The Hertfordshire Mowing Devil
Long ago, during the 17th century, a strange event took place in Hertfordshire. A farmer had a field of oats ready to be harvested and, as remained the custom until relatively recently, he was looking to hire a freelance mower to carry out the procedure.
Mowing was a skilled job, and the mower our farmer attempted to hire clearly had a high opinion of his own worth. He asked for more money than the farmer had ever paid to a mower.
The farmer was outraged. Even though he desperately needed his oats harvested, he wasn’t going to pay that kind of money, and he sent the mower on his way with the parting shot: “The devil shall mow it rather than thee.”
That night, strange light were seen over the field, as if the whole crop were on fire. The farmer didn’t dare go to investigate till the morning, when he found not a burnt field, but the oats harvested and neatly stacked. It seemed Old Nick had taken him at his words and obliged – but the farmer didn’t dare to move or sell a crop the Devil had harvested.
That’s a true story – well, according to a pamphlet published in 1678, that is. “The Mowing-Devil: Or, Strange News out of Hartford-shire” told the tale, with a title page bearing a woodcut illustration of the Devil, complete with horns, at work with a scythe amid concentric circles of grain.
The pamphlet set out to illustrate the dangers of summoning the Devil. We’re not told where in the county this was supposed to have taken place, nor the name of the farmer – presumably because the story was invented, maybe by someone who wasn’t even familiar with Hertfordshire.
Still, it provides an engaging legend for the county – not to mention the intended warning against careless talk.