“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything” – Warren Buffet
Historically, a lot of folks have tried to sell their soul to the devil. Very few have actually considered buying him. Obviously, the first problem is finding a willing broker with the goods to sell. The second problem is determining his market value. There are other conundrums such as delivery logistics, but those are probably beyond our theological ken. And since it’s the Devil we’re talking about, any commercial transaction is likely to wind up in court. This is exactly what happened in 1329 A.D. near the Isle of Axholme, Yorkshire (which was not actually an island at the time, rather some raised ground surrounded by marshland). A certain Robert de Roderham tried to buy the devil, according to the 1329 Court Rolls of the Manor of Hatfield.
The temperamental Edward III (1312-1377) was King of England and Ireland at the time, but Roger Mortimer was the de facto ruler, having conspired with Edward’s mother Isabella against his father Edward II, deposing him and putting young Edward III on the throne at the tender age of 15. By 1330, Edward had Mortimer executed as he was a bit of a prick. There was war with France, war with Scotland, and labour shortage problem caused by the Black Death. One might be excused for looking for a quick fix to life’s daily miseries. Of course, purchasing rights to the Devil is a bit on the extreme side, but after all it’s better to buy than to be sold. Robert de Roderham just needed to find a seller, which he did in the shady character of John de Ithon. John took one farthing in earnest money, and agreed to deliver the devil bound in thongs, with the balance of two additional farthings to be paid upon delivery four days later. Evidently, John of Ithon failed to deliver on his end of the bargain. Robert and John appeared before the Court of Rolls of the Manor of Hatfield, and the incident was furthermore reported in the famous 1717 Blount’s Law Dictionary Under the article “Conventio”.
Robert de Roderham appeared against John de Ithon, for that he had not kept the agreement made between them, and therefore complains, that on a certain day and year, at Thorne, there was an agreement between the aforesaid Robert and John, whereby the said John sold to the said Robert the devil, bound in a certain bond, for threepence farthing; and thereupon the said Robert delivered to the said John one farthing as earnest-money, by which the property of the said devil rested in the person of the said Robert, to have livery of the said devil on the fourth day next following, at which day the said Robert came to the aforementioned John, and asked livery of the said devil, according to the agreement between them made. But the said John refused to deliver the said devil, nor has he yet done it, to the grievous damage of the said Robert to the amount of sixty shillings; and he has therefore brought his suit (Wall, 1904, p56-57).
Suing someone in court for their failure to deliver the devil, is a bit like bringing civil suit because of the poor quality marijuana your dealer delivered to you (outside Denver and Colorado). Having been deprived of his devil and presumably suffering from head trauma, Robert had no other recourse than to appeal to the authorities. Interestingly, John admitted to the deal.
The said John came, and did not deny the said agreement; and because it appeared to the Court that such a suit ought not to subsist among Christians, the aforesaid parties are, therefore, adjourned to the infernal regions, there to hear their judgement, and both parties were amerced by William de Scargell, Seneschall.” (Dyer, 1895, p178-179).
In Medieval England a seneschal was a senior court appointment in a noble household (in this case William de Scargell of Hatfield Manor) and an amercement was a financial penalty in Medieval English law. Basically, the court fined both of these idiots for their behaviour, claiming that the court had no jurisdiction in the matter, and true judgement would be rendered by a slightly more infernal court, presumably upon their deaths. There was a certain curiosity as how Robert came to the conclusion that he was owed damages to the tune of sixty shillings.
How, not gaining possession of his Devil, the plaintiff suffered loss to the extent of sixty shillings, does not very clearly appear. Perhaps he calculated the demoniacal agency, which would be exercised on his behalf, as worth so much money. True, there seems a great disproportion between the market price of the article (threepence halfpenny) and the large amount claimed for breach of contract, although it might be urged that not many persons would be willing to accept possession at any price (Tomlinson, 1868, p76-77).
Although, to be fair, in 14th Century England “it was commonly supposed that solitary fens, and dark, noisome marshes were peculiarly the abodes of infernal spirits, that these assumed tangible forms, and could be handled, tethered, and even sold” (Tomlinson, 1868, p76-77). Still doesn’t make it a good idea, but at least the transaction was not unheard of. One important question is, once you have the devil, what are you going to do with him?
Now, let’s talk finance. One farthing was worth 1/960 of a pound sterling. The farthing was done away with in 1960, but as of 2014 rates, it would have been worth somewhere between two and seven pence (about 10 U.S. cents). You could pretty much buy a few candies for that. The claimed damages of 60 shillings are another matter. 60 shillings equals about 3 pounds (or about $1.80 U.S.). A low cost afternoon tea in London will cost you 35 pounds. The moral of the story is clearly if the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Or you’re buying an extremely defective devil. And that’s not the sort of thing you want to skimp on.
Ashton, John, 1834-. The Devil in Britain And America. London: Ward and Downey. ltd., 1896.
Blount, Thomas, 1618-1679. A Law-dictionary And Glossary: Interpreting Such Difficult And Obscure Words And Terms, As Are Found Either In Our Common Or Statute, Ancient Or Modern, Laws : With References to the Several Statutes, Records, Registers, Charters, Ancient Deeds, Manuscripts, And Law-books, Wherein the Words And Terms Are Used. 3rd ed. / [London] in the Savoy: Printed by E. Nutt, and R. Gosling for D. Browne, J. Walthoe [etc.], 1717.
Dyer, T. F. Thiselton b. 1848. Strange Pages From Family Papers. London: Sampson Low, Marston Co., 1895.
Ross, William Stewart, 1844-1906. The Bottomless Pit: A Discursive Treatise On Eternal Torment. London: W. Stewart, 1890.
Tomlinson, John, 1824-ca. 1890. Stories And Sketches Relating to Yorkshire. London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1868.
Wall, J. Charles. Devils. London: Methuen & co, 1904.
35 pounds for a cuppa and a biscuit – now that’s evil.