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THE ‘MOWING DEVIL’ INVESTIGATED - 22/12/2005

One of the most prominent pieces of evidence put forward to support the notion that crop circles have been appearing in at least some form for hundreds of years is the famous ‘Mowing Devil’ woodcut of 1678. But is it all it seems? ANDY THOMAS has been doing some deeper investigation, and reveals some important new details about this most valuable piece of crop circle folklore…


THE ‘MOWING DEVIL’ INVESTIGATED

One of the most prominent pieces of evidence put forward to support the notion that crop circles have been appearing in at least some form for hundreds of years is the famous ‘Mowing Devil’ woodcut of 1678. But is it all it seems? ANDY THOMAS has been doing some deeper investigation, and reveals some important new details about this most valuable piece of crop circle folklore…


i) THE MOWING DEVIL PAMPHLET

It is taken for granted by many circle enthusiasts that the oft-quoted ‘Mowing Devil’ pamphlet, supposedly printed in Hertfordshire, England, in 1678, is a genuine document of its time. This publication clearly shows an image of the Devil with a scythe, creating what looks uncannily like a crop circle. The convoluted tale which accompanies it, in archaic English, tells of a farmer who receives strange circles in his fields, having told a labourer that he would rather “the Devil himself should mow his oats” than pay the price being asked. The subsequent appearance of the circles is seen as evidence of Satanic come-uppance for the farmer’s scorn.

Though the distribution of the pamphlet was almost certainly fired by a religious agenda (there were a plethora of such moral tales distributed to the God-fearing masses in the 17th century), to many minds there is such a meticulous outlining of events recounted in the document, they believe there must have been some kind of grounding in a real occurrence. Certainly, the description is so deliciously evocative of the phenomenon we know today, and the image in the woodcut illustration so compellingly familiar, it strongly suggests that what sparked this story was something very like what we would today recognise as basic crop circles. Some have countered that the pamphlet clearly describes (and shows) the Devil cutting the oats, rather than laying them, but this is seen as pedantry over artistic license by some:

*

“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.”

*

The pamphlet even describes the sky above the farmer’s field being “all of a flame” on the night of the circles’ arrival, immediately bringing to mind the many sightings of aerial phenomena and strange lights seen so often today in association with the appearance of crop circles.


ii) IMPLICATIONS OF THE MOWING DEVIL

What we have in the Mowing Devil is possible evidence that the crop circle mystery is not a modern phenomenon, but something which may have historical lineage. It’s plainly been at work in some form or other for at least many decades (the earliest known photo of what looks uncannily like ringed circles of laid crop was taken at Bow Hill, Chichester, West Sussex, in 1932), but the anecdotal evidence suggests hundreds of years. Though the Mowing Devil is the clearest example of an antique reference, it is not an isolated case. Work by Terry Wilson (in his book ‘The Secret History of Crop Circles’), and more recently Andreas Muller, reveals that at the very least, there are enough clear reports of crop circles going back long enough to show that they cannot just be some recent prank.

This has led to many debates about what might be going on here: If there is an intelligence at work, why keep up such a campaign for so long, especially when the circles were largely ignored or feared as work of the Devil for so many years? What was the point of crop circles before manned flight was invented, argue some? Why just basic patterns for so long? If it’s just a natural phenomenon, why did it suddenly leap in evolution in more recent times? Could it be that there IS a random mechanism in nature that will produce basic patterns, which some strange impetus has more recently harnessed to create intelligent complexity? However, these are questions for another day. The purpose of this article is to look more clearly at the Mowing Devil document itself.

The point is this: in the crop circle world this pamphlet has been heavily used as evidence to support the notion that what we have today is not a fresh mystery, but one with great longevity. As such, to some this may make it a less threatening phenomenon, one with a cosy familiarity in the landscape that means we don’t have to worry about it being something here newly arrived to unsettle us; instead it’s always been with us. Because of the potential safety zone created by this notion, it has even been suggested that the Mowing Devil document may in itself be a modern hoax – something cooked up in the last two decades, forged to look old, which takes the heat off the concept of something big and potentially threatening being here to rock our contemporary world.

Certainly, there are some odd things about the document. Despite its use of Old English, even for those times there are anachronistic inconsistencies in the use of spelling and language (the date reads the “22th” of August, for instance, instead of the 22nd), which some have found suspicious. Slip-ups of a recent forgery or just sloppiness on the part of the 17th century typesetters?

What is certainly true is that many circle researchers have accepted the Mowing Devil as being genuine, passing the story on without ever having studied or verified the actual evidence for themselves. This could be dangerous – with so much weighted on it as being evidence of a genuine phenomenon, if it were suddenly shown to be a modern hoax, much kudos could be lost. Our grateful and wide acceptance of the Mowing Devil as soon as news of its existence arrived in 1990 illustrates neatly the croppie world’s desperate need for verification and credibility to the outside world – it was clung to like a piece of solid driftwood in amongst the sea of uncertainty which arrived with the crop-crunching debunkers Doug and Dave in 1991. With so much being put on the Mowing Devil then and since, it might be wise, then, to be sure that the Mowing Devil is all it seems.


iii) DISCREPANCIES

Aside from any oddities in the pamphlet itself, the disturbing truth is that there are discrepancies in the cerealogical world when it comes to sources and reports of the Mowing Devil. And, shockingly, there are at least FOUR different versions of the Mowing Devil illustration in circulation – all purporting to be from one and the same document. This may come as a surprise to many. Some sources cannot even record the date accurately, with at least two books incorrectly giving the date as 1687, instead of 1678 (plainly printed in the original).

All this is a problem, and one which circle enthusiasts should be grateful has escaped sceptics’ attention – and indeed ours - up until now. This article is an attempt to nail the truth of these different versions and to verify whether or not the original document is genuine – whether, indeed, it even exists? For how many people have actually SEEN the original document with their own eyes? Certainly, no fellow circle researchers that I spoke to ever had. We have all accepted without question that its initial reporting was sound and that its origins are not just mischievous invention. An unsettling thought.

The first observation which potentially undermined the security of the Mowing Devil story actually came to me almost subliminally a few years back. I dimly considered that there seemed to be discrepancies in the different versions of the Mowing Devil illustration shown in various crop circle publications, but I never thought to follow this minor intrigue up. It niggled my mind, but I dismissed it as imagination. It is a curious fact that my mind did not want to start undermining the authenticity of the document by beginning to question it, because I WANTED to believe in it. This is something worryingly common in the world of the ‘alternative’. We get these notions and beliefs into our heads in our happy fantasy worlds, and don’t want anything to burst the bubble. This is where sceptics always come along with their pins, of course, and we are our own worst enemies for it. It is this process of self-denial that leads some circle enthusiasts, even today, to still refuse to acknowledge that there are ANY man-made formations of any worth, for instance, because to start down that path means having to learn real discernment and doing some real study… In this regard, I have changed over the years – I believe passionately that there is a real phenomenon at work, but I also now acknowledge the perilous fuzziness of some of our reasoning, and realise the need for very accurate and truly discerning research. We have to spot the weaknesses in our own arguments and address them to ourselves - before someone else does.

With this mindset, early in 2005 I decided to look the Mowing Devil firmly in the eye and confront the discrepancies. I shared my thoughts with Mary Bennett, co-author of ‘Dark Moon’ and long-time circle aficionado, and together we quickly realised that there were clearly TWO different versions, at least, of the Mowing Devil in circulation. Fig.1 and Fig 2 show the two versions most commonly published. They are NOT the same illustration. Though they are close, one is clearly a redrawing of the other, as every line and stroke is subtly different on close inspection – but which is which? Why are there two versions, and which is the original Mowing Devil? The main way to spot the difference is to look at the eye of the Devil. One illustration has a large eye, and the other a small one. That’s the key.


iv) INVESTIGATION

So, how to track down which was the original illustration? The best way to start was to go the original source of the Mowing Devil story – the publication ‘Fortean Times’ (FT), which keeps tabs on the weird and the curious, albeit over-sceptically in recent years. It was FT which first publicly revealed the existence of the Mowing Devil back in 1990.

I contacted the editors, Paul Seiveking and Bob Rickard. Both had been actively interested in the crop circles in the early years of the phenomenon, but had withdrawn into scepticism when the more complex pictograms began appearing. Paul e-mailed me back to say that he himself had first come across the Mowing Devil pamphlet while working in the records department of the British Library in 1990, then held at the site of the British Museum. Bob Rickard then responded and claimed that HE had discovered it. Even here, then, was a further level of strange fuzziness to the whole history of the Mowing Devil. More questioning seemed to boil things down to the fact that they were both working together when they somehow stumbled across it. Interestingly, I was informed by Seiveking that UFO investigators Jenny Randles and Paul Fuller (who both believed simple crop circles were made by natural vortices) synchronistically came across knowledge of the document’s existence independently around the same time. Crucially, Seiveking was able to give me a precise British Library reference so I could seek out the original Mowing Devil pamphlet myself.

By this time, Mary Bennett and I had discovered that one of the two differing illustrations came from the book ‘Bygone Hertfordshire’, written by one Rev. William Andrews and published in 1898. We obtained a copy of the book from an antiquarian bookseller on the Internet. The book collects together anecdotes and local historical stories from the county, and includes a reproduction of the full Mowing Devil text, together with the illustration showing the SMALL eye. If nothing else, this proved that the Mowing Devil story certainly dated back to the 19th century. One thing had been clarified at least, then - it was NOT just a modern hoax. Our immediate suspicion was that the Rev. Andrews version was the redrawn one – after all, there were no scanners or photocopiers in 1898 and redrawing was the only option available if the original printing block was not available. However, the only way to be sure was to go to the British Library to see what was held in their vaults.


v) VERIFICATION

On a sunny Monday, 11th July 2005, just days after and just yards away from some of the terrorist blasts which had shocked the nation the previous week, I set off with Helen Sewell to The British Library. Perhaps because of all the heightened security awareness, we were heavily questioned as to why we wanted to see the documents in question, but were eventually admitted to the relevant reading room. An hour or so after applying for the Mowing Devil pamphlet and one further reproduction which existed (Seiveking had informed me there was also a 1913 book of British folklore by W B Gerish which also reproduced the Mowing Devil story), the items in question were delivered into our hands.

On one level I was astonished that such an antique document was simply handed to us, unprotected and vulnerable but for being pasted into a hard-cover folder. One accident with a cup of tea and a part of history would be gone forever. But there it was in front of us – the very original Mowing Devil (Fig.3).

So will the real Mowing Devil please stand up? It is the one with the BIG eye (as we had suspected), the small-eyed version clearly being a redrawing for the Rev. Andrews book of 1898.

It was actually a profound moment to hold the REAL document in my own hands, after years of only seeing second-hand (often third-hand) repros in books and magazines. Here was a piece of cerealogical history literally come to life before me. I was struck by how beautiful and clear the print quality of the illustration was – a world away from the scrappy scans most often presented of it.

The size of the pamphlet is roughly equivalent to today’s A5 format, a simple 8-page (including the cover) folded booklet. The paper is fragile and yellowed, but generally clean, the ink lines dark and finely printed.

One thing undetectable in the usual black and white reproductions, is that the lines running across the wobbly-looking introductory text on the front cover and around the illustration itself are actually in red ink, not black like the rest. Interestingly, where the cover has been closed against the protective pages of the British Library folder, the red ink seems to have leaked onto these. As these pages were not part of the original pamphlet, this strongly suggests the red ink may at some point have been ADDED since the British Library mounted it in their folder. It’s as if the red ink must have been wet when the page was closed onto it. It certainly looks as if these red lines were later additions, and they are not very accurately rendered. Why this would have been done is an unknown.

We then decided to have a look at the other reproduction we had retrieved, the 1913 W B Gerish book. We were astonished to find that the illustration included in this was a THIRD different version (Fig. 5). Far less carefully redrawn than the Rev. Andrews one, this seems to have been thrown together as a rough idea of what the original looked like, but as it is not stated in the book that this is the case, presumably 1913 readers would have taken this as the real thing, as surely did readers of the 1898 version.

So now we know that only one Mowing Devil is the real McCoy, and that’s the 1678 pamphlet in the British library. It may be the only copy left in existence, as it is not known how many were originally printed, and no other copy has ever come to light. It will be worth a few bob if one ever does, so keep an eye on stacks of old papers in antique junk shops…

We were satisfied that we had at last verified for ourselves that the Mowing Devil did actually exist and was clearly a genuine antique document, despite its textual oddities and even if two further redrawings had blurred the truth a little since. We left the British Library feeling good that the Mowing Devil was no longer something we were just taking for granted, and that this particular piece of evidence was safely confirmed. In a way, it felt like it had become a close friend that day, instead of some distant acquaintance.


vi) THE HYBRID

But the story doesn’t quite end there. In the now sure knowledge of which was which, I was able at last to go through my many crop circle books knowing which were reproducing the original Mowing Devil and which had the imposters between their covers. But this search produced a little shock.

Mystifyingly, at least two books – and to my shame I have my name to one of those books (‘An Introduction to Crop Circles’, Wessex Books 2004) – actually contain a HYBRID version of the Mowing Devil, combining the artistic front cover text of the original, but with the 1898 Rev. Andrews illustration pasted onto it!!! (Fig.6)

How can this be? At what point did someone decide to overlay the big-eyed original, next to its real text, with the small-eyed pretender? Why would this be? Did someone at some point notice the discrepancies between the two versions and decide that the Rev. Andrews’ drawing was most likely the real one, quietly covering the original so as not to create any conflict with a different Mowing Devil previously reproduced in one of their own previous works? Or did they just think it looked nicer that way?

In such ways is history rewritten and blurred into confusion as it so often seems to be. Be it through sloppiness or deliberate twisting, such actions make relics from the past difficult puzzles to solve. If anyone out there was responsible for this strange action, we’d love to hear from you, so we can put this one to bed.

As this hybrid version of the Mowing Devil is now doing the rounds in at least two books, and on the Internet, often reproduced from one source to another without any checking (as I’m afraid the publishers of my book did), tracking down where this strange mutation first occurred is very difficult. It simply joins the general whirl of confusion around the three Mowing Devils and God knows how many other hybrids.

So beware: when something is presented to you as ‘THE Mowing Devil’, check carefully before taking this at face value. This article, at the very least, should help you spot the real one.


vii) CONCLUSIONS

There is a disturbing tendency revealed by this little investigation. We have taken the concept of the Mowing Devil so closely to our hearts, and needed the verification it brings so much, that we have forgotten to discern – or even ask questions of its origins.

We have been lucky with the Mowing Devil - with just a bit of investigation from any truly keen seeker, it is verifiably THERE, though later copies and homemade mutilations have confused things. Questions can still be raised about the pamphlet’s real purpose and what sparked its publication, but it is at least a solid piece of evidence – not proof, note, but evidence.

However, what if the Mowing Devil had not been in the British Library after all? What if it had been a plain phoney when inspected at close quarters? What if it had turned out to be a massive prank perpetrated by parties unknown for their own dubious purposes?

Anyone who saw my presentation at the 2005 Glastonbury Symposium (repeated at the Vermont conference in October) will have heard me speaking of the risk we take when we in the crop circle world over-generalise, or when curious evidence is inflated into Big Proof in our desperation to convince the world of the reality of this phenomenon we hold so dearly. Total sceptics would argue that whole cerealogical careers have been based on over-generalisation (and indeed some probably have been), but the fact is that there IS serious evidence out there that speaks of an enigma far beyond the work of human plankery to a significant proportion. We must remember, however, that we owe that evidence clear and factual reporting, discernment and checking BEFORE we go screaming it to the world.

Some get uncomfortable at having cerealogical weaknesses of reasoning scrutinised or even talked about, because it uncovers serious potential pitfalls that the world of crop circle research all too often teeters around. But generality masquerading as firm foundations won’t help us in the end. If enthusiasts don’t remain vigilant and sharp, croppiedom could get caught out at some point with flimsy and over-inflated evidence being revealed for the hot air it may be. Any supposed public credibility propped up by vague hopes but weak investigation could be destroyed at a touch, taking with it the credibility of the evidence that actually IS sound and convincing. And that would be a shame.

The moral of the story: Stay sharp. Be clear. Check. Discern. And THEN enjoy all the wonders, contemporary and historical, that this strange and beautiful phenomenon has to offer.

ANDY THOMAS

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Big thanks to Mary Bennett, Paul Seiveking, Bob Rickard and Allan Brown

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APPENDIX:

An at-a-glance guide to which version of the Mowing Devil appears in which significant crop circle book… (in alphabetical order)


AN INTRODUCTION TO CROP CIRCLES (Thomas, 2004)
- Hybrid

CIRCLES FROM THE SKY (ed. Meaden, 1991)
- 1913 version

THE CIRCLEMAKERS (Collins, 1992)
- Original

CROP CIRCLES: THE PITKIN GUIDE (Pringle, 2004)
- 1898 version (and gives incorrect date of 1687)

CROP CIRCLES: EXPLORING THE DESIGNS AND MYSTERIES (Anderhub/Roth, 2002)
- Original

THE CROP CIRCLE ENIGMA (ed. Noyes, 1990)
- Original

CROP CIRCLES: A MYSTERY SOLVED (Randles/Fuller, 1990)
- 1913 version

CROP CIRCLES: EVIDENCE OF A COVER-UP (Montigiani, 2003)
- Original

CROP CIRCLES: THE GREATEST MYSTERY OF MODERN TIMES (Pringle, 1999)
- 1898 version

THE DEEPENING COMPLEXITY OF CROP CIRCLES (Haselhoff, 2001)
- 1898 version (and gives incorrect date of 1687)

KORNKREISE: GEOMETRIE, PHANOMENE, FORSCHUNG (Muller, 2001)
- Hybrid

THE SECRET HISTORY OF CROP CIRCLES (Wilson, 1998)
- Original

VITAL SIGNS (Thomas, 1998, 2002)
- Original

The correct Mowing Devil
The correct Mowing Devil
The 1898 redrawing
The 1898 redrawing
The actual document in close-up
The actual document in close-up
The author holding the document
The author holding the document
The 1913 redrawing
The 1913 redrawing
The hybrid version
The hybrid version

 

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