Hellish bureaucracy in man giving soul to devil for woman’s love

Some men are willing to give their souls to the devil in exchange for women’s love. They don’t think there’s any harm in doing that. They don’t understand Hellish bureaucracy. Studying medieval literature can help to save such foolish men.

According to the medieval Towneley Plays, when Jesus descended into Hell to save virtuous souls imprisoned there, Isaiah, Simeon, John the Baptist, and Moses cried out with joy. Horrified, the demon Ribald exclaimed:

Since Hell was first made
and I was put in there,
never before had I such sorrow,
nor heard such din.
My heart begins to beat quickly.
My wit grows thin.
I fear that we cannot be glad
that these souls must depart from us.

{ Sen fyrst that hell was mayde
And I was put therin,
Sich sorow never ere I had,
Nor hard I sich a dyn.
My hart begynnys to brade,
My wytt waxys thyn;
I drede we cannot be glad,
Thise saules mon fro us twyn. }[1]

Ribald explained to his fellow demon Beelzubub:

They cry out to Christ, holding firmly to him,
and say that he shall save them.

{ They cry on Crist full fast,
And says he shall theym save. }

Beelzebub, an old bureaucrat in Hell, wasn’t about to allow any changes in this place:

Yes, though he won’t save them, I will,
for they are locked in a special space.
While I am prince and principal of Hell,
they shall never pass out of this place.
Call up Astharoth and Anabaal,
to give us counsel in this case, and
Baalberith and Belial,
to stop those that are making such mischief.
Call to Sir Satan, our lord,
and ask him to bring also
Sir Lucifer, lovely of face.

{ Yee, though he do not, I shall,
For they ar sparyd in specyall space;
Whils I am prynce and pryncypall
They shall never pas out of this place.
Call up Astarot and Anaball
To gyf us counsell in this case,
Bell-berith and Bellyall
To mar theym that sich mastry mase.
Say to Sir Satan, oure syre,
And byd hym bryng also
Sir Lucyfer, lufly of lyre. }

Despite this call for a large meeting of Hell’s personnel, Hell wasn’t able to withstand Christ. He broke down the gates of Hell, gathered to himself all the worthy souls there, and brought them to Heaven. Hellish bureaucracy didn’t prevail against the love of Christ.

Do not be deceived: Hellish bureaucracy still exists. Consider the paperwork involved in Proterius’s servant giving his soul to the devil to gain Proterius’s daughter’s love. First this servant went to a “sorcerer {maleficus}”:

From that one
he received on paper a wicked report
to be delivered to a demon.
The sorcerer commanded him that
in darkest night over a pagan
tomb he recite it.

{ A quo praui
suscepta scedula
deferenda demoni
iussit eam
nocte ceca supra gentilem
recitare tumbam. }[2]

Recognizing bureaucratic authority, the servant followed this procedure. The report that the servant recited wasn’t talismanic arcana. It was text of typical bureaucratic subservience in a turf battle:

My lord and superintendent, in that it is indeed my duty to hasten the dragging away of persons from the Christian religion and lead them to your will, so as to increase your share of the population, I am sending you this one, who bears my present text. He is burning with desire for a young woman. I beg you to make this action happen for him, so that in this I would glory, and with much joy I would gather your devotees.

{ Quamquidem mi domine et procurator oportet festinare me a christianorum religione abstrahere et tuae adducere uoluntati, ut multiplicetur pars tua misi tibi hunc, qui praesentes meas defert litteras, cupiditate in puellam exarsum. Et postulo eum actionem istam consequi, ut et in isto glorier et cum multa alacritate congregem placitores tuos. }[3]

When the love-stricken servant recited this boilerplate, a troop of demons appeared. The demons in turn took the servant to their manager, “the chief of depravity {princeps prauitatis}.”

The meeting with the chief of depravity began as bureaucratic meetings typically do. The subordinate conveyed the report to the chief and provided a preliminary briefing:

To the chief was given
the text of the odious business
sent by the sorcerer
and likewise
was explained the cause of the visit
and the love’s frenzy.

{ Cui inuisi
datis commercii literis
a malefico missis,
item sui
causa aduentus expositis
amorisque furiis }[4]

Of course the chief was busy and pressed for time. He focused immediately on his primary interest:

At once discussion turned
to repudiation of Christian faith
and Christian baptism.

{ protinus fit discussio
de fidei Christi
ac baptismi repudio }

Under bureaucracy, what one says and does matters far less than what written documents document. The chief of depravity conducted a reverse baptism that recognized the importance of written documentation:

The devil-chief said to the wretched one: “Do you believe in me?” The man declared, “I believe in you.” “And do you deny your Christ?” The man responded, “I renounce him.” The devil then said to him: “You Christians are perfidious. When you have work for me, you come to me. When you attain your desire, you deny me and return to your Christ. He is kind and most merciful, and he receives you. But make for me a voluntary, hand-written renunciation of your Christ and your baptism. Write that you are mine forever by voluntary profession, and that you will be with me on the day of judgment and delighting in the everlasting torment prepared for me. Then I will fulfill your desire.”

{ dixit ad miserum: “Credis in me?” Qui ait: “Credo.” “Et negas Christum tuum?” Qui respondit: “Abnego.” Dicit ei diabolus: “Perfidi estis uos Christiani, et quandoquidem opus mei habetis uenitis ad me, quandoquidem consequimini desiderium uestrum, negatis me et acceditis ad Christum uestrum qui est benignus ac clementissumus et suscipe uos. Sed fac mihi manuscriptam Christi tui et baptismatis abrenuntiationem uoluntariam, et quae in me est in saecula uoluntaria professione, et quia mecum sis in die iudiciii condelectans mihi in praeparatis aeternis tormentis et ego statim desiderium tuum adimpleo.” }[5]

No bureaucratic procedure occurs without required documentation. The man promptly produced the required documentation and thus established his pact with the devil.

With sorcerer Cyprian's help, Aglaidas makes pact with devil in attempt to win the love of Justina

In accordance with that duly documented pact, the devil sent demons to Proterius’s daughter. They made her burn with sexual desire for her father’s servant. That’s not intrinsically demonic work. In medieval Europe, women by their own natural volition typically loved men passionately. Women often sought to marry men whom they ardently loved. After rejecting her father’s objections, Proterius’s daughter married the servant and fulfilled her sexual desire for him. That used to be a normal part of marriage.

Others soon noticed that the husband wasn’t attending church and wasn’t receiving the holy sacraments. They told his wife. She was grief-stricken to learn that her husband was no longer a Christian. He tried to comfort her by claiming he was still a Christian. She told him to prove it by coming with her to church the next day and receiving communion in her presence. He knew he couldn’t do that. “Hence he was forced to tell her the significance of his pact {tunc coactus dixit ei sententiam capituli}.” A husband who makes a pact with the devil shouldn’t foolishly believe that he can conceal such a secret from his wife.[6]

A strong, independent woman, the wife immediately sought to save her husband and herself. She ran to the pastor and disciple of Christ Basil and cried out against the impiety:

Have mercy on me, have mercy, holy one of God, have mercy, disciple of my Lord. I have gone to the side of demons. Have mercy on me, a wretched one, who did not obey her own father.

{ Miserere mihi, miserere sancte Dei, miserere mei discipule Domini, que cuae cum daemonibus causam egi. Miserere mihi miserae, proprium patrem non obaudiente. }

Even in medieval Europe, daughters tended to respect their fathers only in retrospect. After Basil had listened to the woman’s account of what her husband had done, he summoned her husband. He confessed the truth of what his wife had said. He wanted to return to Christ, but he said that he was unable because “I renounced Christ in writing, and professed the devil {scripto abnegaui Christum, et professum diablo}.” This man, who perhaps had prior work experience in a bureaucracy, knew the significance of submitting forms.

Saint Basil reading document

Basil, however, explained that God is kind, accepts the penitent, and has compassion for our sins. The wife threw herself at Basil feet and cried out, “Disciple of Christ Our God, help us as much as you can {discipule Christi Dei nostri, quantum potes adiuua nos}!” The devil originally made this woman burn with sexual desire for her father’s servant. She evidently came to love him with true Christian love as her husband.

As is typically the case with bureaucracy, the battle for the man’s soul was a battle over a document. The man prayed in a solitary cell for forty days while seeing and hearing demons taunting him with the document. Then Basil led him at dawn to a church filled with a congregation that had been praying for him all night. The devil, attempting to pull the man away, declared:

He has renounced Christ and is professed to me. Look, I have the document! On the day of judgment I will lead him to the universal judge.

{ Abnegauit Christum et professus est mihi. Et ecce manuscriptum habeo et in die iudicci ad communem iudicem eum duco. }

The holy Basil responded:

Blessed is the Lord my God! These people will not deflect their hands from praying to the heights of Heaven until you return the document.

{ Benedictus Dominus Deus meus, non deflectet populus iste manus de altitudine caeli, donec reddas manuscriptum. }

Basil turned to the people and asked them to cry out to the Lord for mercy. The people went beyond the fine print to the heart of the matter:

With the people standing many hours extending their hands in prayer to Heaven, the young man’s document floated down through the air. In the sight of all it came and was placed in the hands of our venerable father and pastor. So receiving it and giving thanks to God, he was made very happy. Openly for all the people to hear, he said to the young man: “Brother, do you recognize this text?” The young man replied to him, “Yes, holy one of God, that is my document.” Ripping up the document, the holy Basil conducted the young man into the church.

{ stante populo in horam multam extensas in caelum manus et ecce manuscripta pueri per aerem delata et ab omnibus uisa uenit et imposita est manibus memorabilis nostri patris et pastoris. Suscipiens autem eas et gratias agens Deo gauisus factus est ualde, et coram omni populo dixit ad puerum: “Cognoscis literas has frater?” Qui aid ad eum: “Etiam sancte Dei, manuscripta mea est.” Et disrumpens manuscriptam, Basilius sanctus perduxit eum ad ecclesiam }

Proterius’s daughter and his servant then lived as a holy married couple. Her sexual desire for him continued and was not at all diabolic, but holy and pleasing to God.

In making a pact with the devil for a woman’s love, Proterius’s servant encountered Hellish bureaucracy. That’s not merely the fanciful imagining of a medieval author writing perhaps in the context of Byzantine bureaucracy.[7] Writing itself developed for bureaucratic accounting roughly five thousand years ago. Scribes over time gained enough authority to rank with Pharisees in the Christian gospels. Today many persons who deny the existence of God recognize from personal experience the reality of Hellish bureaucracy.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Towneley Plays, 22, The Harrowing of Hell, beginning “Here begins the deliverance of souls etc. {Incipit extraccio animarum etc.},” vv. 89-96, Middle English text from Epp (2018), my English modernization. The subsequent two quotes above are similarly sourced from The Harrowing of Hell, vv. 107-8 (They cry out to Christ…) and 109-19 (Yes, though he won’t save them…). The Towneley Plays probably were composed in fourteenth-century northern England.

The name Beelzebub, used in 2 Kings 1:2–3, 6, 16 and Matthew 12:24, comes from the Canaanite god Baal {lord} and Baal-zebul {prince-god}. The contemptuous variant Beelzebub probably means “lord of the flies.” Lucifer {shining one} is associated with Venus. That probably accounts for the epithet “lovely of face.” Lucifer became a name for Satan in Christianity.

[2] Cambridge Songs {Carmina cantabrigiensia} 30A, “Whoever has been besieged of old {Quisquis dolosis antiqui},” vv. 2a.1-7, Latin text (editorial marks elided) and English translation (modified) from Ziolkowski (1994). Subsequent quotes from this sequence are similarly sourced.

The sequence begins by describing the general moral worth of its exemplum:

Whoever has been besieged
by the deceitful treacheries
of the ancient enemy
and has rashly entered
the profundity of great
may he be admonished
by the following exemplum,
that he should not in sorrow utterly despair,
but should trust in the Lord,
and hope to be able to be freed
from Hell,
even if dead, if he repents.

{ Quisquis dolosis antiqui
circumuentus fraudibus
profunditatem magnorum
incautus incurrerit
hoc sequenti commonitus
exemplo sit,
merens ne desperet penitus,
sed confisus in Domino
liberari posse speret
uel mortuum, si penitet,
ex inferno. }

“Quisquis dolosis antiqui,” stanza 1a. The first two stanzas of this sequence, which survives only in Carmina cantabrigiensia, are neumed. That suggests that it was recited with music.

This sequence is based on chapter 11 of the pseudo-Amphilochian life of Basil. This Basil, more specifically Basil of Caesarea, also known as Saint Basil the Great, lived from 330 to 379. While Basil was a very important early Christian church leader for whom a large corpus of written works has survived, he didn’t lead a sensational life:

The historical Basil performs no spectacular miracles, is involved in no supernatural interventions, accomplishes no mind-boggling feats. In brief, he seems to have been almost devoid of those marks by which a saint was {sensationally} known, and this, incidentally, may in a large measure explain the Constantinopolitans’ lack of enthusiasm for his cult.

Whortley (1980) pp. 218-9. The Bollandist Francis Baert in 1698 composed a historical-critical life of Basil and argued convincingly against the authenticity of the purported Amphilochian life of Basil. Id. p. 218.

The pseudo-Amphilochian life of Basil was written in Greek, probably some time from the seventh century to the early ninth century. It consists of an infancy story, various largely unrelated hagiographic stories, and a death story. Most of it has little relation to the actual life of Basil.

Latin translations of the pseudo-Amphilochian life of Basil have survived in numerous copies. A Latin translation by an otherwise unknown priest Ursus, who worked in the Naples court of Gregory II, is denoted BHL 1024. Patrologia Latina 73.293-312A is an edition of BHL 1024 based on one manuscript: Monte Cassino, Archivio e Biblioteca della Badio, 139. Corona (2006) pp. 24-5. By the first quarter of the thirteenth century, the pseudo-Amphilochian life of Basil had reached Iceland. Jorgensen (2015) p. 57.

The earliest Latin translation of the pseudo-Amphilochian life of Basil, a translation identified as BHL 1023, was made by an otherwise unknown Euphemius in the ninth century no later than 843 in a monastic center north of the Alps. Corona (2006) Ch. 1, especially p. 25. At least thirteen manuscripts of BHL 1023 have survived from the ninth to the twelfth century. Jorgensen (2015) pp. 59-60.

As Corona documented, the only previous, complete printed edition of BHL 1023 is that of Laurentius Surius (1570-5). Surius’s edition is unreliable in textual detail. Corona’s edition is based on three manuscripts of English origin dated no later than circa 1100. Those manuscripts are: E = Exeter, Cathedral Library, FMS/3 (small fragments written early in the tenth century); N = London, British Library, Cotton Mero E.i, part 1 (written in the fourth quarter of the eleventh century); and S = Salisbury, Cathedral Library, 221 (written toward the end of the eleventh century). In addition to a Latin edition of BHL 1023, Corona (2006) also provides an edition and a modern English translation of Aelfric’s Old English translation of BHL 1023.

[3] BHL 1023 (earliest known Latin translation of the pseudo-Amphilochian life of Basil), chapter 11, “About the denial of Christ in writing {De negante christum scripto},” Latin text from Corona (2006), my English translation. Subsequent quotes from “De negante christum scripto” are similarly sourced.

In Latin translations of the pseudo-Amphilochian life of Basil, the story of Proterius’s daughter is variously titled “About the denial of Christ in writing {De negante christum scripto}” and “About the young man who denied Christ {De iuvene qui Christum negaverat}.” This story also circulated independently. In the ninth century, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim versified it to form her story known as Basil {Basilius}. “De negante christum scripto” was incorporated into The Golden Legend {Legenda aurea} and The Great Mirror of Bishops, Canons, Priests and other Clerics {Speculum magnum episcoporum, canonicorum, sacerdotum et aliorum clericorum}. It became one of the most widely circulated stories in Slavonic literature. It spawned three Slavonic adaptations: “The Tale of Eladie {Повесть о Еладии},”Word and Narration about a Certain Merchant {Слово и сказание о некоем купце},” and “The Tale of Savva Grudcyn {Повесть о Савве Грудцыне}.” Cleminson (1991) p. 3. Here’s an English translation of the story, probably from a Greek life of Basil.

[4] Carmina cantabrigiensia 30A, “Quisquis dolosis antiqui,” vv. 2b.1-7. The subsequent quote above is similarly from id., vv. 2b.8-10.

[5] BHL 1023. Subsequent quotes above are also from BHL 1023.

[6] A person making a pact with the devil has come to be known as the Faustus motif after Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1592). The story of Proterius’s daughter is an important early medieval example of this motif. The Greek legend of Theophilus attributed to Eutychianus (BHG 1320) is another early example of the Faustus motif. Paul, deacon of Naples, translated the legend of Theophilus into Latin in the ninth century. Shortly thereafter, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim produced a verse version and Aelfric of Eynsham included the legend in his first homily on the Assumption of Mary. Corona (2006) pp. 51-4. Theophilus’s pact with the devil became the basis for the thirteenth-century French play of Rutebeuf, The Miracle of Theophilus {Le Miracle de Théophile}, also called the Hail Mary of Rutebeuf {Ave Maria Rutebeuf}.

The lives of saints Cyprian and Justina from early antiquity include a pact with the devil. Here’s more on Cyprian in relation to pacts with the devil. The lives of Cyprian and Justina perhaps influenced Proterius’s servant’s pact with the devil.

Another similar pact with the devil occurs in the story of Anthemius and Maria, Virgin of Antioch. According to the Acts of the Saints {Acta Sanctorum}, Maria of Antioch was honored in the liturgical calendar on May 29. For this story, Southey (1838) vol. 7, pp. 218-24. Wortley sees this story as a source for “De negante christum scripto.” Wortley (1980) pp. 228-9. For a general study of sources for the Faustus motif, Radermacher (1927).

[7] With respect to pseudo-Amphilochius’s story of Basil helping the boy-student Philoxenus explicate verses of Homer, Wortley observed:

The is the first of many occurrences of the use of writing in these stories, an indication that, if nothing else, Pseudo-Amphilochius knew that Basil lived in an age more literate than his own.

Wortley (1980) p. 224. The textual evidence of “De negante christum scripto” seems to me better interpreted to imply that pseudo-Amphilochius lived in an age in which writing and bureaucracy were very important.

[images] (1) With sorcerer Cyprian’s help, Aglaidas makes a pact with devil in his attempt to win the love of Justina. Illumination in a fifteenth-century instance of Jacques de Voragine’s Golden Legend {Légende dorée} as translated into French by Jean de Vignay. Detail from folio 109r of BnF, Département des Manuscrits, Français 245. (2) Saint Basil the Great. Seventeenth-century drawing preserved in the Houghton Library (Harvard University, Cambridge, USA), MS Typ 1011. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Cleminson, Ralph. 1991. “The miracle De juvene qui Christum negaverat in the pseudo-Amphilochian Vita Basilii and its Slavonic adaptations.” Parergon. 9 (2): 1-15.

Corona, Gabriella. 2006. Aelfric’s Life of Saint Basil the Great: Background and Context. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer.

Epp, Garrett, ed. 2018. The Towneley Plays. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications.

Jorgensen, Peter. 2015. “The Life of St. Basil in Iceland {Heilagur Basilíus á Íslandi}.” Gripla (Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum). 26: 57-79. Alternate source.

Radermacher, Ludwig. 1927. Griechische Quellen zur Faustsage: der Zauberer Cyprianus; die Erzählung des Helladius; Theophilus; vorgelegt in der Stizung vom 15. Juni 1927. Wien: Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky. Alternately: Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Proceedings. 206 (4): 115-49.

Southey, Robert. 1838. The Poetical Works of Robert Southey. 10 vols. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.

Wortley, John. 1980. “The Pseudo-Amphilochian Vita Basilii: An Apocryphal Life of Saint Basil the Great.” Florilegium. 2 (1): 217-239.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1994. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland. Introduction.

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