As the two events have not been recorded as separate sums of money, it is more likely the former.

In Medieval times, many rural towns and villages of England celebrated the first Monday after the Feast of Epiphany as the start of the agricultural year.  Ancient customs and religious practices were used to protect and safeguard the plough which was so vital for the coming year’s crops. ‘Plough lights’ were kept burning in the parish church and feasts were held to celebrate the plough.  Sums of money received from Great Dunmow’s plough-feast activities were recorded throughout the churchwardens’ accounts for the reign of Henry VIII.   As the accounts were only the financial records of the church, once again the accounts do not explicitly state what occurred during the Plough-Feast.  However, it is likely that the young men of the town dragged a highly decorated plough from door to door of the richest households in the parish collecting money. If people did not hand-over money, then a trick would have been played on the unlucky house-holder (an event similar to today’s Halloween Trick or Treating). This trick was likely to have involved the young men ploughing a furrow across the offender’s land. So that the house-holders could not identify them, the lads probably had their faces blackened with soot. The young lads were often accompanied by someone playing the Fool – in Great Dunmow’s case, this person could possibly have been the Christmas Lord of Misrule (I have made this assumption because of the way the entries in the accounts have been written.)

The accounts do not state what happened to the money raised but possibly the money was used to maintain a special candle (the plough-light) to constantly burn within the church. Henry VIII banned the practice of plough-lights in 1538 – along with other traditional lights maintained in churches.  However Great Dunmow’s plough-feast still continued for a further few years -the final plough-feast occurring during one of the years between 1539 and 1541.

Local history - Tudor Great DunmowItem Reseyvyd of the lorde of mysrowle at thys Crystmas last wt [with] the plowfest mony at the town declard to the chyrche & all thyngs dyschargyd – xxxviijs jd [38s 1d] (folio 30v, sometime between 1539-1541)

The forty shillings (£2) raised in 1538 and the final 38s 1d  were considerable amounts of money in Tudor times.  According to Great Dunmow’s accounts paid out to various labourers for a day’s work during the 1520s, the average daily pay was 4d.  Therefore, the collection for the Lord of Misrule and the Plough Feast was roughly equivalent to 114 to 120 days labour.

It is interesting to note that the above two entries on this blog post have nameless Lords of Misrule.  Other ‘Lords’ were explicitly named in the churchwardens’ accounts – see my post here.  I think that this is unwitting testimony that only the Lords who were amongst the middling sort or the elite of Great Dunmow’s social hierarchy were named.  Those Lords of the common sorts were too unimportant and lowly to have their names recorded in the magnificent churchwardens’ accounts!

It is possible that the modern day practice of Molly Dancing derives from the ancient practices of plough-Monday.   My post The Catholic Ritual Year has photographs my son took of Molly Dancers in Maldon on New Year’s Day 2012.


Great Dunmow’s original churchwarden accounts (1526-1621) are in Essex Record Office (E.R.O.), Chelmsford, Essex, D/P 11/5/1.  All digital images of the accounts within this blog appear by courtesy of Essex Record Office and may not be reproduced.  Examining these records from this Essex parish gives the modern reader a remarkable view  into the lives and times of some of Henry VIII’s subjects and provides an interpretation into the local history of Tudor Great Dunmow.

All digital images from the Macclesfield Psalter appear by courtesy of The Fitzwilliam Museum and may not be reproduced (© The Fitzwilliam Museum).

If you want to read more  from my blog about The Macclesfield Psalter or about a life in a Tudor Essex town, please do subscribe either by using the Subscribe via Email button top right of my blog, or the button at the very bottom.  If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, then please do Like it with the Facebook button below.

You may also be interested in the following
– Images from the British Library’s online images from the early modern period
– Images from the medieval illuminated manuscripts
– The Macclesfield Psalter
– Christmas in a Tudor town
– Medieval Christmas Stories
– Transcripts of Great Dunmow’s Churchwardens’ accounts – 1526-1621
– Medieval Catholic Ritual Year

© Essex Voices Past 2012-2013.

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