MALE OR FEMALE… IT’S BACK TO WORK!
After all the fun of the Christmas season, eventually it’s time to get back to the day-to-day humdrum reality of life, no matter when your family officially counts Christmas as ‘finishing’. Following our Home School English Traditions Challenge under the remote guidance of Steve Roud via his excellent tome The English Year, we have reached St. Distaff’s Day and Plough Monday, the traditional Back to Work days of past times.
As it is usually considered to be 7th January, this year St. Distaff’s Day falls before Plough Monday. There was never a real saint named Distaff; it’s just a jokey name. The day was traditionally when women returned to their spinning after the Christmas celebrations. Before spinning wheels were invented women used a distaff to spin. The unspun wool or flax would be held on the distaff and spun onto a spindle, something we were able to try when we visited Bignor Roman Villa a couple of years ago. The distaff is sometimes known as a ‘rock’ or ‘roc’ and St. Distaff’s Day is also sometimes known as St. Rock’s Day.
The main source for our information about St. Distaff’s Day is a much-quoted poem by Robert Herrick:
St. Distaff’s Day or the Morrow After Twelfth Day
Partly work and partly play,
Ye must on S. Distaff’s day
From the plough soon free your team;
Then come home and fother them.
If the maids a spinning go,
Burn the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware,
That ye singe no maiden-hair.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give S. Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good night;
And next morrow, every one
To his own vocation.
Herrick’s poem describes some high jinks in which men and women engage in a battle of the sexes with the men trying to steal away and burn the women’s flax while the women respond by trying to throw water over the men (not much fun in January in my opinion!). However, Roud points out that other, later, sources all seem very similar and vague and it seems likely that they all used Herrick’s poem as their sole source on the tradition. As a result, it is difficult to know how old this tradition is or how widespread it actually was.
Plough Monday is the Monday that follows Twelfth Day and is the day on which the men returned to their agricultural work so was ‘the effective start of the new agricultural year’, according to Roud. In ancient times the local church was often the storage place for a communal plough that was available for members of the community to borrow and use and so the start of the year was an opportunity to bless the plough resting there and ‘plough lights’ were kept alight in church to ensure God’s blessing. In Eastern English counties bands of young farm workers began to take lights and ploughs around the neighbourhood to raise money to pay for the lights. The practice died out after the Reformation but was revived or somehow began again in the late eighteenth century with large groups of farm hands taking the plough around the community in return for money or alcohol. Often the men would dress up as fools, hunchbacks, women or in ribbons, patches and wearing clothes stuffed with straw. Sometimes they would dance, sing or perform a Plough Play. These men might be referred to as Plough Witchers, Plough Bullocks or Plough Jags or other similar names and they could become rather rowdy, especially when they had had a few drinks, leading to complaints from many more respectable quarters and probably contributing to the eventual repression of the tradition.
Roud describes how some people have liked to believe that the Plough Plays have a medieval origin but that the verses and story lines place them very much in the late eighteenth-century. This is not to say that they aren’t valuable receptacles of historical information but that they tell us about the sub-culture of young farm labourers living and working in large groups and in rather basic conditions rather than about medieval agricultural workers.
In some areas Plough Monday was the occasion for further battles of the sexes involving races between farm-boys and farm-girls who would compete to try to be the first to get an item through the door or onto the table. Another custom of the day, or of the next day (‘Plough Tuesday’) was for a man or boy to cover himself in straw and be led around on a lead by another man and to dance as though he were a performing bear. You know, as you do…
Marking St. Distaff’s Day and Plough Monday in a suburban neighbourhood in 2018 isn’t terribly easy. Today we have read Herrick’s poem and tomorrow we will learn a bit more about ploughs but I don’t think we will be able to parade one. My daughters are up for some straw bear dancing though, so it’s all good!