Here is my translation into modern English of The Fable of Belfagor the Archdevil by Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli wrote “La fiaba di Belfagor arcidiavolo” during the same time he worked on The Prince and La Mandragola, between the Spring of 1513 and 1518, making it just about 500 years old, today.
The story is that the devils in charge of Hell learn that the souls of many newly arrived men blame their wives for their damnation. They decide to send an emissary up into the world to investigate what is ‘matrimony’ and Belfagor is chosen to go. After a comical and dramatic chain of fortunes and misfortunes, Belfagor flees back to Hell rather than live another day under his wife’s rule.
I have also written an extended stage adaptation of this story, based on this translation. It is a one-act play that runs about 35 minutes. I also have a screenplay version based on the stage adaptation. I have collected some music composed in the early 1500s which can go with the play.
THE FABLE OF BELFAGOR THE ARCHDEVIL by Niccolò Machiavelli
translated by Christopher DiMatteo (c) 2015, 2018 All rights reserved
Hell: The Council of Devils Decides to Send an Investigator
In the oldest annals of the Florentine people in the stories that are handed down, they tell one story of a devout and holy man, whose life was celebrated more than any other man of his time. Once, when he had fallen into a prayerful hallucination, he claimed to see a great number of miserable mortal men, who by the disgrace of God, had died and been sent to hell, and all of them or most of them anyway, complained that the only reason for their unhappy destination was that they had made the mistake of getting married.
Down in hell, the devils Minos and Radamantes, and the other infernal judges, were struck with great wonder at this sight. They could not believe these slanderous stories against the feminine sex, which these souls insisted were all true. The arguments got worse and worse every day. Once the devils had made the proper report to Pluto, he himself decided that all the princes of darkness should conduct a careful study of the problem, and to figure out a way that would prove the stories to be fallacious, or in any case, to learn the truth. And so a great council of devils was called, and Pluto pronounced this sentence:
“My dear devil mates, since it is the will of the heavens and everyone’s irrevocable fate that I am in charge of this kingdom, and for this reason I am not obliged to accept any judgment either of heaven or of earth, nevertheless, since it is more prudent to have a law to follow, instead of having to follow just anyone’s judgment, after deliberation, I have decided to allow you to advise me about this case, which is risking to ruin the reputation of our empire here, which I have to protect.
Because all of the souls of these men who come to our kingdom blame their wives as the reason for their fate, and since this seems impossible to us, we doubt that by passing judgment on this case, anyone would blame us for being neither too gullible, nor on the other hand too severe, and not seeking true justice.
And since on the one hand is a sin of negligence, and on the other hand is a sin of injustice, and wishing to find a way to avoid the punishments that either sin would deserve, and not finding that way, we have called you here at this time for your advice and your help, so that this kingdom, which has for so long avoided this kind of infamy, may preserve its reputation, for its future life.”
It seemed to each one of those princes of darkness that this was a very important case, deserving their careful attention: and since every one of them agreed that they needed to discover the truth, they only disagreed about how. Some of them thought they should send one of them, others suggested sending more than one, up into the world, to take the form of a man, to get to know the issue personally. Many other devils thought that they could save all that effort and merely subject some of those souls to various torments, to get the story by torture. But the majority of them agreed to suggest sending a team up into the world, and they decided to do that. Since they could not find any one of them willing to take on the mission voluntarily, they decided that they had to cast lots to select one of them for the job. And so it was that Belfagor the Archdevil was chosen, but in his earlier form, from before he fell from heaven, as an Archangel. And so, very unhappy at getting chosen for this role, but nevertheless forced to obey the power of Pluto, Belfagor got involved in the devils’ deliberations and decisions, and he made them agree to certain conditions, which they agreed on in their solemn deliberations.
The rules were these: that as soon as one was chosen for this mission, he would be given a sum of one hundred thousand ducats, which he would have to take with him up into the world, and in the form of a man, he would take a wife and live with her for ten years, and then he would pretend to die and then return down there, to tell the whole story to his superiors of what were the burdens and discomfort of matrimony. It was also decided that during that specified time, he would have to undergo all of the discomforts and illnesses that men have to suffer, whether that be poverty, prison, sickness or any other misfortunes that plague men, except those which he could escape from by trickery or by cleverness.
Belfagor Arrives in Florence, Marries Then Flees
And so, Belfagor accepted the conditions, took the one hundred thousand ducats, and came up to the world. Accompanied by a worthy cohort of horses and vice devils, he entered the city of Florence with full honors. He chose that city from among all others, as his home, as the one that seemed the most appropriate to set himself up to practice the art of usury, with all the money he had brought with him.
He took the name of Roderigo of Castille, and he settled in a fine rented house in the Borgo d’Ognisanti. Since he could not reveal his true identity, he claimed that he had recently travelled from Spain, coming from his hometown of Soria, and that he had made his money in trade with Aleppo: and that from there, he had come to Italy in hope of finding a wife, in a nice place, to live a civilized life that was more to his liking. Roderigo was a handsome man and appeared to be about thirty years old. And, having shown in a few days that he was very rich, and showing himself to be a kind and free thinking man, there were many noble citizens lacking in great fortunes who offered their daughters of marriageable age to him. Among all of them, Roderigo chose a beautiful young lady by the name of Onesta, the daughter of Amerigo Donati. He had three other daughters, together with three grown sons, all of whom were also of marrying age, and even if he came from a noble family, and had a good reputation in Florence, Roderigo still showed his respect to their nobility and to their impoverished condition. Roderigo put on a magnificent and splendid wedding. Of all the things that everyone wants at a wedding, there wasn’t one thing missing. And according to the rule that he was given when he left hell, he was subject to all the human passions. And so it was that he began to take great pleasure in the honors and formalities of the world and he loved to be praised among all men, and he heard a lot of it, in his position.
Aside from that, he did not live with his Madonna Onesta for very long before he fell inordinately in love with her, and he couldn’t stand to see her sad or the slightest bit unhappy. Along with her nobility and her beauty, Madonna Onesta had brought into Roderigo’s house more self-importance than Lucifer himself ever had, and Roderigo, who knew them both, judged that Onesta had more of it. But as his love grew, she showed even more of it, once she realized how much her husband loved her. It seemed to her that she could lord it over him in every way, and she did, without the slightest pity or respect, ordering him around, and hurling words of abuse toward him whenever something was denied her. This was the cause of inestimable annoyance to Roderigo.
Despite everything about his father-in-law and his wife’s sisters and brothers and the other in-laws, he loved her so much that he felt he just had to be very patient. Never mind the huge cost of keeping her in the latest fashions and shoes, which our city continually makes more of; it became necessary, in order to keep the peace with her, to help her father find husbands for his other daughters, which cost him a lot of money. After that, just to please her, he sent one brother to the East with a cargo of cloth to sell, sent another to the West with a cargo of clothing; and for the other one he opened a gold smith’s shop in Florence. He ended up spending most of his fortune on these things. And apart from that, during the Carnival season and every January at the feast of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, in which the whole city celebrates, as is its ancient custom, and when the many rich and noble citizens put on splendid parties, in order for Madonna Onesta not to feel inferior to them, Roderigo had to put on even bigger parties.
Roderigo tolerated all of this for the reason stated before, and it would have seemed a great problem, if he had not the reason of being able to live peacefully at home to quietly await his bankruptcy. But the opposite of that is what happened, because the unsustainable expense and her insolence made his life very uncomfortable. Soon, there were no more servants or staff in the house, and like that he couldn’t put up with her for more than a few days. Roderigo had a very hard time having no servant that he could trust, and what’s more, those devils, who had come up to the world along with him, all chose to return to the fires of hell, rather than live any longer under her household.
While Roderigo was living this tumultuous and unsettled life, and because of all those extraordinary expenses, he was running out of the money he had brought with him and he began to live on the credit of what he expected to make from his brothers-in-laws’ expeditions to the East and the West, and since he still had good credit, this he did in order to maintain his lifestyle. Since he owed money all over town, the people in the Market all began to notice. And while he was already in dire conditions, he received news from the expeditions to the East and the West, that one of Mona Onesta’s brothers had lost all of Roderigo’s money, and as for the other, while sailing back with all his cargo on a ship that had no insurance, he sank along with the ship and was lost with all of it. As soon as all this news was known, Roderigo’s creditors got together and finding that he was ruined, they would not lend him any more money, since he couldn’t make any more payments.
Escape and Rescue by Gianmatteo
Roderigo, for his part, seeing no way out of his situation and knowing how he was bound by the infernal rules, thought that he could still make his escape. One morning he set off on horseback, and since he lived near the Prato Gate, he left town in that direction. But as soon as he had left the city, rumors of his departure reached his creditors, who gathered together and went before the magistrate and not only the creditors’ agents but the common people too all took off after him. Roderigo had not gone more than one mile out of town before he heard the noise made by the people following him. Realizing that his escape had started badly, he decided to hide and get off the main road, taking his chances on the side trails through the fields. But he kept getting stuck in the irrigation trenches between the fields, and he had to get off his horse and flee on foot, from one field to the next, all full of brambles and dried stalks, and he finally arrived near Peretola at the home of Gianmatteo del Brica, who works for Giovanni dal Bene, where by chance he found Gianmatteo bringing his oxen home to be fed. He begged Gianmatteo for help, and he promised to make him rich in exchange for helping him escape from his enemies, who wanted to capture him and throw him in prison for the rest of his life. And if Gianmatteo would not help him, he would agree to let Gianmatteo himself hand him over to those chasing him.
And so Gianmatteo, who was a farmer and a smart, brave man, thought he could not pass up the chance to take part in saving him, and promised to help him. So he told Roderigo to hide in the compost pile in front of his house, covering him up with straw and other garbage that he kept there.
As soon as Roderigo was hidden there, the people chasing him arrived, and even with all the surprise that Gianmatteo felt, he never gave off a clue that he had seen the man. Even with all of them searching all day, they could not find Roderigo, and they finally gave up, tired of it all, and returned to Florence.
Then once they all left and their noise had died down, Gianmatteo asked him to fulfill his promise, to which Roderigo replied: “My friend, I owe you a big favor now and I intend to repay you in every way; and to prove that you can believe I am capable of it, I will tell you who I am.”
And so Belfagor told him all about “Roderigo,” including the infernal laws that he had to follow, and all about his former wife, and he also told him how he intended to repay him and make him rich, which was this: Henceforth, whenever Gianmatteo hears that a woman has been possessed by a demon, he could be sure that it was he, Belfagor, who had taken her over, and further, that he would not leave her unless Gianmatteo himself came to perform the exorcism, after which he would be paid richly by the girl’s family. Having made their deal, Roderigo then ran off.
The First and Second Exorcism and Gianmatteo Becomes Rich
Then several days later the news spread through Florence that the daughter of Messer Ambruogio Amidei, who was married to Bonaiuto Tebalducci, was possessed by a devil. Her desperate parents tried everything that people try in those cases, such as placing San Zenobi’s head over hers, and wearing the mantle of San Giovanni Gualberto. Roderigo had nothing but disdain for those measures, which he knew were in vain. In order to make sure that the people understood that she was possessed by a demon and not by some random product of a wild imagination, he would have her speak in Latin and discuss philosophy but also, he had her tell all about the private sins of many people. One of these was the story of a monk, who kept a woman with him in his cell for four years, dressed as another friar, which amazed everyone.
And so Mister Ambruogio lived an unhappy life. And having in vain tried every known remedy, he had given up hope of curing her, when Gianmatteo came to visit him and promised to heal his daughter in exchange for the sum of five hundred Florins, which he needed to buy a farm in Peretola. Messer Ambruogio accepted the proposal. And so, Gianmatteo ordered some Masses to be said and some ceremonies to be conducted, to make the whole thing look legitimate, then, he went up to the young woman and whispered in her ear, “Roderigo, I have come to meet you so that you can keep your promise to me.” To which Roderigo replied, “I am glad. But this will not be enough to make you a rich man. So, as soon as I leave here, I will go and afflict the daughter of Carlos, the kind of Napoli, and I won’t leave her without you being there. So go ahead and get yourself paid however you can here, and then you’ll make out better with the next one.” And having said that, he left the girl alone, to the pleasure and admiration of all of Florence.
Before too much time has passed, the news spread throughout Italy about the misfortune that had fallen onto the young daughter of King Carlos of Naples. The king had no success with any remedies, and then he heard of Gianmatteo, so he called for him to come to Napoli. As soon as he got there, and after faking some ceremonial gestures, he cured her. But Roderigo, before leaving her, said, “Do you see, Gianmatteo, how I have kept my promise to make you rich? And so, with this, I’ve fulfilled my duty to you and I don’t owe you anything anymore. So now you’d better be happy to stay the hell away from me from now on, because, as I have done very well for you, I could also make a lot of trouble for you.”
And so Gianmatteo returned to Florence a very rich man, because the king of Naples had rewarded him with more than fifty thousand ducats. He thought he could live a quiet, peaceful life enjoying his riches, and didn’t think that Roderigo could ever do anything to upset him. But this thought was soon to be overturned by some news that arrived, that the daughter of Louis VII, King of France, had been possessed by a devil. This news was most disconcerting to Gianmatteo, who realized the king’s authority and the last words that Roderigo had told him.
Belfagor Causes Gianmatteo To Be Called By The King of France Then Belfagor Flees
The King, having exhausted every known remedy, heard of Gianmatteo’s reputation. At first, he sent a single knight to call him to France. When Gianmatteo at first refused the invitation, the king appealed to the Signoria (the government of Florence and an ally of France). They were able to force Gianmatteo to obey the King’s invitation, and Gianmatteo had to go to France, with all of his misgivings about it. Once in Paris, he protested to the King that while it was true that he was able to exorcise demons from some women, that did not mean that he was able to do the same for all of them, since devils and demons were perfidious beings who had no fear of threats, nor of incantations nor of true religion; he said that despite all of this, he would try his best, but if he failed, he would beg for forgiveness and pardon.
The King was not pleased to hear this, and he said that if Gianmatteo could not cure her, he would have him hanged. This was very upsetting to Gianmatteo, who nevertheless gathered his courage and had the young woman brought to him. Leaning over to whisper into her ear, he humbly begged Roderigo for help, reminding him of the favor he had done when he first saved his life, and of what ingratitude it would show if he were to abandon him in his moment of such need.
To this, Roderigo replied, “What the hell! You rotten villain, you have the guts to show up in front of me again? Do you think you can go on bragging about getting rich because of me? I’ve got a mind to show you and the whole world how I can give and take away anything from anyone, at my own will; and before you get out of this place, I will see you hanged one way or another.”
At this, Gianmatteo, seeing no other way out, though that he could test his fate by some other means. He had the possessed girl sent away, and then he told the King: “Sire, as I have told you, there are some spirits that are so malicious that they have absolutely no good side to them, and this is one of those. Because of that, I want to make one last attempt; if it works, then your Majesty and I will both have achieved our purpose; if it does not work, I will be at your mercy and you may show me the compassion that is deserved by my innocence. In order to do this, you may order a great stage to be built in the square right in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, large enough to hold all the nobility and all the clerics of this city; have the stage completely covered in tapestries of silk and adorned with gold; in the middle of this stage, build an altar; here is what I want to happen. Next Sunday morning, you and all the clerics, together with all the princes and nobles of the city, shall meet together there, with full royal trappings, in their most splendid and richest clothing, and after we celebrate a solemn mass, have the possessed girl brought to that place.
Beside that, I want there to be on one side of the square, a group of at least twenty persons, with trumpets, horns, drums, bagpipes, bells, cymbals and every other kind of musical instruments, and when I signal by raising my cap, they are all together to begin playing, as loud as they can, and thus, approach the stage: these things, together with some secret remedies of mine, I believe will make the spirit leave her.”
Right away, the King ordered everything: and, once Sunday morning had come, and with the stage filled with all the nobility, and a great crowd gathered in the square, a Mass was celebrated, and then the possessed girl was brought to the stage by two bishops, one at each hand, followed by many other nobles. When Roderigo saw all these people together in this extraordinary scene, he was stupefied, and said to himself, “That the hell is this damned fool trying to do? Does he think he can shock me with all of this ceremony? Doesn’t he know that I’m used to seeing all the pomp and circumstance of heaven as well as the furies of the Inferno? I’m going to ruin him, no matter what happens!”
Gianmatteo approached the girl, and speaking to Belfagor, asked him to leave her. He replied, “Oh, what a nice idea you’ve had! What do you think you’re doing with all this scenery? Do you think you are going to get away from my power and the King’s ire? You wicked villain, I’ll see you hanged by the end of this!” They went back and forth like this for a little while, then Gianmatteo decided not to waste any more time. He made the gesture of raising his cap to the assembled musicians, and they began playing loudly, with waves of sound rising to the sky and descending on the stage. As soon as this great noise began, it all rang in Roderigo’s ears so much that he was shocked and could not make sense of it. So Roderigo turned to Gianmatteo and asked him what all that noise was. At this point, Gianmatteo put on a perturbed expression and said, “Oh dear, my friend Roderigo! That is your wife who has come to find you.” You would have to imagine what a shock that was to Roderigo’s spirit, just for him to hear his wife mentioned. His surprise was so great that, not even thinking for a moment whether it was real or even remotely possible for her to be there, and without saying anything more, in a state of shock, he fled the scene and his spirit left the girl free, since he decided on the spot to return to Hell to tell his story there, rather than have to go back to dealing with all of the discomfort, disrespect and dangers that he had to endure under the yoke of matrimony.
And so, Belfagor, safely back in Hell, told his story of how his wife had ruined his life. And Gianmatteo, who knew one more than the devil, went home again, a happy man.