The Faust Legend Essay - Critical Essays

The Faust Legend


The Faust Legend

The Faust legend is probably based on the life of a real person named Jorg or George Faust, also referred to as Georgius and as Johannes Faustus. He was a traveling performer or magician, thought to have been born around 1480 in the Württemberg region of southwest Germany, and to have died in the same region around 1540. The first lengthy historical mention of him occurs in a letter written in 1507 by the Benedictine scholar Johannes Tritheim. The letter is not complimentary of Faust. In it, Tritheim refers to him as one "who has presumed to call himself the prince of necromancers," but who is in fact "a vagabond, a babbler, and a rogue, who deserves to be thrashed so that he may not henceforth rashly venture to profess in public things so execrable and so hostile to the holy Church."

The principal German source of the legend surrounding Faust is the volume edited by Johann Spies in 1587 and published as Historia von D. Johann Fausten. This version, commonly called the Faustbuch, is also referred to as the Volksbuch or the Historia. This folktalewas altered and augmented over time in numerous forms (including puppet shows) and in a variety of languages. The first known English-language publication appeared under the title The Historie of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus. The basic story is about a magician who makes a pact with the Devil in return for superhuman powers, sexual pleasures, and arcane knowledge. As part of the bargain, the Devil requires Faust's soul and ultimately claims it by torturing Faust's body and dragging him to Hell.

During the sixteenth century, Martin Luther and the proponents of the Reformation found the Faust myth a useful tool. It was modified into a warning against what were considered the excesses and idolatrous practices of the Catholic Church. At the same time, the story of Faust's overreaching the normal limits of human knowledge and ability was also directed against Humanism in Renaissance Germany.

The Faust legend has been a rich source of creative inspiration. Christopher Marlowe wrote one of his most famous plays based on the legend. It was published in 1604 as The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. And in the nineteenth century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Parts I (1808) and II (1832) of his poetic drama, Faust. Over the centuries, the legend has continued to fascinate novelists, poets, painters, film-makers, and musicians. Whether they see Faust positively as a seeker of benevolent knowledge, negatively as a diabolical harbinger of fascism, or tragically as a symbol of humanity's insatiable curiosity, composers like Louis Hector Berlioz (The Damnation of Faust, 1846), novelists like Thomas Mann (Dr. Faustus, 1947), and poets like Karl Shapiro ("The Progress of Faust," 1968), have turned Faust into a cultural archetype.


Adolphus William Ward (essay date 1901)

SOURCE: "Introduction," in his Marlowe: "Tragical History of Dr. Faustus"; Greene: "Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay", fourth ed., rev. and enlarged, edited by Adolphus William Ward, Clarendon Press, 1901, pp. xv-clxvi.

[In the following excerpt, Ward examines in detail the origins of the Faust legend, including its basis in fact and its manipulation by proponents of the Reformation. He concludes with a discussion of possible source material for Christopher Marlowe's play, Dr. Faustus.]

… The century of the Reformation and that which succeeded to it were the period in which the belief in necromancy and witchcraft reached its height. An era of theological controversy on an unprecedented scale had set in; and it was only where the schism never came to a head, as in Italy and Spain, or where, as in parts of the Empire, it was averted by a practical compromise, that the epidemic found little or no material to feed on1. Warning voices were indeed not wanting to protest against the perils of popular credulity; some of these, as has been seen, were those of the very men who were decried or persecuted as sorcerers. 'In England,' says an eminent historian2, 'the belief in the reality of witch craft was strongly rooted in the minds of the population. James I, in his book on Daemonology, had only echoed opinions which were accepted freely by the multitude, and were tacitly admitted without inquiry by the first intellects of the day3. Bacon and Raleigh alike took the existence of witches for granted. In 1584, indeed, Reginald Scot4, wise before his time, had discoursed to ears that would not hear on the shallowness of the evidence by which charges of witchcraft were sustained, but even he did not venture to assert that witchcraft itself was a fiction. A few years later, Harsnet5, who rose to be Bishop of Norwich and Archbishop of York, charged certain Jesuits and priests with imposture in pretending to eject devils from possessed persons, in sheer forgetfulness of the fact that these priests did no more than take in sober earnestness the belief which was all around them. That the tide, however, was beginning to turn, there is a slight indication in The Witch of Edmonton6, a play produced on the London stage about 1622, the authors of which directed the compassion of their hearers to an old woman accused of having entered into a league with Satan. Yet even here the old woman was treated as being in actual possession of the powers which she claimed. So, again, in Thomas Heywood's The Wise Woman of Hogsdon (pr. 1638), although the false and fraudulent practice of witchcraft is ridiculed and reprobated, a passage seems to indicate a substratum of belief in the thing itself7. As late as 1643, a certain Thomas Browne was indicted before a Middlesex jury for selling his soul to an evil spirit for an annuity of £1000, but acquitted8. As late as 1652, witches were hanged without mercy in England9; nor was the law making witchcraft punishable by death repealed in this country till 173010. It is needless to add that our Elizabethan and early Stuart dramatic literature largely deals with themes concerned with practices of witchcraft11, astrology12, and alchemy13; while a hellish sorcerer is a prominent figure in the great allegorical epic of the Elizabethan age14. If, however, the play called The Divil's Charter (1607) be excepted, the idea of an actual contract with the Devil appears, in the later plays of this period, either as a satiric allusion15, or is converted into a theme for comic treatment16, in accordance with the attempt already made in a (probably) earlier comedy of which the authorship has been falsely ascribed to Shakespeare—The Merry Devil of Edmonton17. In following the shameful tradition which attributed the glorious achievements of the Maid of Orleans to a compact with the Powers of Hell, the author of passages in I Henry VI adhered to the belief kept alive in English minds by a popular chronicler18.

These delusive fancies of the English popular mind had been no doubt propagated from many and various sources, but from none so persistently and abundantly as from the 'news' which numberless sheets professed to bring 'out of Germany.' It is impossible here to trace the causes of the very curious phenomenon, that in the course of the period connecting the Reformation age proper with the closing years of the sixteenth century, the character of the relations between England and Germany had greatly altered, and that the moral and intellectual, as well as the most general, influence of the latter country upon the former had sunk from a very high to a far lower level. 'To the average contemporary of Bishop Bale,' says a writer who has luminously surveyed the literary relations between the two nations in the sixteenth century19, 'Germany was the mother-country of the Reformation, the refuge of the persecuted Protestants, the seat of literary accomplishments and civic splendour which England could at the most barely rival. To the average contemporary of Jonson and Fletcher, probably enough, it was famous only as a land of magicians and conjurors, as the home of Albertus and Agrippa, Paracelsus and Doctor Faust. '

And, indisputably, there was some colour for this latter conception, of which our contemporary dramatic literature furnishes a more than sufficient number of illustrations. In Germany, even more largely than in other continental countries, the popular belief in the infernal origin of practices of sorcery in this age found expression in wild scandals and uncontrollable fictions. It attached itself to a wide variety of personages—from the scholastici vagantes, of whom Hans Sachs had already brought an example on the stage20, to an Elector of the Empire such as Joachim II of Brandenburg (1535-71). In France charges of this kind were even brought against a king (Henry III) and his royal mother (Catharine de' Medici). But if princes were the patrons of necromancy (as they were more especially of alchemy), they likewise persecuted its practice with the utmost severity; thus we find an edict of the Elector Augustus of Saxony (of the year 1572) proclaiming the penalty of death by fire against whosoever 'in forgetfulness of his Christian faith shall have entered into a compact, or hold converse or intercourse, with the Devil, albeit such person by magic may do no harm to any one21.' The clause I have italicized strikes me as particularly significant. In vain did a writer such as Johannes Wierus (Wier, Weiher, or Weyer) seek, in the spirit of Reginald Scot, to stem the tide of popular prejudice, and to vindicate the memory of those whose fame, like that of Cornelius Agrippa, had by that prejudice been converted into infamy. Wierus' noble effort (158322) in the cause of reason, and the partial protest of his contemporary, Augustine Lercheimer23 (1585), were outclamoured by eager witnesses to the truth of the popular superstitions and of the narratives by which they were supported, such as, above all, Bodin (159124), whom Fischart translated into German, and Hondorff (157225). Thus fostered, these beliefs flourished in Germany through the sixteenth and part of the seventeenth century, the troubles of which furnished them with new materials. But of these all notice must be left aside. The neighbouring countries were not in advance of Germany; the last personage widely believed to have entered into a compact with the Evil One (for the period, it was affirmed, from 1659 to 1695) was the French Marshal Luxembourg, whose Dialogues in the Kingdom of the Dead with Doctor Faustus were a catchpenny of the year 173326; and if Germany had its Faustus in the sixteenth century, Bohemia had had its Zytho in the fifteenth (in the age of Charles IV), and Poland had its Twardowski, said to have been a contemporary of the German magician, of whose legend his is a reflexion or a singularly close parallel27. How the story of Faustus found a ready welcome in the Netherlands and in France, as it did in England, will be immediately shown.

The supposition28, first put forward as early as 1621 by the Tubingen theologian, Schickard, that the story of Faustus is a legendary fiction pure and simple, invented as a warning against practices of magic, is altogether untenable. Faust or Faustus was a real personage. His original German surname may be uncertain; for the Latin form 'Faustus,' in which his name occasionally appears already in the oldest German literary version of the legend, is obviously either a Latinization of a native name, or a name bestowed on account of its significance. In the latter case 'Faust' would only be a Germanization of 'Faustus,' the favourite Roman name which had so remarkable a vitality29. And 'Faust' would accordingly mean much the same as 'Fortunatus,' a name familiar to mediaeval legend, and thence transplanted into the Elizabethan drama30. In the other and more probable case, we may suppose the original German form to have been 'Faust,' or possibly 'Fust.' But the notion that Faustus or Faust the magician and Fust the printer are the same person cannot be accepted. It was suggested by Durr, an Altdorf professor of theology, in a letter written in 1676, but not published till 1726; and it has since been adopted by various writers, including the German dramatists, Klinger and Klingemann, who wrote plays on the subject, Heinrich Heine, F. V. Hugo (the French translator of Marlowe's tragedy), and no less an authority than the late Karl Simrock. But it must be rejected nevertheless. It rests primarily on the specious assumption, that the art of printing was regarded as an invention of the Evil One by the people, or decried as such by the monks. Of this, however, there is no satisfactory proof. The story that the printer, Johann Fust, who was in Paris in 1466, was there looked upon as a conjurer, has no historical foundation; just as there is no reason to attribute the dispersion of Fust and Schoeffer's printing establishment at Mainz in 1462 to any cause but the sack of the city by Archbishop Adolf of Nassau and its natural effects. The printer Fust in his Latin colophons never assumed the name of 'Faustus'; and there is no basis whatever for the ingenious fancy which identified or identifies him with the necromant31.

Faust or Faustus shared his surname in its Latin form with the legendary father of St. Clement of Rome, whom St. Peter himself was said to have converted to Christianity at Antioch, notwithstanding the efforts to the contrary of Simon Magus. A haze of romance surrounds the traditions concerning the family of St. Clement; and though it is doubtless a tempting fancy that the story of Faustus and Simon Magus 'furnishes the germ of the story of Faust and Mephistophiles,' especially as there is a Helena involved in it as the magician's companion, to argue from such premisses would be to build upon a quicksand32. The name 'Faustus' was likewise borne by several Christian ecclesiastics of the early Middle Ages, two of whom were canonized by the Church of Rome, while a third (Faustus Reiensis, i.e. Bishop of Riez) was accounted a heretic by the orthodox. This personage plays an important part in the Confessions of St. Augustine, a book of the greatest significance both for the literature and for the general history of Christendom. The attractive qualities and intellectual accomplishments of the Manichaean bishop at first charmed the young lecturer at Carthage, who had eagerly looked forward to intercourse with him. But he began to doubt the depth of Faustus' scholarship long before he emancipated himself from the power of the doctrines with which the bishop was identified; and indeed he acknowledges the prudence with which Faustus declined to be involved in arguments concerning the astronomical matters of which, as St. Augustine informs us, the books of the Manichaeans were full. When he ultimately entered the lists against their doctrines, it was however Bishop Faustus whom he attacked by name as their spokesman. The Manichaeanism, against which the great Christian father directed his memorable efforts, was to reappear in not a few of the most daring theories concerning the world and its government promulgated during the course of the Middle Ages and in the Reformation epoch33. Of no real importance, though rather striking at first sight, is the coincidence of the existence at Rome in the Reformation age of a Faustus Sabaeus34, who is called a 'clerk of Brescia,' and was one of the custodians of the Vatican library under six successive pontiffs. This scholar, between 1523 and 1524, published with a colleague at Rome a work of Gebir, the famous Arabian 'master of masters,' as Roger Bacon calls him35. Finally, another Italian scholar must not be overlooked, who called himself Faustus Andrelinus, and was a shining light among the Renascence 'poets' at Paris. He died in 1518, and his decease, his popularity at Paris, and the licentiousness of his ways were recorded in the correspondence of Erasmus, who had been on intimate terms with the author of the Epistolae proverbiales and the Amores36.

The Christian name of the magician is in the legend, with all but unvarying consistency, given as John (Johannes or Johann), and is the same in several of the authentic notices of him as an actual personage. It is perhaps worth noticing that the name of Tritheim (said to have been Faust's instructor) was John, and that Tritheim has himself handed down the fame of an Italian named Johannes, who called himself 'philosophus philosophorum' and 'Mercurius, messenger of the gods,' and who aired his pretensions to universal knowledge in 1501 at the court of King Lewis XII of France37. But, oddly enough, there exist two notices of unquestioned authenticity, in which, under a distinct but not altogether different form of appellation, mention is made of a strolling necromant of precisely the same kind as the Doctor Johannes Faustus of other authentic notices and of the legend. In the year 1507 the already-mentioned Tritheim informs a friend that in an inn at Gelnhausen (in the countship of Hanau) he had found traces of a personage to whose acquaintance Tritheim's friend had been looking forward with eager curiosity. On Tritheim's approach the impostor had decamped, but he had left behind him a card for a citizen of Gelnhausen identical with one he had sent to Tritheim's friend, as bearing his name (without his address) and 'additions' as follows:—

'Magister Georgius Sabellicus, Faustus junior, fons necromanticorum, magus secundus, chiro-manticus, agromanticus [query aeromanticus?], pyromanticus, in hydra arte secundus38.'

This worthy, whom in another passage of his letter Tritheim calls simply 'Georgius Sabellicus,' he proceeds to describe as having at Wurzburg blasphemously boasted his power to equal the miracles of Christ, and having in this year 1507, through the good offices of Franz von Sickingen (the famous knight), obtained a post as schoolmaster at Kreuznach. Soon, however, he had to quit the place in haste, having been guilty of the most shameful immorality. A few years later (in 1513 or 1514) another witness of unimpeachable trustworthiness, the celebrated humanist and friend of Reuchlin and Melanchthon Mutianus Rufus (Conrad Mudt), writes to a friend that 'a week ago there came to Erfurt a chiromant, by name Georgius Faustus Helmitheus Hedebergensis, a mere braggart and fool. His art, like that of all sorcerers, is vain, and such a physiognomy is lighter than a water-spider (typula, i.e. tippula). The ignorant marvel thereat. The theologians should rise against him, instead of seeking to annihilate Reuchlin. I heard him jabber at the inn; I did not chastise his ignorance; for what is the folly of others to me?' It would therefore appear that by this time the adventurer in question, whoever he was, called himself Faustus without adding the word 'junior,' but using epithets which can hardly have any other signification than 'semi-divine' (…39), and 'of the Hedebergs. Heidenberg type,' i.e. of the type of Tritheim, whose family name was 'von Heidenberg.' And in two parallel notices found in the town archives of Ingolstadt 'the soothsayer' and 'Dr. Jorg Faustus of Heidelberg' are respectively stated to have been expelled from Ingolstadt on the Wednesday after St. Vitus in the year 152840. The question arises whether this personage (for Tritheim's man, Mutianus', and the visitor to Ingolstadt, can hardly but be one and the same) is to be regarded as identical with the Doctor Johannes Faustus or John Faust, of whom there is no trace before the year 1520, and to whom it would therefore be surprising if a competing necromant had, as early as 1507, sought to compare himself as 'junior' or 'secundus41.' Was this man's surname really Faust, or was it Sabellicus? The latter can hardly be a mere Latinisation, but must surely have been adopted in allusion to the Sabine magic mentioned by the Roman poets—and indeed Widmann speaks of the hero of his narrative, Johannes Faustus, as having studied among other books Sabellicum Ennead42. If George and John Faust were one and the same person43, then it is not absolutely impossible that George may have assumed the name of John in memory either of the printer John Fust or Faust, or of some earlier necromant bearing that name. But there is no obvious connexion between the reputation of the printer and the sort of notoriety a strolling charlatan endeavoured to acquire; while of an earlier necromant, John Faust or Faustus, no real evidence whatever exists. On the other hand, there is no improbability in the supposition of George and John Faust having been competitors, although the evidence of the notoriety of John is later in date than that of the vagabond who called himself 'junior,' and in some branches of his profession 'secundus.' The unwarranted assumption by popular entertainers of a name to which they have no birthright has, I believe, been a common practice in much later times than those in question; and if a 'Johannes Faustus,' who, according to the Heidelberg registers, took his degree there as a bachelor of divinity in 1509, was the same person as the famous Doctor, Georgius may perchance have decorated himself not only with the surname of Johannes, but also with the name of his university. But this is quite uncertain, more especially as the register attaches to the name the letter 'd, ' signifying 'dedit, ' i.e. he paid his fees.

Passing by the statement of the Württemberg historian, Sattler, that according to 'trustworthy information,' which he does not cite, a Doctor Faust in the year 1516 visited his fellow-countryman and good friend, the Abbot Johann Entenfuss, in his monastery at Maulbronn (in Württemberg), we come to a series of well-authenticated notices of Faust or Faustus by persons who were actually or nearly contemporary with him. Among these can hardly be included the famous inscriptions in Auerbach's Cellar, an ancient wine-tavern and vault at Leipzig. One of these inscriptions appears to make reference (by the words 'at this time,' 'zu dieser Frist') to a date, 1525, twice written on the wall, where a fresco still recalls the magician's exploit of riding out of the cellar on a wine-butt, and another represents him as treating a party of students with its contents.44 The date, 1525, is said to be of proved authenticity, and is unhesitatingly adopted in Vogel's Leipzig Annals, published in 1714. It was possibly from the Leipzig legend that Widmann, in his version of the story of Faustus—where, on the evidence of a book 'with concealed letters,' he states Faustus' contract with the Devil to have been sealed in 1521—took the date of 1525 as that of the beginning of the conjurer's public career.

But an indisputable record of Faust has been recently discovered, which proves him to have 'flourished' as early as 1520, five years before the supposed date of his visit to Auerbach's Cellar. In the accounts for that year of Hans Müller, Chamberlain (Kammermeister) of George von Limburg, Prince-Bishop of Bamberg, J. Mayerhoffer has found an entry purporting that by the orders of Reverendissimus ten florins were, on the Sunday after Scholastica (whose festival falls on February 10), paid to Doctor Faust, pho [= philosopho], as a gratuity, he having cast a nativity or indicium to his lordship. The bishop, a patron of the New Learning and friend of Luther, died May 31, 1522; and it seems probable that the consultation took place at the castle of Altenburg, the bishop's favourite residence45.

The first known writer who mentions Faustus as a real personage is the eminent scholar Joachim Camerarius, in a letter dated August 13, 1536. Addressing Daniel Stibar, a lawyer in the service of the city of Würzburg, and connected by his studies and tastes with the Erfurt humanists, Camerarius, then at Tubingen, banters him on the 'uanissima superstitio' with which he has been inflated by 'his Faustus,' but at the same time expresses curiosity as to Faust's opinion concerning the prospects of Charles V's campaign. Taken in conjunction with the reference in the letter of Philip von Hutten to be mentioned immediately, this points to a sojourn of Faust in Upper Franconia within the years 1535-746.

Next comes another quite recently discovered reference to the 'Philosophus Faustus' in a letter from Philip (the cousin of the famous Ulric) von Hutten to his brother Maurice, Prince-Bishop of Eichstedt, dated January 16, 1540; though the actual date of the event with which the name of Faust is here connected is obscure, and may possibly lie back as far as 153547. A certain vagueness likewise attaches to the mention of Faust by Dr. Philip Begardi, physician to the Free Imperial City of Worms, in his Index Sanitatis of 1539. He there speaks of 'Faustus' as a famous necromant and medical quack, who 'a few years ago' travelled about 'through all countries, principalities and kingdoms, and made his name known by every one there.' He made, says Begardi, no secret of it himself, adding to it the title of 'philosophus philosophorum.' In 1545, another medical writer, Conrad Gesner of Zurich, mentions a 'Faustus quidam' as famous among the schlolastici vagantes who practised magic, and as not long since dead. In the second edition, 1548, of a book of historical anecdotes of which the first volume was published in its first edition in 1543, the Protestant theologian Johann Gast relates two stories of Faustus' marvellous doings, the scene of one being laid in the Palatinate, that of the other, which Gast narrates as an eye-witness, in the great College at Basel. Gast mentions the wonderful dog, which, together with a similarly uncanny horse, attended Faustus48, and the magician's terrible death—but these things only on hearsay. A still more remarkable piece of evidence is furnished by the Locorum Commuunium Collectanea, published at Basel in 1562 by Manlius (Johann Mennel of Ansbach), a pupil of Melanchthon, of whose sayings the collection professes to a great extent to consist49. In this book Melanchthon (for it is clearly he who is supposed to be speaking) says that he was acquainted with one of the name of Johannes Faustus, of Kundling, evidently a corruption for Knittlingen, a small town near his own native place50, who studied and learnt magic at Cracow51, and practised his devilish art at Venice and elsewhere. 'A few years ago' he met with his death 'in a village of the Duchy of Wurttemberg,' having predicted a terrible event for the night in which he died, and being found in the morning dead in his bed with his face twisted, 'so the devil had killed him.' Melanchthon proceeds to mention that this Faustus, whom he calls 'Johannes,' had a dog 'who was the Devil'; and that he twice made his escape from impending imprisonment, on one occasion from 'our town of Wittenberg,' where 'the excellent prince, Duke John,' had ordered his arrest, and on another from Nürnberg. He adds that 'this conjurer Faustus, an infamous bestia, a cloaca of many devils,' boasted that all the victories gained by the Imperial armies in Italy were due to his magic, 'which,' adds Manlius, 'for the sake of the young, lest they should at once give credit to such fellows,' 'was the emptiest of lies.' Melanchthon, who twice introduces an anecdote of 'Faustus' into his commentaries on the Gospels52, is likewise said to mention him in his letters; but the passage has not proved discoverable. On the other hand, in Luther's Table-Talk (Tischreden), published posthumously in 1566, it is stated that the conversation one evening at supper turned on a necromant called Faustus, whereupon Dr. Martin solemnly said: 'The Devil doth not use the services of the magicians against me: had he been able and strong enough to do harm to me, he would have done so long ago. He has in truth more than once had me by the head; but yet he was constrained to let me go.' This shows that the name of Faustus was well known at Wittenberg, and confirms the statement of his visit there attributed by Manlius to Melanchthon, whose own residence at Wittenberg lasted from 1518 to his death in 1560. Shortly after this, in 1561, the learned Conrad Gesner mentions Faust as a magician of the kind which had its origin at Salamanca, and called fahrende Schidler, and as a personage whose fame was extra-ordinary and who died 'not so very long since.' The next witness is the worthy and liberal-minded Wierus, in an addition to whose work, De praestigiis daemonum, &c., bearing date 1583, are found copied the statements reported by Manlius concerning the university studies and death of Faustus, and it is stated (possibly on the authority of Begardi) that Faustus practised magic shortly before 1540 in different parts of Germany. Wierus adds some stories of the conjurer's tricks, of one of which the scene is laid at Batenberg on the Maas, and of another at Goslar in the Harz. The Batenberg story is related on the personal authority of the chaplain, 'Dr. Johann Dorst,' who was the subject of the experiment (he was induced to shave himself by a fomentation of arsenic instead of a razor, and the consequences were very unpleasant). Another story is likewise given by Wierus, on the authority of a man 'mihi non incognitus,' to whom in it an insulting speech is made by Faustus.

The theologian, Heinrich Bullinger, who died in 1575, in his work against the Black Art speaks of the necromant Faustus as having lived 'in our times'; and in 1570 Bullinger's son-in-law, Ludwig Lavater, refers to the marvellous stories about the magical arts of 'the German Faustus.' The so-called Zimnmern Chronicle, of about the year 1565, mentions the death of Faustus, the marvellous nigromanta, as having occurred about the year 1539 not far from Staufen in Breisgau. In 1568 Andreas Hondorff, in his Promptuarium Exemplorum, reproduces the statements in Manlius as to Johannes Faustus' visits to Nürnberg and Wittenberg, and as to his death in a Württemberg village; and they again reappear in a work (1615) by the learned jurist, Philip Camerarius, the son of the Joachim cited above, who says that he has 'heard many proofs of Johann Faust's eminence in magic from persons who were well acquainted with that impostor,' and tells a story (which afterwards reappeared in the Faustbuch) of his conjuring up a vine full of grapes in the middle of winter, and deluding the company in the manner in which Mephistophiles befools the students at the close of the scene in the Cellar in Goethe's play. It is necessary to pass by several other references to Faustus dating from the years 1569 to 1582, including quite a collection of stories concerning him, illustrated by woodcuts and claiming a Nürnberg origin, which was completed in 157053. In 1583, when the name of Dr. Faustus is found in the Onomasticon of the learned Brandenburg Court physician, Leonhart Thurneysser zum Thurn, it likewise found its way, with that of Agrippa, into a diplomatic report of the nuncio Minucci to Duke William of Bavaria concerning the condition of things brought about in the archbishopric of Cologne by the revolt of the Archbishop Gebhard Truchsess, whose heretical predecessor, Hermann von Wied, is there stated to have patronized and followed the instruction of these magicians at the time of his apostasy. In 1585 appeared the Christian Considerations on Magic of Augustine Lercheimer, a pupil of Melanchthon, in which occur several notices of Faustus, doubtless of Wittenberg origin. Lercheimer calls him 'Johann Faust of Knuitlingen,' and tells stories of his doings at Wittenberg, at Salzburg, and at 'M.' (which Düntzer conjectures to be Magdeburg). He relates an interview between Faustus and Melanchthon, with a repartee of the divine to the vapourings of the sorcerer in Luther's most robust style, and gives the story of the attempted conversion of Faustus by an old pious man, which found its way, together with some of Lercheimer's tales about other conjurers, into the Faustbuch, and thence into Marlowe's play54.

We are now near the date at which the story of Doctor Faustus was to be made the theme of a popular storybook, and near the end of the list of notices possessing more or less value as historical evidence of the actual man. To this list may perhaps be added the statement cited from an old Erfurt chronicle by a later author, Motschmann, in his Erfordia Literata Continuata, as to the attempted conversion of Dr. Faust at Erfurt by the Guardian of the Franciscans, Dr. Kling (who actually lived there from 1520 to 1556), of Faust's recalcitrance, and of his consequent expulsion from the city55. Probably, however, this incident was borrowed by the compiler of the old chronicle from an episode in the later edition of the popular story-book with which it almost verbatim agrees. The first edition of the storybook was, as will be immediately seen, published in 1587; and the statement in its Second Preface ('to the Christian Reader'), that Dr. Johann Faust 'lived within the memory of men,' is the last of such notices of him appealing to contemporary evidence as appear to be discoverable. Gradually, doubts as to his historic existence began to spread; nor was it till, nearly a century after the first publication of the story-book, the Wittenberg theologian, Johann Neumann, had in his Disquisitio historica de Fausto praestigiatore (1683) reviewed the evidence on the subject, that further historical notices of the hero of so vast a body of legend were thought worth discovering56.

The writer of this story-book annotates the account of Faustus' dealings with Sultan Soliman (chap. xxvi) by the remark that 'Solimannus began his reign in 1519'; and it is therefore clear that he considers the life of Faustus to have been spent in the earlier half, and partly in the first quarter, of the sixteenth century. This agrees with the evidence as to chronology already cited, as well as with the dates on the wall at Leipzig, and with those given by Widmann, the author of a later literary version of the legend. But Widmann's dates fail to tally with the notices of Georgius Sabellicus or Faustus; and whether or not we assume him to have been a different person from the real Doctor Johannes Faustus, it will be safe to assign the public life of the latter to some time between the years 1510 and 1540. The places in which one or the other is stated to have made his appearances are, as has been seen, numerous already in the historical notices, which likewise mention as such Wulrzburg, Gotha, Meissen, and Prague; their number was largely increased by the legend, and was doubtless in the case of the actual Faustus very large and multifarious. It has even been thought possible to distinguish between an Upper-Rhine, a Wittenberg, and an Erfurt Faust tradition; the former two being on the whole unfriendly to Faust, who at Wittenberg was asserted to have been born and to have died in the South-West, Melanchthon's country, while the humanistic circles at Erfurt had been favourably impressed by him57.

Such comment as appears requisite in the case of one or two of these places will be made below, after some of the variations offered by the legend have been noticed. It may here be added, that the various writings on magic attributed to the actual Dr. Faustus are all palpable forgeries. These tractates, of which the earliest is the famous 'Doctor Faustus' Triple Charm of Hell' (Dreifacher Hollenzwang), pretending to have been printed at Lyons in 1469, begin with the end of the sixteenth, or the early part of the seventeenth century, and continue into the eighteenth58. The name of Faustus had by this time become, in one way or another, indispensable for every publication of the sort. Nor, on the other hand, will any value be attached to the assertion by Widmann in a passage of his commentary59, that he is citing rhymes composed by Dr. Faustus himself, when he quotes some verses developing in German the sentiment:

'Credite mortales, noctis potatio mors est;'

(which verses Dr. Faustus, he aserts, bore as his symbolum or motto when a student of medicine)—and a Latin distich, with its German translation, impressing a similar maxim and said...

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Philip Mason Palmer and Robert Pattison More (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: "The Historical Faust," in their The Sources of the Faust Tradition: From Simon Magus to Lessing, Oxford University Press, 1936, pp. 81-126.

[In the following excerpt, Palmer and More present testimony and hearsay from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries concerning the actual existence and career of Faust; they note that the fantastic nature of the "evidence" increases during the second half of the sixteenth century.]

The documentary evidence which is generally advanced for the existence of a historical Faust[1] is of varying value. The mixture of legendary matter with material that is really authentic is inevitable and increases as we get...

(The entire section is 9210 words.)

H. G. Haile (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Reconstruction of the Faust Book: The Disputations," in PMLA, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 3, June, 1963, pp. 175-89.

[In the following essay, Haile pieces together several variations of the German Faust Book in order to establish as accurately as possible the original, uncorrupted version of that text.]

Toward the close of the last century, one of the busiest areas of literary research centered about the Faust Book. The Faust image, that unique gift of Germany to Western tradition, had fascinated scholars and critics for over a hundred years, and the oldest printed texts of the Faust Book had long since been established and edited. During the nineteenth century,...

(The entire section is 12906 words.)

Madeleine B. Stern (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "The First German Faust Published in America," in American Notes & Queries, Vol. X, No. 8, April, 1972, pp. 115-6.

[In the following essay, Stern discusses the original publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust in America during the nineteenth-cenitury Transcendenitalist literary movement. Stern also comments on the resonance of the Faust myth in the American mind.]

The importance of Goethe in the cultural life of 19th-century America has been so well documented that any further evidence may seem superfluous and all but impossible. Yet a footnote, in the form of a previously underestimated "first", may now be added to the towering...

(The entire section is 915 words.)

Clarence K. Pott (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "The Seventeenth-Century Dutch Faust Play," in Husbanding the Golden Grain: Studies in Honor of Henry W. Nordmeyer, edited by Luanne T. Frank and Emery E. George, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of Michigan, 1973, pp. 238-54.

[In the following essay, Pott discusses adaptations of the Faust legend in Dutch drama.]

Holland's contribution to the Faust literature is a modest one. But with much of sixteenth-century Europe it shared an early interest and knowledge regarding the notorious doctor. For in the course of his wanderings Faust came also to the Low Countries. He even gained a kind of prominence there: he was...

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J. W. Smeed (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Faust As a Character and a Type: Changes in Interpretation and Motivation," in his Faust in Literature, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 14-33.

[In the following excerpt, Smeed traces the development of the Faust character in literature: from a wicked, grasping trickster, to an overreacher lusting for knowledge, to a noble character striving for a knowledge that will correct the injustices of the world.]

Le magicien coupable et maudit—l'esthète ambitieux—le 'génie original' tumultueux et passioné—le surhumain ou l'homme intégral selon Goethe—le blasé romantique—l'utopiste d'un monde meilleur—Faust est cela tour à tour,...

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Marguerite De Huszar Allen (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Faustbuch and The Golden Legend: The Faustian Reversal of the Saint's Life," in her The Faust Legend: Popular Formula and Modern Novel, Germanic Studies in America, Vol. 53, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1985, pp. 13-41.

[Allen suggests that the Faust legend as it developed in Germany in particular appeared during the Reformation as a Lutheran response to the Catholic Golden Legend, a popular rendition of the lives of the Saints, which Martin Luther condemned as idol worship.]

If the Faustbuch is a popular formula, where did it come from? What are its popular roots? Why did the Faust formula thrive? I believe the answers to these...

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Frank Baron (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "From Witchcraft to Doctor Faustus," in The Verbal and the Visual: Essays in Honor of William Sebastian Heckscher, edited by Karl-Ludwig Selig and Elizabeth Sears, Italica Press, 1990, pp. 1-15.

[In the following excerpt, Baron discusses the historical background of the idea of a pact with the devil, as well as the case of the highly educated and initially well-respected doctor of law, Dietrich Flade (who was burned for witchcraft in 1589), to draw connections between the witch hunts of late-sixteenth-century Europe and the enduring Faust legend.]

Despite the great mass of literature on the Faust legend, the question about the relationship between witch hunting...

(The entire section is 5659 words.)

Frank Baron (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Making of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten: The Emergence of the Faustian Pact," in his Faustus on Trial: The Origins of Johann Spies's "Historia" in an Age of Witch Hunting, Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1992, pp. 110-46, 157-68.

[In the following excerpt, Baron discusses the literary tradition of pacts with the devil that preceded the first known instances of the Faust legend in print.]

Augustin Lercheimer speaks of a pact that Faustus had made, but he supplies few details. As far as we know, Lercheimer was the first to claim that Faustus made a pact for twenty-four years and that when he later tried to repent, the devil forced him to sign a second pact...

(The entire section is 7362 words.)

Frank Baron (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Precarious Legacy of Renaissance Humanism in the Faust Legend," in The Harvest of Humanism in Central Europe: Essays in Honor of Lewis W. Spitz, edited by Manfred P. Fleischer, Concordia Publishing House, 1992, pp. 303-15.

[In the following essay, Baron discusses the evolution of the Faust legend from its inception through its transformation into both a tale of warning against Renaissance humanism and its veneration of the heroes of classical antiquity; and as a Protestant condemnation of the Catholic Church.]

Although Goethe portrayed his Faust as a Renaissance scholar, the original legend on which he based his story displays surprisingly little interest...

(The entire section is 5398 words.)

Roslynn D. Haynes (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Evil Alchemists and Doctor Faustus," in her From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, pp. 9-22.

[In the excerpt below, Haynes contrasts the sinister medieval view of Faust as a black hearted alchemist with more benign Renaissance humanist interpretations that see Faust as an inquisitive mortal striving to surpass his human limitations.]

Remote as they may seem from twentieth-century atomic physicists or industrial chemists in white lab coats, surrounded by equipment costing more than their life earnings, the medieval alchemists were the predecessors of modern scientists. Not only...

(The entire section is 1476 words.)

Timothy Richard Wutrich (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Prometheus Transformed and Transposed: Faustus As the Reformation Prometheus," in his Prometheus and Faust: The Promethean Revolt in Drama from Classical Antiquity to Goethe, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 67-104.

[In the following essay, Wutrich traces the evolution of the Promethean myth in classical drama and suggests that elements of this myth converged with the legend of Faust the magician, so that by the sixteenth century, artistic interpretations of the Faust legend, and in particular Christopher Marlowe's drama Doctor Faustus, contained aspects of both archetypal stories.]

Magus, Gnostic Philosopher, and Occult Scientist


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Primary Sources

Hebrew, Greek, and Latin Authors: Editions and Translations

Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound. Translated with introduction by David Grene in The Complete Greek Tragedies. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

——. Murray, Gilbert, ed. Aeschyli septem quae supersunt tragoediae. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938.

——. Griffith, Mark, ed. Prometheus Bound. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

——. Page, Denys, ed. Aeschyli septem quae supersunt tragoediae. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

——. Prometheus Bound. Translated by...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Secondary Sources

Barnet, Sylvan, ed. Doctor Faustus. By Christopher Marlowe. New York: Penguin Books, 1969.

Baron, Frank. "George Lukacs on the Origins of the Faust Legend." In Four Hundred Years of Faust. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1989, pp. 1-25.…

Boas, Frederick S. Christopher Marlowe: A Biographical and Critical Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940…

Brune, Lester H. "Magic's Relation to the Intellectual History of Western Civilization." Journal of Thought 18 (1983): 55 - 64.…

Butler, E. M. The Fortunes of Faust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952.

——. The Myth of the Magus....

(The entire section is 590 words.)

Ian Watt (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus," in his Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 27-47.

[In the following essay, Watt demonstrates that through his play Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe guaranteed the longevity of the Faust legend while altering it to suit Renaissance tastes as well as his own individuality and Faustian-like temperament.]

The English Faust Book

The Faustbuch was a tremendous success, on an international scale. Within two years there were some sixteen German versions, including...

(The entire section is 6751 words.)