Update (stop the press): even earlier plough ceremonies from Durham?

In an update to REED N-E’s earlier ‘Flower of the Month’, we’ve discovered that Durham might have even older evidence for plow ceremonies than those mentioned last week (see Epiphanytide in Medieval Durham).

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

As mentioned in the previous post, accounts from several of the manor houses attached to Durham Cathedral Priory record payments to ploughmen and carters in die carucarum ‘on plough day’, also called forthdrawe or ploudrawe. A typical example appears in the earliest of such entries, from the accounts for the Priory’s manor estate at Pittington for 1277-78:


Liberati Carucariis. Carectariis & aliis familiaribus pro forthdraue de consuetudine – xviij.d

Paid to the ploughmen, carters & other household members for the customary ‘forthdrawe’ – 18 d.


The ‘forthdrawe’ would appear to be some sort of plough ceremony, and it is described as being de consuetudine – customary, by tradition.

However, such entries in the accounts are often grouped together with similar payments at Michaelmas, so it is not certain that all of them represent an actual ceremony or performance. It is probable, though, that two English names forthdrawe and ploudrawe imply something like the later Plough Monday custom, in which the manor’s ploughmen (and sometimes also its other workers) pulled a plough round the estate and solicited money for ale.

In a once-off entry in the account of the manors of Bewley and Billingham for 1296-7 includes a reference to forth<dra>we cum ceruisia et companagio ad precarias carucarum et hersiarum (bringing out [the plough], with ale and accompanying food for the soliciting ploughmen and harrowers). This indicates that the custom already included dragging the plough (and harrow) and begging for money for drink.

Such evidence is very early for these kinds of ceremonies – indeed, arguably the earliest on record in Britain, and by centuries!


The above has been provided by the REED: Durham editors John McKinnell  & Mark Chambers.

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