Epiphanytide in Medieval Durham

The Feast of Epiphany celebrates the revelation of God’s earthly presence to the Gentiles, through the revelation of the Christ-child to the Magi:

et ecce stella quam viderant in oriente antecedebat eos usque dum veniens staret supra ubi erat puer videntes autem stellam gavisi sunt gaudio magno valde et intrantes domum invenerunt puerum cum Maria matre eius et procidentes adoraverunt eum et apertis thesauris suis obtulerunt ei munera aurum tus et murram

and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. (Mat. 2:9-12)

The feast is normally celebrated on January 6th (marking the 12th day of Christmas), or on the Sunday following. For the monks of Durham Priory, the occasion was a time of feasting and celebration as part of the Christmas season.

Durham Cathedral MS A.II.10, fol. 224v. © . Chapter of Durham Cathedral. Decorated initial from Peter Lombard’s commentary on the Psalms.

Accounts from the Priory show that performers (ministralli) of various kinds were hired to perform

‘Bearpark, West View’ (Beaurepaire, Co. Durham), ca.1780s, by Samuel Grimm, British Library Additional MS 15538

for the Prior and his guests, often at his manor retreat just outside of Durham known as Beaurepaire (a.k.a ‘Bearpark’). For example, the Priory Bursar’s accounts relating to Epiphany 1371 note that the Prior and his guests were entertained at Beaurepaire by a certain ministrallus named John Scott:

Iohanni scott Ministrallo de dono domini Prioris apud Beurepayr, ij.s.

[to John Scott, minstrel, from a gift of the Prior whilst at Beaurepaire, 2 shillings]


Some of the earliest records of the dona et exennia (gifts and grants) of the Prior given to performers at Epiphany include 5 shillings given to:

Histrionibus Domini de Percy vigilia Epyphanie (performers of Lord Percy* at the vigil of Epiphany),

and 2 shillings to:

Cuidam Roter die Epiphanie (a certain roter – a ‘rote’** player)

at the feast in 1344 (DUL DCD/Bur.acs, m1d). Payments to minstrels and other entertainers at Epiphany appear in the Priory accounts appear in most years throughout the fourteenth century.

Henry, second Lord Percy (1301-1352)

** a kind of stringed instrument (cf. Welsh crwth)


Plough Drawing

The day after Epiphany, a more public ‘entertainment’ was occurring from the early 15th century, just over the bridge from Durham in Elvet:  the ‘plough drawing’. This was probably a precursor of the ‘Plough Monday’ ceremonies which took place all over late-medieval and early-modern England on the Monday following Epiphany, where a plough would be processed from house to house, with a collection taken. Such ceremonies were typically accompanied by music.

The Durham Priory Almoner’s accounts for 1413 probably record one of the earliest references to such a ceremony:

Item dati in Crastino Epiphanie in veteri Elvet trahentibus aratrum – iiij d.

(Also, given on the day after Epiphany in Old Elvet for the plough drawing, 4d)

Durham, with Elvet Bridge in foreground, Samuel Grimm, ca.1780s (BL ADD MS MS 15538)

The Durham Records of Early English Drama note that this payment to men pulling the plough was made in what is now the New Elvet area, in the Hostillar’s manor of Elvethall, and was not therefore required of the Almoner as he was Lord of the Elvethall Manor. It may have been an impromptu payment for drink for ‘plough stots’ who had accosted the Almoner in the street on the day after Epiphany (Friday 7 January, 1413); this occasion has more recently been called Plough Monday, but the day of the week was apparently not fixed in the early fifteenth century.

Ploughing, detail from the Macclesfield Psalter, ca. 1330, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (f. 77v)

For more information on these and other pre-Modern ceremonies in our region, check out our pages on ‘Dramatic Traditions in the North-East’ here:



*This month’s Flower has been provided by REED Durham’s co-editor, Mark Chambers (https://www.dur.ac.uk/english.studies/staff/?id=11909).

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