10 January: Plough Monday

‘I will go with my father a-ploughing to the green field by the sea,
And the rooks and the crows and the seagulls will come flocking after me.
I will sing to the patient horses with the lark in the white of the air,
And my father will sing the plough song that blesses the cleaving share’.

From 'I Will Go With My Father A-Ploughing' by Seosamh Maccathmhaoil (1879-1944)

It’s Plough Monday and I’ve been thinking about ploughboys and ploughing and all things associated with them.

In ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman’ written by William Langland in three versions between 1367 and 1390, Piers Plowman is the honest working man who guides the dreaming hero towards a better life. Piers shows himself to be a more virtuous role model than members of either the corrupt clergy or the dissolute and grasping aristocracy.

After Piers Plowman many other writers, including Chaucer, portrayed the ploughman as the ideal hardworking but downtrodden peasant. This is partly because in many villages there would be only one team of oxen and the ploughman worked the team on all the village strips - not just his own, so he was an essential part of the welfare and economy of the village. In contemporary literature he came to represent all those of the same estate in life.

A generation before Piers Plowman was written, there had been a huge fall in the population after the Black Death and Richard II attempted to pin agricultural wages to their pre-plague levels. The response of the working population eventually led to the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, which was also the year John Wycliffe was sacked from his position at the University of Oxford for his criticism of the Church of Rome. The movement towards the reformation started earlier then I thought. All these fermenting issues bob to the surface in Piers Plowman and in the Canterbury Tales.

Plough Monday was the day the agricultural year started, and before they began all their hard work the ploughboys took the opportunity to have a bit of a party by dressing up, blacking up, drinking or even performing their own ‘Plough Play’. We know from something called ‘Dives and Pauper’ anonymously written about 1405, that Plough Monday was a notable day. The author comments on the practice of blessing the plough by taking it inside the Church and leading it around a specially consecrated 'plough light'.

There is quite a lot about food in Piers Plowman including a dialogue between Piers and a character called ‘Hunger’, Piers says:

‘I have no penny to buy pullets nor geese nor pigs, but I have two green cheeses, a few curds and cream, and an oat-cake and two loaves of beans and bran baked for my children. I have no salt bacon nor no cook to make collops but I have parsley and leeks and many cabbages…’

From Passus VI translated by Kate M. Warren 1895

Piers Plowman’s Pottage

150g pearl barley
1 litre good vegetable or other stock (the better the stock- the better the soup, I used some made from a goose carcase)
2 medium leeks, finely shredded
¼ Savoy cabbage, shredded
Handful fresh chopped parsley and a few finely chopped spring onions or chives
Salt and ground black pepper

Put the barley in a large pan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for about 30 minutes. Drain. Return to the pan, add the stock and bring back to a simmer.
After about 20 minutes test the barley - if it's done to your liking, add the leeks and let them simmer for four to five minutes until just tender. Add the cabbage and cook for two to three minutes, until tender. Season to taste, add the parsley and chives and serve at once.
Piers would have got his protein from his bean bread, you can add some shredded chicken to this - or cooked beans or whatever you have.

'And than I thanked this good husbond,
And prayed God the plough to spede,
And all tho that laboreth with the londe,
And them that helpeth them with worde or dede.'

From 'God Spede the Plough' Anon 14c text.


sprhoyle said...

Fascinating. You can see why obesity wasn't a problem for your mediaeval peasant! The soup joins the list of things I must make...

Dom at Belleau Kitchen said...


Anonymous said...

Such an interesting post - thank you. I had heard of Plow/Plough Monday but had no idea when it was. How strange then that I should post a barley based recipe today (Lemon Barley Pilaf with Turkey & Bacon)!


'Meanderings through my Cookbook'

Brownieville Girl said...

I really got into pearl barley for salads during the summer - the pottage looks delicious.

Another really interesting post Liz.

Anonymous said...

After I left the message I realised I had spelled Pilaf wrong (two 'f's instead of one) so the URL has been changed. Please could you either amend my original email and remove the second f or allow this update!


Many thanks

Liz said...

Here we are ! No problem...

Grazing Kate said...

good honest tucker!
I got quite into pearl barley in the summer like Brownieville Girl - I was using the Leon cook book for a pearl barley and asparagus risotto - it's a great (cheap!) ingredient that has a lovely sensual feel too.