The Reformation sowed the seeds for the decline of the Plough Monday celebrations. In 1538, Henry VIII banned the lighting of plough lights in churches and Edward VI outlawed the “conjuring of ploughs”. As well as running counter to Protestant zeal, the minatory undertones to the procession may have contributed to its fall from favour.
The plough was not just for show, as a farmer who refused to put his hand in his pocket in 1810 found out. At the Derby Assizes he claimed that the indignant Plough Monday processors dragged their plough over his lawn, and drive, causing damage to the value of £20. He was not the only one down the years to receive that treatment.
Others paid up reluctantly like a curmudgeonly correspondent to the Nottingham Review, whose letter, published on January 14, 1823, complained that the Plough Bullocks went around “the peaceable inhabitants of the neighbourhood” and demanded money “with as little ceremony as the tax-gatherer”.
The transition from a predominantly agrarian based to an industrial economy further accelerated the ceremony’s fall from grace, although there are records of Plough Monday celebrations, usually confined to displays by “Molly Dancers”, well into the 1930s. It took the folk revival movement in the 1960s and 70s to bring about a renaissance of the tradition.
While the men worked the land, the womenfolk, especially those who were unmarried, toiled at the spinning wheel, making cloth. Indeed, so synonymous was this work with single ladies that it spawned the term spinster. They returned to work on the day after the start of the Epiphany, January 7th, or St Distaff’s Day as it was known.
Search through the list of canonised saints and you will not find one bearing the name of Distaff. However, a distaff was an important tool used in the first process in making cloth, the spinning of wool or flax into thread. It was used to hold the wool or flax so that the spinner could easily reach it or keep it out of the way as they span into thread, often tucked into the waistband to leave both hands free or worn like a ring on the finger. The cod canonisation of this tool gave especial importance to the day.
To the men, still idle, though, St Distaff’s Day provided an opportunity for further japes and fun. The lyric poet and cleric, Robert Herrick, included in his Hesperides (1648) a short poem entitled Saint Distaff’s Day or the Morrow After Twelfth Day in which he described the reception that the returning spinners could face; “If the maides a spinning-goe/ burn the flax and fire the tow:/ scorch their plackets, but beware/ that ye singe no maiden-haire”.
Clearly, St Distaff’s Day was a day for mischief making. It is tempting to think that the womenfolk, frantically trying to save their precious flax from being consumed by the flames, would throw a few well-aimed buckets of water over their attackers to dampen their spirits.
Perhaps we should take a leaf from our forefathers’ book and see the return to work as a cause for celebration rather than gloomy acceptance. It might just catch on!