A Historic Analysis of the Mowing Devil in the context of an early description of the formation of a Crop Circle
The Mowing Devil

The first clear historic description of a crop circle comes from the 1678 chap book entitled The Mowing Devil, an original of which is held in the British Library.  The existence of this pamphlet is noted in the 1834 edition of The Bibliographer's Manual of English Literature, which describes the original work as four pages plus a front-piece.  The Mowing Devil was also reproduced in at least four separate 19th century books as well as in a number of books published in the 20th century before 1978, when, it is argued,  the first modern media coverage of crop circles began.   This certainly ensures that there can be no doubt as to original’s provenance as a reliable archival document. Added to The Mowing Devil’s descriptive value is the fact that the chap book combines a woodcut drawing of a crop circle with a detailed textual description of the crop circle. Interestingly there is also a description of its formation (shown below). Despite the obvious similarities between the Mowing Devil’s “circle in a crop” and modern “crop circles” there is some dispute regarding the general interpretation of the description as being that of a crop circle, which will be dealt with further along.


Being a True Relation of a Farmer, who Bargaining with a Poor Mower, about the Cutting down Three Half Acres of Oats: upon the Mower's asking too much, the Farmer swore That the Devil should Mow it rather than He. And so it fell out, that very Night, the Crop of Oat shew'd as if it had been all of a Flame: but next Morning appear'd so neatly mow'd by the Devil or some Infernal Spirit, that no Mortal Man was able to do the like. Also; How the said Oats ly now in the Field, and the Owner has not Power to fetch them away.
Licensed, August 22, 1678
This is a genuine copy of  the front page of the original Mowing Devil pamphlet held by the British Library. The red lines are not part of the original Mowing Devil woodcut but seem to have been added sometime in the 19th century. The actual text of the Mowing Devil is five pages. Click here to read the complete text of the Mowing Devil
An analysis of the Mowing Devil pamphlet and the claims that the Mowing Devil is an early representation of a crop circle.

The original chap book held by the British Library is made up of five A5 sized pages, the first page, or front piece, as shown above and the following four pages of text, without further illustrations. Pocket sized chap books, to a large degree fulfilled a similar function in the 17th century as does a tabloid newspaper today, in as much as it was a means by which groups and individuals could disseminate simple blocks of information to the populous outwards from London into the regional areas. It has been noted by some authorities that these pamphlets were used to spread propaganda and messages/stories that had a 'morality' under tone. In this these pamphlets were are no different to modern newspapers, most of which have a political or philosophical bias that is expressed in how they report or comment on news items. The fact that there is a moral commentary along with the report of the formation of the circle in the crop of oats does not negate the actual item as a news story.

In 1678 all printing presses were required to be licensed and each piece of printed material had to pass censorship requirements, which were enforced by the Worshipful Company of Stationers. The license date shown of The Mowing Devil front piece indicates it was printed on a licensed press and that its contents had passed the censorship requirements of the Worshipful Stationers. Once the Mowing Devil chap book had been printed, almost certainly in London, it would have been distributed throughout the city and the English countryside by itinerant vendors who specialized in the sale of such things.  Printed materials, and chap books in particular, were seen as a novel new form of media that was accessible to the general public and, as such, an effective way of distributing all forms of information including news, political propaganda and religious messages.

The format of The Mowing Devil is similar to most news books of the mid to late 17th century in that text of the first page offers, an illustration, a “headline” and a short text, like the first paragraph in a modern newspaper article, that summarizes the “newsworthy” story contained in the following pages. In the case of the Mowing Devil the front piece does not mention the Christian “moralistic” narrative contained in following text, though the fact that the “news” concerns a devil’s interaction with a farmer’s crop would have given the 17th century reader a fair indication that the book may contain some form of religious message along with a description of the newsworthy event. This is interesting, for ascribing a religious or spiritual message, from a supernatural causative agent, to a crop circle is a feature of the modern response to the phenomena with many 21st century publications that include descriptions of crop circles also including a religious or spiritual narrative.

It is also important to remember that the style of reporting news in the 17th century was very different from that of the 20th and 21st century. Today we expect the news item to be a straight 'report' on the event with any related commentary to be written separately. It was different in 17th century news reporting. The format was more like an open letter and included the reporter's comments on the event. So we see in the Mowing Devil that the person reporting, or writing the report, takes care to stress that the events he is reporting actually occurred and were witnessed by a number of independent persons, no just himself. Once he has described what happened in the field he then offers a commentary, or explanation. This was a common feature in the 17th century news media and does not detract from the factuality of the reported events.

Whilst the moralizing aspect of the last four pages of the Mowing Devil tends to dominate the text, within those four pages is a clear description of the process of the formation of a crop circle: “… his Field of Oats was publickly beheld by several Passengers to be all of a Flame, and so continued for some space, to the great consternation of those that beheld it.” (In this context the word “passenger” has its old English meaning of a person passing by.) However when the farmer inspected his oat field in the morning he found the oats were not burnt at all but laid in flat, neat circles.  Its is worth noting that the original text uses the plural, circles, indicating that the illustration was one of several circles that appeared in the crop that night, for that this “clustering” of circles in crops occurs in every one of the following reports quoted in this work.

A number of commentators have stated that the Mowing Devil crop circle could not be a “genuine” crop circle because it was “all of a flame” (all aflame) and there for burnt, however the statement that when the farmer inspected the crop in the morning he found no sign of burned oats but rather neatly laid out circles of oats tells us that the “flame” was in fact a bright light of some form. Indeed a 17th century rural resident would have no conception of, or point of reference to, a source of terrestrial light other than from some form of flame, so a bright light in a field at night could only be described as a flame or assumed to be coming from a fire of some kind.

These descriptions combine with the contents of the front piece to give a clear impression of a crop circle that conforms in all its essential details to the 19th and early 20th century descriptions that will shortly be discussed. The “flame” also relates to the theories for the involvement of some form of electromagnetic radiation in the formation of crop circles that resulted from scientific research in the 1990’s, which will be discussed later in this work.   It is also worth noting that the image on the front piece shows not The Devil (Satan) but “a devil” or “some infernal spirit” mowing a circular formation inside a mature crop of oats in a pattern easily recognised as a familiar crop circle design.

Whilst it seems that almost no modern account of the crop circle phenomena is given without some mention of the Mowing Devil there are only two academic works that deal with it in any detail. The most comprehensive of these is Bruce Mason’s 1991 Master’s thesis Belief, Explanation and Rhetoric in the Crop Circle Phenomena of Southern England.  In this work Mason, a folk lore specialist, gives a detailed examination of the Mowing Devil document and accurately places it in its historic context.   The only other analysis of the Mowing Devil is in a peer reviewed publication by Theo Meder, also a folklorist, who maintains that the Mowing Devil text has nothing whatever to do with crop circles and incorrectly claims that the Mowing Devil chap book is actually a traditional folk tale about the devil “… internationally known as ATU 820: The Devil as a substitute for day labourer at mowing.”  However the real ATU 820 actually refers to a completely different story, found not in England but almost exclusively in northern Europe, concerning a situation where an evil foreman overworks his farm laborers until the devil shows up in the guise of a day laborer. The devil, who has a magic sickle, mows faster than all the other workers but the arrogant foreman tries to keep up with the devil until the he (the foreman) exhausts himself and dies.   The story in The Mowing Devil  has no foreman, no mention of a magic sickle and no mowing competition or death; while ATU 820 has no circular formations in the crop, no neatly laid straw and no passers by seeing a flame in the field and no farmer who can not remove his oats from the field. Indeed there can be no doubt that the Mowing Devil text does not relate in any way to the Northern European folk tale other than both involve the mention of a devil. Further the Mowing Devil is not presented in the format of a folk tale, rather it is presented in a news format, as a news item, with the clear claim that the event described within the chap book is a true story and that it actually happened only a few days prior to the booklet going to print. Indeed the date of the licensing of the publication, the 22nd of August, is exactly around the point of time one would, today, expect to see a crop circle in a field of oats.

Whilst Meder and other sceptics argue that this woodcut is simply “a traditional folktale about the devil”, the ascribing of a supernatural cause to an unexplained natural event has been commonplace through most of human history and is still common enough today.  We know for example in the 1780’s, when (probably a volcanic cloud) blotted out the daylight for at least ten hours on much of the American east coast bringing on a deep and unnatural nightfall, the event was attributed to supernatural causes by various well educated people, some saying it was caused by the Devil others saying it was God punishing a godless society, in what might otherwise have been described as a relatively enlightened society.  Indeed even in the year 1990 the Rev. Peter Saunt was quoted in the British newspaper the Independent of Sunday as scribing the causative agent of crop circles to “… an Occult power, some spiritual force.” 

Further the woodcut’s pictorial and textual description has an overwhelming number of obvious similarities to later 19th and 20th century descriptions of crop circles, for example compare the description that the laid stalks “… appear'd so neatly mow'd by the Devil or some Infernal Spirit, that no Mortal Man was able to do the like” with the 19th century description in Nature by Capron “…prostrate stalks with their heads arranged pretty evenly in a direction forming a circle round the centre, and outside these a circular wall of stalks which had not suffered.”  Capron’s description also fits neatly with the woodcut’s illustration, as does the 1963 description by Sir Patrick Moore “There was evidence of spiral flattening, and in one case there was a circular area in the centre in which the wheat had not been flattened.”  The fact that the author of The Mowing Devil noted, both in the text and drawing, the neatness with which the oat stalks had been laid indicates this ‘neatness’ was a prominent feature of the formation, as it is in modern crop circles. And while Capron noted the neatness with which the stalks were laid in his description, Moore noted the spiral nature of the flattening, which is obvious in the drawing of the devil’s “mown” circle. The last indicator of interest in the Mowing Devil description is “How the said Oats ly now in the Field, and the Owner has not Power to fetch them away.” This is an important end note to the description for it indicates that the oats had not been cut but were flattened, as per Moore’s description, for had the oats been cut the owner could easily have gathered them up but if they were flattened by having the stalks bent at the base as is universally the case with modern crop circles, they could not be gathered. Exactly this problem was recounted by farm laborer, Paul Germany, who observed a crop circle form on the farm where he was employed in Essex in 1935; “The farmer gave me a pitch fork and told me to try and raise the fallen corn, I stood in the circle but I faced a futile task, as fast as I raised the corn stalks they sprang back into place.”  (It should be noted that the word ‘corn’ is a generic term which in old English referred to grain crops generally and not the American maize plant which is now days often called corn.) This is an important component of The Mowing Devil’s textual description of the “mown” oats for the fact that the word “mowing” was used has been seen by many commentators as indicating that the circle in the crop of oats had indeed been cut rather than flattened, as is the case with a modern crop circle. However this statement, that the oats could not be gathered up, which is mentioned twice in the text, clearly indicates that the crops had not been cut but flattened.

The Complete Text of the 17th century Woodcut The Mowing Devil


Being a True Relation of a Farmer, who Bargaining with a Poor Mower, about the Cutting down Three Half Acres of Oats: upon the Mower's asking too much, the Farmer swore That the Devil should Mow it rather than He. And so it fell out, that very Night, the Crop of Oat shew'd as if it had been all of a Flame: but next Morning appear'd so neatly mow'd by the Devil or some Infernal Spirit, that no Mortal Man was able to do the like. Also, How the said Oats ly now in the Field, and the Owner has not Power to fetch them away.

Licensed, August 22, 1678

Men may dally with Heaven, and criticize on Hell, as Wittily as they please, but that there are really such places, the wise dispensations of Almighty Providence does not cease continually to evince. For if by those accumulated circumstances which generally induce us to the belief of anything beyond our senses, we may reasonably gather that there are certainly such things as DEVILS, we must necessarily conclude that these Devils have a Hell: and as there is a Hell, there must be a Heaven, and consequently a GOD: and so all the Duties of Christian Religion as indispensable subsequents necessarily follow.

The first of which Propositions, this ensuing Narrative does not a little help to Confirm.

For no longer ago, than within the compass of the present Month of August, there hapned so unusual an Accident in Hartfordshire as is not only the general Discourse, and admiration of the whole County: but may for its Rarity challenge any other event, which has for these many years been Product in any other County whatsoever. The story thus.

In the said County lives a Rich industrious Farmer, who perceiving a small Crop of his (of about three Half-Acres of Land which he had sowed with Oats) to be Ripe and fit for Gathering, sent to a poor Neighbour whom he knew worked commonly in the Summer-time at Harvest Labour to agree with him about Mowing or Cutting the said Oats down. The poor man as it behoov'd Him endeavour'd to see the Sweat of his Brows and Marrow of his Bones at as dear a Rate as reasonably he might, and therefore askt a good round Price for his Labour, which the Farmer taking some exception at, bid him much more under the usual Rate than the poor Man askt for it: So that some sharp Words had past, when the Farmer told him he would Discourse with him no more about it. Whereupon the honest Mower recollecting with himself, that if he undertook not that little Spot of Work, he might thereby lose much more business which the Farmer had to imploy him in beside, ran after him, and told him, that, rather than displease him, he would do it at what rate in Reason he pleas'd: and as an instance of his willingness to serve him, proposed to him a lower price, than he had Mowed for any time this Year before. The irretated Farmer with a stem look, and hasty gesture, told the poor man That the Devil himself should Mow his Oats before he should have anything to do with them, and upon this went his way, and left the sorrowful Yeoman, not a little troubled that he had disoblig'd one in whose Power it lay to do him many kindnesses.

But, however, in the happy series of an interrupted prosperity, we may strut and plume our selves over the miserable Indingencies of our necessitated Neighbours, yet there is a just God above, who weighs us not by our Bags, nor measures us by our Coffers: but looks upon all men indifferently, as the common sons of Adam: so that he who carefully Officiates that rank or Station wherein the Almighty has plac't him, tho' but a mean one, is truly more worthy the Estimation of all men, then he who is prefer'd to superior dignities, and abuses them: And what greater abuse than the contempt of Men below him: the relief of whose 'common necessities is none of the least Conditions whereby he holds all his Good things: which when that Tenure is forfeited by his default, he may justly expect some judgement to ensue: or else that those riches whereby he prides himself so extravagantly may shortly be taken from him.

We will not attempt to fathom the cause, or reason of, Preternatural events: but certain we are, as the most Credible and General Relation can inform us, that same night this poor Mower and Farmer parted, his Field of Oats was publickly beheld by several Passengers to be all of a Flame, and so continued for some space, to the great consternation of those that beheld it. Which strange news being by several carried to the Farmer next morning, could not but give him a great curiosity to go and see what was become of his Crop of Oats, which he could not imagine, but what was totally devour'd by those ravenous Flames which were observed to be so long resident on his Acre and a half of Ground.

Certainly a reflection on his sudden and indiscreet expression (That the Devil should Mowe his Oats before the poor Man should have anything to do with them) could not but on this occasion come into his Memory. For if we will but allow our selves so much leisure, to consider how many hits of providence go to the production of one Crop of Corn, such as the aptitude of the Soyl, the Seasonableness of Showers, Nourishing Solstices and Salubreous Winds, etc., we should rather welcome Maturity with Devout Acknowledgements than prevent our gathering of it by profuse wishes.

But not to keep the curious Reader any longer in suspense, the inquisitive Farmer no sooner arriv'd at the place where his Oats grew, but to his admiration he found the Crop was cut down ready to his hands; and [as] if the Devil had a mind to shew his dexterity in the art of Husbandry, and scorn'd to mow them after the usual manner, he cut them in round circles, and plac't every straw with that exactness that it would have taken up above an Age for any Man to perform what he did that one night: And the man that owns them is as yet afraid to remove them.