Nobody is truly certain where and when the very first crop circle was discovered. Whatever locations and dates one may choose to place on a starting point is relative to an individual’s perception as to what constitutes evidence of a truly distinct phenomenon. For example, during the latter half of the 1930s Sussex Archaeological Society published an account by Eliot Cecil Curwen which told of ‘curious circles … see[n] in a field of barley’ from Bow Hill, near Stoughton, during 1932. An accompanying photograph shows a distinct ring in a nearby field, of which Curwen wrote ‘When viewed on the ground only this south-eastern ring could be located, and this was found to consist of a circle in which the barley was ‘lodged’ [crop damage typically attributed to wind or rain] or beaten down, while the interior area was very slightly mounded up.’ Crop circle historian Terry Wilson has seen fit to include this report in his book The Secret History of Crop Circles, yet there are those croppies who would remain troubled by the invisibility of the other circles at ground level. They would perhaps suggest the circles were cropmarks, long buried enclosures, ditches and other archaeological remains which, according to Historic England ‘can affect the rate of growth of crops planted above them’. In the case of the visible ring, it could be argued that a reduced depth of soil above the remains of a circular archaeological feature hampered the stability of the barley, making its individual stems more likely to buckle under unpleasant weather conditions.
An equally divisive case focuses the mind on the worth of witness testimony that comes without supporting pictorial evidence. In 1992 cerealogist Colin Andrews published details of a previously unknown circle ‘about 60 feet / 18.28 metres diameter … flattened to the ground and spiralled’ in a field adjacent to what is now the Three Maids Hill roundabout north of Winchester in Hampshire. This case is far from unusual for the time, but it stands out as having occurred during the summer of 1975. This date is key as in the early autumn of 1991 the now defunct TODAY newspaper embraced the assertion of two Hampshire men, Douglas Bower and David Chorley, that they had instigated the crop circle phenomenon in 1978, making approximately 200 circles across a thirteen year period. How can this account for the Three Maids Hill crop circle given the three year discrepancy between its appearance and the date provided by Bower and Chorley? Through a footnote in Jim Schnabel’s book Round In Circles, Chorley would subsequently revise his start date to a possible though unconfirmed 1975. Does one accept Bower and Chorley as having been mistaken whilst giving testimony to TODAY journalist Graham Brough, or was this a retrospective attempt to patch over a glaring error? Another reading would suggest Ian Stevens may have been confused as to the date of this particular circle. Without concrete evidence, or in situations where it is challenging to differentiate between the veracity of individual sources, it should be no surprise that the truth can be frustratingly elusive.
Further laden with the puzzles that haunt the crop circle historian, there are two cases which are continually recycled as a means for grounding the crop circle phenomenon in antiquity. The first, from 1590 is told in French witch inquisitor Nicolas Remy’s 1595 text Daemonolatreia (translated by E. A. Ashwin as Demonolatry):
As Nicolette Lang-Bernhard was returning from the old mill of Guermingen to Assenoncour [in present day Lorraine] on the 25th July, 1590, and was going along a forest path at high noon, she saw in a field near by a band of men and women dancing round in a ring. But because they were doing so in a manner contrary to the usual practice, with their backs turned towards each other, she looked more closely and saw also dancing around with the others some whose feet were deformed and like those of goats or oxen … incontrovertible proof of the truth of this occurrence was the fact that the place where this dancing had been enacted was found, on the day after the matter was reported by Nicolette, trodden into a ring such as is found in a circus where horses run round in a circle; and among the other tracks were the recent marks of the hoofs of goats and oxen. And these marks remained visible until the field was ploughed up in the following winter.
That we should consider this account as one of an early crop circle is spurious. It is taken as read that modern crop circles appear almost exclusively overnight, whereas Lang-Bernhard’s occurrence took place in the day. Furthermore, footprints within contemporary circles are considered a sign of hoaxing. This did not prevent the tale from making its way into various publications during the late 1980s and early 1990s, albeit pulled from a retelling by naturalist Robert Plot in his 1686 book The Natural History of Staffordshire.
If there is anything of genuine interest to be taken by the croppie from the Lang-Bernhard episode, it is the link between circles and rings etched into plants with the rites of witches and their supernatural associates. The aforementioned Oxfordian academic Robert Plot enquired ‘into the nature and efficient cause of those Rings we find in the grass, which they [common people] call Fairy circles’. He considered whether these markings were the ‘Rendezvous of Witches, or the dancing places of those little pygmy Spirits they call Elves or Fairys?’ Although Plot concluded that ‘larger circles’ (some of which may pass through hedges and ditches) could be the product of lightning strikes, he acknowledged the diabolical creatures witches who ‘do sometimes leave the lively marks of their dancings’ behind. Whilst this may sound ludicrous to the modern observer, the 17th century was a time in which belief in the paranomal was widespread and accepted. ‘Divells many times appear to men,’ stated Robert Burton in his The Anatomy of Melancholy, ‘and afright them out of their wits sometimes walking at noone day, sometimes at nights, counter-feiting dead mens ghosts’.
Demonic forces are central to the second legend that is repeatedly championed as proof of the crop circles’ historical presence: the infamous case of The Mowing Devil. This story takes its title from a quarto (eight page) woodcut pamphlet from 1678.
Details of the pamphlet seem to have entered the cerealogical domain from two different sources in 1989. One was historian Betty Puttick who alerted ufologist Jenny Randles to The Mowing Devil case, having edited, in 1970, a book called Hertfordshire Folk Lore. This publication drew heavily from the work of late folklorist W B Gerish who had himself republished the original Mowing Devil pamphlet in 1913. The second source was Bob Skinner, a writer for Fortean Times magazine. Whilst browsing second hand books at a Surrey market he discovered an extract from the Mowing Devil in a book entitled Bygone Hertfordshire by the Reverend William Andrews from 1898. In turn, Skinner alerted cerealogists including Jenny Randles; Colin Andrews and his colleague Pat Delgado; Centre for Crop Circles Studies founding member Ralph Noyes and Fortean Times editor Bob Rickard. (In an article for Swirled News, Andy Thomas claims that Rickard and his Fortean Times co-editor of the time, Paul Sieveking, both unearthed the pamphlet through the records department of the British Library in 1990. In 2006 correspondence to Swirled News, Rickard clarified the date as 1989.)
As for the contents of The Mowing Devil pamphlet, it is easy to see how its cover immediately caught the attention of the cerealogists. The illustration features a dark, horned entity busy scything down crops. Those plants the devil has already cut have fallen in an anti-clockwise direction into the shape of an oval.
The full text of The Mowing Devil is reproduced below, but its basic story is told within the opening paragraph. A farmer attempts to bargain what he believes to be a fair price with a poor neighbour to scythe his oat crop. The neighbour demands too high a payment, so the farmer curses that he would rather employ a devil to complete the task. Overnight the crop is seen as if it is ablaze, but during the following day it is found to be cut so tidily as beyond human capability. As a consequence the farmer is afraid to bring in his crop, so it remains in the field and presumably begins to rot.
OR, STRANGE NEWS OUT OF HARTFORD-SHIRE
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.
The two immediate problems with linking the Mowing Devil to the circles phenomenon are obvious. First, crop circles have been produced under the noses of cropwatchers, yet the fields in which they manifest do not appear to be on fire. Second, the plants in crop circles are flattened rather than cut. Even Colin Andrews (a cerealogist who has been open to far-fetched ideas) noted this, adding ‘You would have expected to find different terms used by persons having inspected at close hand plants laid down in the manner in which we find them today.’ Indeed, cutting and flattening are two entirely different processes.
Nonetheless, these issues did not prevent cerealogist Pat Delgado from accepting the case as an early report of a crop circle. ‘Whatever would the poor landowner have gone through in his head on seeing the circle,’ Delgado pondered, ‘Probably much the same as I did when I saw those three [circles at Cheesefoot Head] for the first time in 1981. The only difference is, that which I related them to, and that which he related them to — this would be totally controlled by the technical knowledge of our [respective] time[s].’
So, if we are to be more sceptical than the late Pat Delgado, what can we make of The Mowing Devil? Various explanations have been offered. Bob Rickard set the story in the context of other publications from the time, noting a theme in which wealthy individuals of dubious character befall divine retribution on behalf of the poor. This is close to the opinion of Rob Irving in The Field Guide. He writes that the ‘tale is consistent with a particular form of propaganda that was disseminated during the time of the Civil War, the following interregnum and into the period of Restoration.’
Irving also notes the research of academic Emily Oster that shows a possible correlation exists between witch-trial hysteria and cooling of the global climate during the ‘Little Ice Age’ of 1645-1715. Her reasoning suggests the resulting crop failures of this period caused financial hardship. In turn, populations would be quick to point the finger of blame at those who invoked or were seen to be deliberately using supernatural powers to ruin crops. However, as a reader of The Mowing Devil, one is unaware of any wider societal retribution that landed upon the farmer in this particular case.
From 1678 there is a 102 year gap in the evidence for any kind of historical circles phenomenon. One emerges in the 29 July 1880 edition of Nature journal and correspondence from John Rand Capron of Guildford, Surrey.
The storms about this part of Surrey have been lately local and violent, and the effects produced in some instances curious. Visiting a neighbour’s farm on Wednesday evening (21st), we found a field of standing wheat considerably knocked about, not as an entirety, but in patches forming, as viewed from a distance, circular spots.
Examined more closely, they all presented much the same character, viz., a few standing stalks as a centre, some 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 testimony – that which he considers to be proof on no more than wind and rain damage (lodging) upon crops, note the reference to ‘violent’ storms – was uncovered by cerealogist Terence Meaden in 2000. Its appearance is symptomatic of a trend that began in the late 1980s whereby heightened awareness of the modern circles phenomenon influenced members of the public to draw parallels to approximate events from the past. For example, in 1990 a Jean Songhurst told the Centre for Crop Circle Studies’ Ralph Noyes of having seen circles in grain fields in County Donegal, Ireland, circa 1930. She also stated that during the 1890s her uncle came across similar markings close to Thurso, Scotland. Next, A Mrs C L Dutton alerted the Bristol Evening Post in 1990 to her personal recollections of the circles that appeared sporadically at Maiden Bradley, Wiltshire, between 1914 and 1956. ‘My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were all in farming and we knew of these circles from generation to generation,’ she explained. ‘I saw them several times in my youth and they were accepted as perfectly natural’, being the product of whirlwinds. Pages could be filled with additional examples of such oddities, but each case is of questionable value without supporting evidence.
During 2013, Tasmanian historian Greg Jeffreys claimed to possess photographic evidence of crop circles within the fields of England during the final year of World War II. Jeffrey’s source was an overlay available on Google Earth, pieced together using aerial images captured by the Royal Air Force in 1945. According to Jeffreys, ‘the number of circular features than can be reasonably confirmed as crop circles that have so far been found in the survey … numbers about one dozen. As this survey did not include more than 35% of England and excluded the known crop circle ‘hot spots’ around Wiltshire the findings are consistent with an annual occurrence of around 100 crop circles’. Unfortunately, the images provided by Jeffreys offer no more than a tantalising snapshot of ground markings devoid of context as to their surroundings or origins. One example concerns the circle flattened into unidentified plants on Bromsgrove Road, just south of the Midlands town of Halesowen. The circle sits close to both the roadside and the old Bluebird confectionery factory on the south-western corner of its field. In isolation, the circle seems impressive. However, could this circle have been the impression of a large circular trough or other piece of farming equipment to have been stored here previous to the photograph’s capture? A more certain example of knowledge addressing one of Jeffreys’ mystery rings are those found in Tatton Park, Cheshire. Between 1940 and 1946 the site was used for parachute training by the RAF’s No.1 Parachute Training School. Trainees would ascend in a cage attached to a barrage balloon before jumping down onto one of the dedicated landing areas.
Jeffreys has claimed that the circles on the 1945 overlay cannot have been made by the craft of human ‘hoaxers’. It is unclear how he reaches this conclusion. Even if one assumes he is correct this does not prove the circles were made by a mysterious force of sorts, whether sentient or meteorological. Once again, we come back to the inherent problem of uncertainty when examining evidence of historical crop circles. Perhaps, though, this has been an inherent part of the longevity of the phenomenon. So much is shrouded in mystery and uncertainty that these grey areas allow rumour and conjecture to grow. It was in such an place, one occupied by the liminal subject of ufology, that the seeds of the contemporary circles phenomenon would begin to grow…