Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: devil


A Halloween ghost story, from a pamphlet I came across on EEBO a while ago.

The year is 1645. Our protagonist is Paul Fox, a silk-weaver, who lived in Plaistow in the parish of West Ham, about four miles from London. He’s a man of “honest life and conversation”, with a wife, children and servants.

His troubles started when a sword hung in one of his rooms:

came flourishing about the roome, flying up and downe, no hand touching of it, nor any thing but the Sword possibly appearing.

Fox grabbed hold of it and, struggling to keep it in his hand, ran with it into the next room and put it down on a bench. Then he went back into the original room and locked the door, only for the sword to reappear there with no obvious sign of how it had got through the door.

This incident proved the start of a great deal of poltergeist activity. A walking stick hopped from the kitchen up the stairs, and danced around a table on which the sword lay for nearly ten minutes. Another evening, Fox was disturbed by a loud knocking on the door. Asking who it was, a soft hollow voice announced that it was a spirit, who wanted to live in the house. Fox bravely replied that:

He thought it to be an evill Spirit nd that he had nothing to doe there, wishing it to returne to Hell Gates, where hee thought he might have entrance without knocking.

Another day, when Fox, his sons and his servants were hard at work, objects like tiles, brickbats, oyster shells and pieces of bread started whirling round the room breaking all the glass in the windows. A great stone, “of about halfe a hundred weight”, lifted itself up from the yard and tumbled up the stairs. Fox’s wife was disturbed while making porridge: the porridge suddenly forced itself out of the pot and sprayed itself around the room.

Hundreds of people came to watch the strange events in Fox’s house. Some gentry even gave Fox money in return for seeing the strange sights. Fox put the money in a handkerchief, only for the money to fly out into the middle of the room. Only Fox’s collection of godly books escaped unscathed. When the spirit tried to scatter Fox’s book collection, other papers and books fell victim to the poltergeist, but the Bible and Fox’s other religious tracts were left untouched.

Many “Ministers, Gentlemen & great Scholers” were called to try to account for the wondrous events in Fox’s house, but none was able to. As the writer relating Fox’s tale concluded:

That which is manifest appertaineth to us, and our children, but hidden things belong unto God.

But the author also notes in closing other events in Essex: the Assizes which had reslted in many witches being condemned and executed. Were Fox’s misfortunes the result of “wicked persons”, in “confederacy with the Devill”, setting out to “make spoyle and havock of their neighbours goods”? Or is it as the author concludes:

There cannot any solid reason be given from where [these events] exceed.

My illustration is of a child levitating and is a woodcut from the frontispiece of Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus (1681).

1. Anonymous, Strange and fearfull newes from Plaisto (London, 1645).

The Mowing-Devil

The Mowing-Devil is a quarto pamphlet printed in 1678.1 It tells the story of a farmer whose field of oats was destroyed by the devil, after the farmer rejected the price asked by a mower and said that the devil could mow it instead.

The pamphlet is often prayed in aid by crop circle enthusiasts as an example of crop circles being a pre-modern phenomenon. The Wikipedia article on the pamphlet puts this forward as a possibility, as do a number of crop circle websites. One, Swirled News, has carried out lengthy research into the provenance of the pamphlet, examining a copy in the British Library and discovering that there are a number of subtly different modern recreations of the woodcut illustration. At a quick glance it certainly does bear a resemblance to a crop circle – it looks like there are concentric rings of crops being pressed down by the devil.

However, the crop circle enthusiasts don’t really talk about the text of the pamphlet itself. A closer look makes the crop circle theory seem less likely. There is no mention in the text of patterns or concentric circles in the oats. The pamphlet goes on to say that after the farmer had abused the mower, his field was observed to be on fire during the night. The next morning, the field was:

totally devour’d by those ravenous Flames which were observ’d to be so long resident on his Acre and a half of Ground.

Below is a close-up of the woodcut on the pamphlet’s title page.

A close look shows what actually appears to be flames either side of the oats. Although the devil is cutting the oats down with a scythe, I’m fairly confident this is a representation of the diabolical flames consuming the field, rather than the devil cutting patterns into it. The pamphlet does then claim that the next morning, the oats were perfectly mown, and it’s possible that this may have been the way they were destroyed – but I suspect fire is the more likely explanation.

A close reading of the text reveals at least two rather different contexts that would have made much more sense to contemporary readers than speculation about crop circles. One is religious. The pamphlet starts with a proof of God: if devils exist, then there must be a Hell in which they live. If there is a Hell, there must be a Heaven, and hence there must be a God. The way in which the pamphlet deploys imagery of the devil can tell us something about its intended readership. Its imagery owes much to late medieval conceptions of the devil, in which he (or occasionally she) could appear as a physical being. This often presented the devil in a humorous or socially-inverted context. He appeared in medieval “merry tales” and mystery plays, often in a sexual or scatological context. Such images would have been recognisable by those at all levels of society during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.2 By the mid-seventeenth century, however, this late medieval conception of the devil was being challenged. Godly puritanism emphasised the power of the devil, putting the struggle with him at the centre of spiritual life. However, this challenge was not entirely successful – medieval conceptions of the devil continued to live on amongst much of the population of England.3 So this pamphlet would have had more appeal to those in rural communities who remained attached to the rhythms of the old church, who had turned against puritan tendencies.

The second context is a classed one. The pamphlet is fairly explicit in its representation of the power relationships between the farmer and the mower. The farmer is a “rich, industrious farmer”. The mower is a “poor Neighbour”, who:

endeavour’d to sell the Sweat of his Brows and Marrow of his Bones as at dear a Rate as reasonably he might.

But the farmer won’t give him a fair price for his labour. After some sharp words, the “honest Mower” runs back and offers to do the work at a much lower price than he’d ever offered to anyone else. But the farmer is having none of it, and makes his quip that the devil will mow the field before the mower does.

The farmer here – at least as far as the pamphlet’s author is concerned – stands guilty of breaking the moral economy of their rural community.4 The mower has offered a fair price within a framework of what is acceptable, and even offers to do the work at a loss. But the farmer rejects this, and by stepping outside the moral economy pays the price. It seems likely that the fire in the field was caused not by the devil, but by the mower or at least by friends or family members within his community. Again, this context would have been instantly recognisable to contemporary readers – a cautionary tale, perhaps, for middling sort landowners, and a comforting assertion of traditional values of fair play for rural wage labourers. Only a minority of this latter group might have been able to read the pamphlet, but all would have been able to see the illustration, and discuss it or have it read to them by those who could read.

In short, The Mowing-Devil is probably not the representation of an early crop-circle that enthusiasts want it to be. In focusing on the woodcut, they’ve missed a much more interesting side to the text that tells us something about late seventeenth-century popular politics and religion.

1. Anonymous, The Mowing-devil, 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… (London?, 1678), Wing / M2996.
2. Darren Oldridge, The Devil in Early Modern England (Sutton: Stroud, 2000), pp. 16-23.
3. Oldridge, The Devil in Early Modern England, pp. 58-89; Nathaniel Johnston, The Devil and Demonism in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2006), pp. 1-8.
4. E.P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century”, Past & Present, 50 (1971), pp. 76-136.