The Medieval Plough Team on Stage: Wordplay and Reality in the Towneley Mactacio Abel


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Tradition has it that in England the medieval plough was powered by an eight-animal team, sometimes comprised wholly of oxen and sometimes a mixture of oxen and horses. This tradition has behind it the formidable weight of the Domesday survey, which used the eight-ox team as its standard in assessing demesne livestock. When A. C. Cawley published his authoritative edition of the Wakefield Master's plays, he established what has become the traditional reading of the medieval English plough team for the fictional world of the stage.1 His interpretation of Mactacio Abel presents Cain, the niggardly ploughman who commits the first murder, ostentatiously driving a mixed team consisting of four oxen and four horses. Agricultural historians seem to have overlooked this reading of Cain's ploughing practice and, in so doing, have missed a clear endorsement in late medieval literature of the tradition of the Domesday eight-animal standard team.2

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