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through the legacy of Robert Cochrane

Plough Monday -- by Robin the Dart

Recently, during a visit to some colleagues in Yorkshire [yes life really does exist past Watford] we performed a ritual for a friend. Convivial but hard drinkers, they speak openly, talking of a world, a time, and people, long gone. Their style is basic, with simple ways and spells that formulate the fundamentals of a primitive but distinctly rural way of life. During the course of the evening I was introduced to ‘Old Jud’, whose tale may interest you. This I was tempted to record in Yorkshire dialect throughout, but for ease, reserved this vital colloquialism for a selective portion only. Plough Monday performed as a culmination of midwinter festivities ending after Twelfth Night is a tradition now lost to most of us and is basically one that celebrates the preparation of the land via the blessing of the instrument of its entry.

In Derbyshire, where I now live, this ritual was performed on the first day after Twelfth Night, irrespective of whether it was a Monday or not. The rite ‘proper’ refers to the ‘dead’ ploughmen, known else where as reapers, though these have acquired a notoriety borne of nuisance rather than sinister overtones! Nevertheless, here follows Jud’s tale: While drinking the conversation gradually turned to old magicks, folktales and other such quaint customs and I jokingly remarked – “Hocus-Pocus and spooky religion! haven’t things moved on now?” My friend replied, “Don’t be too quick to forget the old stories, for within them are useful keys that bind the truth to memory– knowledge is sacred, don’t ever forget that. Rich and poor alike feared well the ‘Old Uns’, and it helped balance and focus their lives a little.” He then took me over to where ‘Old Jud’ sat, a garrulous soul wrinkled and weather beaten. My friend bid him - “Tell Robin the Bobbin the skit of old Dobbin.” The old man, easily in his late eighties smiled revealing few teeth, most of which were black. “I wur a ‘ded’ plawman”, he said. “Not bin dun reyt fer years.”

Intrigued, but knowing well the protocol, I bowed and bid him empty his glass, so that I could re-fill it. I pressed 50p into his hand whispering, “Its for the Widow, Father.” He screwed up his face as John had done so many times before. But this old man said, “What o Plaw Mundy”? I looked blank and said, “Sorry dad you’ve lost me.” He laughed out loud, “su cleva yer yung rams”. With that he guzzled down his glass of ale. Quickly I served him up another plus some pork scratchings, to which he grinned and said, “Plaw Munday”; the plaw wer ritually luved, befoer t’ iron cud turn t’sod, fo life an’ plenty for all.” “But”, he added, “the lad’s ‘ad t’ drag it rown t’ green ferst to all ‘n sundry for blessins ‘n’ alms. But shud any, not offer up, then ther’d be ‘ell to pay.”

Winking, he went on….. “as I sed, tool [plough] ad tu bi luved [blessed] cuvved in ribbins an decked aat reyt nice. Lad n lass wor garlans fer t’ plaw med o’olly, ivy n t’ devils seed. Then t’ ‘Merri’ Men wer called - a specific number, oo danced, long n ard.” Trying not to smile, I said, “You mean ‘Morris Men’, hankies and bells and such like?” His eyes narrowed with a malevolence I remember from the pubs of my youth, recalling too John’s pathological disdain for them. “Naw”, he replied, “dees a’ ‘Summoners- luk like ‘em but know what thi doin. Seven in all an’ t’ lass, she’d sweep afore ‘em wi’t fox tail. All in rags thi war, black faces, bells n ‘ankies. Thi’ move in rhythm, certain positions ‘eld. Stampin fer‘t bells a specific number o’ times is essential; the knees an’ ands tuchint’ ground together agen a number o’ times. Then clashing o’ wands [sticks] an’ all bein driven int’ ground together. Then thi wud split inta two lots: sum at frunt an sum at back. Seven men, summoner’s all made a crescent moon at t’ bak. Four behynd the lass wert’ qwarters-the ded plawmen.

Master wer behind the ded plawmen. At frunt of all wer t’ lass, sweepin’ t’ earth wit’ fox’s tail…… Aye thirteen in all the’d be. Ded plowmen an’ t’ Master represent rownd o life and death; summoners wer also called trappers, poachers, or whistlers an made a reyt rackit ‘n’ din. Plow, wer’ ritually luved agen” [but this is a secret I may not tell, being part of the mystery]. “Cardinal points in t’ field wer ‘allowed, then all else. A cornbabby med from last years corn wer put in t’ earth wi beer an black bred. Then t’ ded plow men wer risen four in all, agin avin a specific meanin all in black wi’ white an black faces, all wearin tall‘ats”, [though originally black and white hoods]. Then thi wer’ put to t’ plow. At dusk when t’ orb drops thi all left t’ fields an pushed it rownd t’ village, rememberin to stop an sing at evry field thi cum ta, and at eny owse thi call at wi a nu babby, a gift as ta be left representing owd mergin wi t’ nu. The owd days were good”, he said, “sometimes you ave t’ gu back t’ gu forads. Its all prayah tha nozs, it matters not if clever uns ave rit it down yet, as long as them as duz it noze.”

He lamented how the meaning had been reduced to the hollowness of today’s pantomimes. Yet he seemed pleased by my interest and kenning of the true meanings of such rituals. I wondered too if this was why John had disliked ‘Morris Men’ so much. I pondered too on the obvious blind that disguised a darker mystery wherein the Master, masked up with white face, top hat, sporting horns, black tails, with a cloak of rainbow hue, would proceed around the village amidst great noise, pomp and ceremony, devolving into raucous bawdiness as the alcohol took effect. Jud had told me how each house in turn would be visited, by the Master who would bang three times upon the door with his staff, reciting the following rhyming chant, a call to alms and charity bold……. while holding his lamp up high.

“I’m summoned ‘ere before thee,
On summert I ‘ope thas spoke,
For in this land all round thi,
Ar not such fortunate folk.
Thur ands an pockets are empty,
Nowt in t’ belly, just like a cut throat.
So am ‘ere in t’ guise o justice,
So tek note o me long black coat.”

Upon finishing the Master would look down to the step expecting a colander with money beneath it. If satisfied, he would call up one of the summoner’s carrying the sacred dish containing the blessings from the plough, together with a brush of four woods bound in copper, terminating with an iron nail, driven deep. Held up for the Master [so no one could look upon his face], to bless the threshold, he would afterwards run the light around the door. Beer and food should also have been left to nourish the ‘dead’ ploughmen who I’m told represent no less than the four horsemen of legend. No-one ever answered the door…. for to look upon the Master without ‘preparation’ would induce his wrath.

All monies collected would be left in absolute silence outside the doors of the faithful poor, all those who had suffered hardships that year. Jud recalled how on just one occasion an arrogant farmer had decided to go on holiday, neglecting this duty. The Master came, knocked and recited his chant. Looking down onto the step he saw that nothing had been left; a fearful scream rang out……the lament roared into anger. Instead of the summoners the ‘dead’ ploughmen in vengeful mode as the ‘four horsemen’ were called forth, whistling their eerie rallying cry. The Master blighted misfortune upon the house for that year, holding the lamp high he blew out the light, and ‘marked’ the door. The ‘dead’ ploughmen were called to furrow up the entire patch of garden. When the Farmer returned home he made no complaints to the authorities, and offered to pay double the tithe, but it was too late; that year he not only had a poor cereal crop, but his livestock suffered various curious maladies.

As I recounted earlier, this quaint tale reflects deeper elements drawn from the diverse cache of Clan traditions. This legend as told slips neatly into the Craft Mythos of the council of seven who chose Cain to bring forth agriculture to benefit mankind. The Council of seven is represented in the heavens by the Corona Borealis, the Crown of the North, which is also the Silver wheel, Caer Arianrhod the spinning Castle of the Goddess of Time, Fate and Karma, a fitting theme for Twelfth Night. Cain becomes Bootes, known in folklore as the ploughman, pushing the ‘plough’, [part of Ursa Major, the constellation of the starry Mother of all, of Nuit and Mut] through the celestial heavens around Polaris, the North Star that again signifies the Master, the sacred Axis of the starry firmament. Bootes, sage and planner, gifter of knowledge is also the son of Demeter, Greek Goddess of Agriculture.

Other appellations are the Watcher, the Hunter, the Keeper of Heaven and Job’s star. Curiously, Spica [fertility goddess, virgin, mother and bride] of the Constellation of Virgo rests just south west of Arcturus [major star of Bootes constellation] in the map of the heavens. Even more incredulous is that Bootes does in fact rise circa the winter solstice in the east at dusk, revealing its brightest star Arcturus upon the horizon circa Twelfth Night, clearly a visible marker to commence ploughing!

This red giant is the fourth brightest star in the sky and a close companion of the Sun, a celestial ambassador perhaps, or guardian messenger as he was known by the Chaldeans, imparting his abundant gifts and a visible representative in the night skies? Curiously, to the Egyptians, he was Bau – ‘the coming one’. Clearly, this coterie of celebrants mirrors the movement, position and mythological representations of the celestial map above, most especially relevant to the epiphanic rites of Twelfth Night, a notable date upon the calendar of Tubal Cain. Of course it is almost impossible to effectively trace the origin of many of these customs, but I believe them to be common to those that also underpin the numerous practises within the Craft. Records prior to the 18th century are scant and cynical scholars have all but repudiated many of those.

But this does in no way detract from the simple fact that during the 19th and 20th centuries those who performed these rites avidly believed in their authenticity, taking great pride in their own roles and the selection processes for them which were often hereditary into several generations. Delving deeper into this particular rite, I discovered how the Old man and Women [or lad n lass] were key characters in the northern Plough traditions; she generally carried a broom, he a staff or stick and bladder. Sword dancing and Mummers’ plays also accompany these festivities and in Sheffield [the city of my birth] these are still performed every year on Boxing Day at Handsworth Church. Also in Sheffield, Grenoside hosts another ‘longsword’ dance that compliments a midwinter play revealing traditional themes of death/ execution/sacrifice. But why swordplay you might ask. Mythological agricultural deities such as roman Mars and Babylonian Ninurta were also sword-wielding warriors.

Furthermore, their links with smithcraft resonate with the figure of Cain and ultimately with Tubal Cain, and it must be remembered that gods both forge and manifest as weapons. Older than the ‘rapper’ [thin flexible sheath] traditions, the ‘longsword’ style can be traced back to the low countries of the 14th centuries, being much adapted and altered over the centuries.

Moreover, there are recorded cases of Plough Day customs as early as1378 in Durham and 1597 in Nottingham held around Epiphany. In fact, the apparent distribution of Plough Day celebrations across Northern England [known areas of direct settlement and/or cultural influence] has led to a theory that links it primarily to Danelaw customs gleaned from Danish settlers to these areas from the 9th century onwards. Directly parallel to the Yorkshire ploughing customs are the Danish ‘Plovgilde’. A Danish myth also tells of a local goddess of fertility and abundance named ‘Gefjon’ [the giver] whose plough is drawn by her four sons.

Interestingly many place names throughout North Yorkshire incorporate either ‘thorpe’ [Danish] or ‘worth’ [Norse]. Sheffield alone is replete with them: Grimesthorpe, Upperthorpe, Woodthorpe, Thorpe Hesley, Brinsworth etc. Migrating farm workers in the later 17th and 18th centuries could possibly have carried these beyond their original peripheries. Danish agricultural workmen named ‘sokemen’, equivalent to the ranks of modern-day self-employed, as hired hands would have been actively mobile and responsible for their own plough. Too many commonalities occur between Jud’s tale and these ancient customs to be dismissed as coincidence, although time and distance naturally engender minor variations. So it is indeed heart-warming to review these traditions, however re-enacted or revived with appreciative interest, for they are our history, our past and our legacy for the future, and as my friend said, they hold the keys to a deeper truth. Metaphorically, ‘seeds’, priceless potentates of wisdom, thus dispersed, sown amongst the minds of those privileged to witness or participate in these rites, lay dormant until awakened either by instruction and/or initiation, nurtured into eventual fruition.

Yet although I had learned much, I felt saddened at the loss of these traditions as fewer people come forth to carry the mantle of such traditions. Thus dies an era. Jud’s parting gift had been some new ‘Mill’ steps, which I hope to introduce to the Clan in the near future. Although simple, they have to be mastered carefully in order to do them by rote. So I leave Jud’s tale to your discretion; was it true, grey magic, or were we just drunk? Either way I have left out much. But this is no way detracts from the nux of the tale; it’s still a damn good yarn. History or analogy, this matters little, as inherent mnemonics ensure its survival: Truth prevails. So remember nothing is forgotten, nothing is ever really forgotten.

This article is dedicated to the memories of John, Jud, Aunty Dot, Doreen, Bill, and Roy, all ‘children of the widow’, for them a place in the Castle is assured.

Be a child of the widow.


[Biographical note: the author is the current Magister of Tubal Cain, a non academic student and practitioner of the Arte who lives privately in Derbyshire, dedicated to his Craft. All works are copyrighted but may be freely distributed.]