The famous legal phrase caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) entered common law because of a 17th century dispute over a magic bezoar stone.
Bezoars are gastrointestinal pearls. Sometimes found inside large mammals (horses, pigs, oxen, elephants, people…), these small stone-like objects accrete around a foreign substance. They just hang around in the animal’s guts, like the cow magnet clump I wrote about last month.
For at least a thousand years bezoars have been a hot medicinal item. In Picatrix, the 11th century CE Arabic grimoire of talismanic magic, it’s part of the cure for scorpion bites:
A talisman for the treatment of a scorpion bite: Carve a picture of a Scorpion on a stone of Bezoar in the hour of the Moon and while the Sun is in the first degree of it and the ascendant is Leo or Aquarius. Mount the stone on a golden ring and stamp it with resin of Kundur in the designated hour and with the Moon in Scorpio. Give the bitten person a dose of it and he will be cured from his ailment.Picatrix
Chinese traditional medicine highly values gallstone bezoars from cattle or pigs. In Europe and India bezoars were sometimes mounted as a precious stone (as in the picture above from Vienna) – they reputedly protected you from poisoning.
Bezoars were a hot and rare commodity. And, business being what it is, that meant people began to make fake bezoars so they could sell them to the gullible and the superstitious. Jesuits in India, for example, made Goa stones out of random bits and pieces (shell, hair, resin) and imported them into Europe. And, in 1603, a dispute over just such a fake bezoar created a new precedent in common law: let the buyer beware!
In the case of Chandelor v. Lopus, a Londoner named Lopus purchased a bezoar from a jeweler named Chandelor. He paid a hundred pounds, which was a significant sum in 1603 (equivalent to around 14 thousand pounds in today’s money). Lopus soon discovered that it was not a legitimate bezoar, and sued Chandelor for breach of contract.
The judges’ ruling was clear: while Chandelor had talked up the bezoar as genuine, he had not made a contractual determination that it was genuine. Lopus should have known better. He should have done his due diligence. He was owed nothing. Let the buyer beware.
As a result of this ruling, caveat emptor was enshrined into English common law. History, alas, is silent on what happened to Lopus’ pseudo-bezoar.