Category Archives: Plough Monday

Back to the Workaday World

I know, and I’m sorry: You thought you were rid of me after all those Book of Days posts for the Twelve Days of Christmas. I thought you were, too, but then late last night I remembered about the Back-to-Work holidays that follow Yuletide. There are two of them, plus another day especially for printers. It would seem that our ancestors had a lot more fun getting back to work after the Christmas festivities, much more than we do, for getting back to the workaday world came not without a little celebration. We might do well with some of that, too.

St. Distaff’s Day
January 7
The day after Epiphany sent the women back to their spinning and the day became known as St. Distaff’s Day. It’s a bit odd in that there is no saint named Distaff. Rather, the day is named after a traditional tool for spinning wool or flax into thread. Prior to the spinning wheel, it was the distaff and spindle that facilitated this work. The distaff is a tool traditionally associated with women and with women’s work, and to be sure, spinning was so associated with women’s work that the word spinster, which is happily not much used these days, once was a recognized legal term in England to describe an unmarried woman, and the terms spear side and distaff side were also legal terms to distinguish the inheritances of male from female children. Any woman who spun thread (and that would have been most women in earlier times) would have known the distaff well.

St. Distaff’s Day was a day for mischief: yes, the women were trying to get back to their spinning, but the men were still underfoot in the house. Their job on St. Distaff’s Day was a mischievous one, with the goal usually being to set fire to the flax the women were spinning. The women were wise to this custom, though, and typically kept several buckets of water nearby. Very often, it was the men who got the worst of it: to have a bucket of water dumped on you in the cold of January… for sure, St. Distaff’s Day lent a bit of excitement to the idea of returning to ordinary time.

Plough Monday
January 8
While the women always returned to their spinning on the Seventh of January, the men’s Back to Work day was a moveable one, falling on the Monday after Epiphany. This year, that happens to be the Eighth of January. There is a ceremonial ploughing of the ground on Plough Monday, which very often, in days of dirt roads, would be in the very road that ran through the village. The ploughs would be blessed and finely decorated, the men would parade in costume, there would be music and mummers and plays and a great hoopla of noise and all kinds of good sport. There would be a collection taken up door to door to pay for the tavern bill that came after; those who were too stingy to contribute risked having the path to their door ploughed, as well. Best, then, to contribute a few pennies to their sport.

As for the men’s costumes, the sillier, the better, and for sure there is a bit of the Feast of Fools, which we saw during the Twelve Days of Christmas, that comes into play on Plough Monday. It is traditional for one man in each Plough Monday gathering to dress as the Bessy, an old woman who we can link firmly to pagan goddess celebrations: she is the personification of the hag, the old woman of winter who, in the seasonal round of the year, will transform come spring into the virginal young goddess. And spring is not that far away in this world of spiraling circular tradition: Come February 2, we are halfway between Midwinter Solstice and Spring Equinox, a day marked by the holidays Candlemas, Imbolc, and Groundhog Day. It is a day seen in the traditional reckoning of time as spring’s first stirrings, even if winter still holds a strong grip. The sun is gaining strength by then, with considerably more daylight on the 2nd of February than there was on the 21st of December.

Copperman’s Day
January 8
The Monday after Epiphany is of special importance to printers like me, for it is also Copperman’s Day, an old Dutch printers’ holiday. The printshop apprentices would be given the day off so they could work on a project of their own and show off the skills they’d learnt from the master printers. Copperman’s Day prints were typically small keepsakes sold for a copper apiece.

Seth Thompson and I have been printing Copperman’s Day prints from handset metal and wood types here at our Lake Worth print shop since 2014. I already informed my boss at work that I’d be taking Monday off to print this year’s. What will it be? Ah, well, that is a secret for now. I’ll reveal that perhaps in the next Convivio Book of Days post, which, lucky for you and for me both, will not be tomorrow. We all get a much needed break from my yammering.  I’ll sign off now, and leave you with the poem “Saint Distaff’s Day, or the morrow after Twelfth Day” by Robert Herrick. It’s from his 1648 book Hesperides. It’s much better than anything I’ll ever write, and it goes like this:

Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on St. Distaff’s Day:
From the Plough soone free your team;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a-spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Let the maides bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.

 

Image: “A Young Woman Holding a Distaff Before a Lit Candle” by Adam de Coster. Oil on canvas, circa early 1600s [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Plough Monday & Copperman’s Day

Plough to Oven

Last week, St. Distaff’s Day signaled back to the workaday world for the women, and with the arrival of the Monday after Epiphany we have the official back-to-work-after-Yuletide day for the men: this is Plough Monday. There is a ceremonial ploughing of the ground on this day, which very often, in days of dirt roads, would be in the very road that ran through the village. The ploughs would be finely decorated, the men would parade in costume, there would be music and mummers and plays and a great hoopla of noise and all kinds of good sport. There would be a collection taken up door to door to pay for the tavern bill that came after; those who were too stingy to contribute risked having the path to their door ploughed, as well. Best, then, to contribute a few pennies to their sport.

When it comes to the costumes, the sillier, the better, and for sure there is a bit of the Feast of Fools, which we saw during the Twelve Days of Christmas, that comes into play on Plough Monday. It is traditional for one man in each Plough Monday gathering to dress as the Bessy, an old woman who we can link firmly to pagan goddess celebrations: she is the personification of the hag, the old woman of winter who, in the seasonal round of the year, will transform come spring into the virginal young goddess. And spring is not that far away in this world of spiraling circular tradition: Come February 2, we are halfway between Midwinter Solstice and Spring Equinox, a day marked by the holidays Candlemas, Imbolc, and Groundhog Day. It is a day seen in the traditional reckoning of time as spring’s first stirrings, even if winter still holds a strong grip. The sun is gaining strength by then, with considerably more daylight on the 2nd of February than there was on the 21st of December.

There is another old tradition in Holland on this First Monday after Epiphany, little known, but important to those in the print trade (and to us here at Convivio Bookworks, for we are, at heart, a print shop): It is Copperman’s Day, a traditional Dutch printer’s holiday in which the printshop apprentices would be given the day off so they could work on a project of their own. The small prints that were a result of the day were typically sold for a copper apiece.

We’ve been working at reviving this fine tradition and for the past few years have been creating a Copperman’s Day print. To date, they’ve all been mini-prints, the size of a standard postcard, printed letterpress by hand from historic wood and metal types. Each color a separate print run. It is slow and steady work and it often takes us more than a day to print them. In 2014, we printed our first Copperman’s Day print, which reads Take Joy. Last year’s, the second Copperman’s Day print, reads Take Peace. If these two lines sound familiar to you, you already know what this year’s print will read. All three of our Copperman’s Day prints so far are inspired by a Christmas Revels reading originally penned in 1513 by Fra Giovanni Giocando, who, on Christmas Eve of that year wrote a letter to his friend, the Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi. In 1978, Fra Giovanni’s letter was distilled to its essence for the Christmas Revels performance at the beautiful Sanders Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here it is:

I salute you. There is nothing I can give you which you have not,
but there is much that while I cannot give,
you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.
Take heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant.
Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow.
Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.
Take joy.

And so at this Christmastime,
I greet you, with the prayer that for you,
now and forever,
the day breaks
and the shadows
flee away.

And so we have beseeched you these past two years to take joy, to take peace. And now, we suggest you take heaven. Let our hearts find rest in it today. We’ll be working on this year’s Copperman’s Day print as best we can this day. We’ll let you know when it’s available for purchase. (It will most likely be ready later than today and it will be a bit more than a copper, sorry!)

 

Image: Detail from “Kronengrasse in Stockach” (Crown Alley in Stockach, which is a town in the district of Konstanz, Germany). It’s a series of tiles on a wall of a building there (the shop of a pretzel baker, I’d guess), photographed by Frank Vincentz in 2011 and used by permission of Creative Commons.

 

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Plough Monday & Copperman’s Day

PloughMonday

With the Christmas season’s end last week, the women had their “official” and traditional Back to Work day last Wednesday, on the 7th of January, with St. Distaff’s Day. But tomorrow, the first Monday after Epiphany, it’s time for the men to have their own version of this. It’s Plough Monday, and there may be some ceremonial ploughing of the frozen ground on this day, but mostly it is the last of the Christmas ceremonies in this period of shifting out of Christmastide and into ordinary time.

Of course today we welcome a more egalitarian approach: why shouldn’t the men be at the spindle and distaff, if they so wish, and the women at the plough? Nonetheless, these are traditions that come out of a time of more traditional division of labor between the sexes, and we heartily encourage you to mix things up to your liking. Our goal, simply, is to help you be aware of days worth celebrating, of course.

And so on Plough Monday it would be not at all unusual to see a gaggle of men parading through the village with a plough, finely decorated. The men themselves would be finely decorated, too, in all manner of foolish costumes, hearkening the Feast of Fools aspect of the Twelve Days of Christmas that have just passed. One man will be dressed as the Bessy, an old woman, and whether he realizes it or not, she is the personification of the old hag of winter or the goddess in her crone stage. And the ploughmen may perform an old mummers play, filled with images of death and rebirth. Soon, of course, winter will pass and it will be time to plough the earth in earnest and these things all relate to each other. With the spring, the young goddess will be born again. Though all seems cold now, and dead, life will return.

There will be mysterious old dances and a good deal of noise in the banging of drums and the blowing of horns, and there will most likely be a collection box passed around to help pay for the sport (as well as a few rounds at the tavern).

A lesser known celebration on this same day is Copperman’s Day, particular to Holland, and known especially in the print trade. And since Convivio Bookworks is a place that is a printshop at heart, it is a day we hold in high esteem. On the first Monday after Epiphany each year, print apprentices would be given the day off to work on their own projects, which they would later sell for a copper.

Last year, we printed an inaugural Convivio Bookworks Copperman’s Day print, and we’re planning one for this year, too. This year’s is a continuation of last year’s theme, inspired by a Christmas Revels reading first penned by Fra Giovanni Giocondo. It is said to have been written on Christmas Eve, 1513, and in his letter, Fra Giovanni encourages us to take heaven, to take peace, and to take joy. Because when you get right down to it, life deals us what it will and it is up to each of us to decide how we respond. Even in times of darkness, we can choose to take joy, and so last year’s print was just that message: Take Joy. This year, we’re working on Take Peace. I’m working in historic wood type, though, and so far I’m having a devil of a time finding the two Es I need to spell “peace,” at least if I want to stick to my original design plan. On top of that, I do not have the day off from work tomorrow, as the old Dutch coppermen of yore did on the Monday after Epiphany.

So be patient, our annual Copperman’s Day print may take a few extra days this year. Be that as it may, we do encourage other letterpress printers around the globe to take part in this old tradition that we see fit for revival. It’s all about loving what you do, and sharing it with others. It’s all about taking joy.

 

Image: Procession of the Plough on Plough Monday, an engraving from The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities by the Chambers Bros., Edinburgh, 1869.

 

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