Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
Plough Monday and molly dancing
Follow-up to previous items on molly dancing
(See programmes 5 and 6)
Of England's seasonal dance forms there is a group associated with Plough Monday. This is the East Anglian molly which evolved from country dances in Cambridgeshire, Essex Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent. Professor Alun Howkins of Sussex University says there are references associated with ploughing, dragging a plough round the parish, taking a plough into a church, and groups of lads going round the village in smock frocks collecting money probably from the 17th century onwards. Though one cannot easily imagine farm labourers having time off, the weather around Christmas might well have been so bad, the ground so hard and the conditions for working the land so bad that they needed to go out collecting money. This would have been for their own subsistence or for people particularly badly placed, such as a widow with a large family.
Alun Howkins says there is a play associated with Plough Monday celebrations which is now widely revived in eastern and northern England - the plough play. The earliest text that exists of it is from 1823 and comes from Bassingham in North Lincolnshire.
The plough play in its various forms could be described as a rural pantomime performed by the poor of the parish. It is not unlike the mummers' play. It begins with an entrance by Father Christmas or somebody who clears the space. There is horseplay, and it ends with a combat between two figures - sometimes the recruiting sergeant and a farm worker, sometimes St George and the Dragon. One of them dies, is revived by a doctor, there's a dance and then they leave. The text is formulaic and the content is common in mummers' plays all around England and parts of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
The first text from Bassingham is similar but has a greater agricultural content stressing the country nature of the people taking part and their poverty. The play does not begin with Father Christmas but with a farmer's man with a whip. The play was probably enacted by groups of horse lads - jaggs - groups of young farmworkers who were hired by the year to live on the farm where they worked. For one day a year these lads had the right to go round the village singing and shouting and performing a play which by 19th-century standards was rather crude in its language and attacking hierarchy and social structures. Clergymen were often very worried by this practice which they thought of as obscene, out of control, rough and disorderly, a description they applied to the plough play and the other Plough Monday ceremonies typical of the East Midlands.
The lads caused quite a disturbance. The Lincolnshire folklorist Ethel Rudkins in the 1930s wrote: "...the plough jaggs came round the first Monday in January, neither before nor after. Only on that night was there no law and any other night they could have been had up for exerting their rights. There's almost a notion of the law being suspended and youth ruling and getting away with things that would not be possible at other times."
It is quite possible that in East Anglia the plough play became transmuted into a dance, which is where the molly dancing tradition comes in. The reason for this, according to Alun Howkins, is linked to economic change in the 18th century and the resulting social upheaval. In Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, farmworkers were no longer given board and lodging. At best they could work when it was available. Alun Howkins thinks that the social cohesion of the lads who lodged on neighbouring farms broke down and the custom of going round the village changed. The plough was still pulled around the village and the relatively complicated ritual of the plough play changed into a dance but the sense of menace did not disappear.
Elaine Bradtke of the English Folk Dance & Song Society says that if someone did not give money or food, their front garden might be ploughed up, outbuildings might be damaged or windows broken. The lads were not there to give a good performance - the show was almost incidental. Their intention was to do just enough for it to be called a performance, but it needed to be threatening enough to encourage generosity by villagers.
Richard Humphries, For a bit of sport - Molly dancing and Plough Monday in East Anglia (R & K Humphries,1986)
Doc Rowe and Carolyn Robson, Plough Monday to Hocktide: Education Resource Pack for the Spring Term on British Traditions (English Folk Dance & Song Society, 1995)
Alun Howkins, Reshaping Rural England: A Social History 1850-1925 (Routledge, 1994)
Alun Howkins, The Death of Rural England: A Social History of the Countryside since 1900 (Routledge, 2003)
Alan Brody, English Mummers and Their Plays (Routledge, 1971)
John Forrest, The History of Morris Dancing, 1483-1750 (Studies in Early English Drama, James Clarke & Co. Ltd, 1999)
Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
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