Historia von D. Johann Fausten Essay - Critical Essays

Historia von D. Johann Fausten


Historia von D. Johann Fausten 1587

When a chapbook entitled Historia von D. Johann Fausten was published in Germany in 1587, the Faust legend was already part of German popular culture. Despite the stories of black magic, alchemy, necromancy, and a pact with the devil, the legend has some basis in reality. Known facts concerning the life of the man known as Doctor Johannes Faustus are sketchy at best, but there is little doubt that a scholar who went by that name (but whose real name may have been Georgius Sabellicus or Georg Helmstetter) enjoyed a dubious renown in early sixteenth-century Germany. He was believed by some to be an authentic sorcerer but considered by many others to be a trickster and a cheat who defrauded the gullible of money or property through feats of stage magic. His reputation in Ingolstadt was bad enough to cause his banishment from that city in 1528. References to Faust in contemporary letters and essays seem to suggest that he died in the late 1530s or early 1540s. Some time after his death rumors began that his apparent feats of alchemy and conjuring had been authentic. A 1562 book by Johann Manlius, a student of the theological reformer Phillipp Melanchthon, introduced the idea that Faust had studied magic in Cracow. The suggestion that Faust had made a deal with the devil in return for supernatural abilities soon became part of the legend. By the time the Historia appeared, the fact of a wandering charlatan who used the name Faust or Faustus was inextricably bound up with a body of legend that pronounced the man an actual wizard who had paid with his life and his immortal soul for daring to attain more than mortal knowledge and power.

Biographical Information

The Historia was published anonymously in chapbook form by printer Johan Spies, and is often refered to as the Faust-buch. The edition included a prefatory letter of dedication from Spies, stating that the text was "communicated and sent" to him by "a good friend from Speyer." Spies himself is often investigated as a possible author, but there is no definitive evidence to indicate that he actually wrote the account. Because of the work's episodic, disjointed nature, and the wide currency of a variety of Faust stories by 1587, it is possible that the book actually had a variety of authors, each contributing a separate incident from the protagonist's life, but a single compiler who gathered the material into the Faust-buch.

Plot and Major Characters

The Historia von D. Johann Fausten has only two characters of any importance: Faustus and Mephostophiles. Lacking a unified plot, the text presents a series of picaresque adventures and escapades with little depiction of character or examination of motive. Rather, the text is one designed for primarily for education (for, in the end, Faustus's power results in his destruction) and entertainment (the Historia is one of the few written versions of the Faust legend that features frequent humorous episodes).

Major Themes

The Historia shares themes with the better-known Faust books that followed it. It is the story of an intelligent individual whose desire for knowledge and power outweighs his better judgment and moral sense. As such it brings into question whether or not seeking knowledge is ultimately an act of sinful pride on the part of humankind. It is also a story of the conflict between the immediacy of the present world, with its many known pleasures, and the uncertainty of the afterlife that has been promised, yet regarding which no one can be certain.

Critical Reception

Because of its influence on later masterpieces of world literature by Christopher Marlowe, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Thomas Mann, among others, and because it was composed at a time when the historical Faustus was a figure of recent memory, critical examination of the Historia has been almost exclusively historical or textual. For generations, scholars used the 1587 text as a source for research into the origins of the Faust figure, dismissing the supernatural aspects of the story in order to concentrate on supposedly factual information. More recently, however, commentators have viewed the Historia as almost exclusively fictional, finding value in what it inspired rather than in what it recorded, and finding indication of the sixteenth-century German world view through what was celebrated in the text and what was condemned as evil. Evaluations of the Historia's literary worth have centered on whether the text is a coherent work or merely an unrefined jumble of anecdotes. Speculation that the 1587 text may be a translation from a Latin original has fueled further textual debate in the late twentieth century


Frank Baron (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Which Faustus Died in Staufen? History and Legend in the Zimmerische Chronik," in German Studies Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, May, 1983, pp. 185-94.

[In the following essay, Baron maintains that sixteenth-century Faust texts are more useful as tools for examining legend formation than as sources of biographical information regarding the historical Faust.]

Although prominent scholars like Robert Petsch and Ernst Beutler discounted the Zimmerische Chronik as a reliable source for the biography of the historical Faustus, there has been a tendency in recent times to argue that this work supplies accurate information.1 Because the popular chronicle is the only early source giving detailed information about the time, place as well as manner of Faustus's death, this tendency is understandable. But if we examine the chronicle carefully, we discover a neglected wealth of stories closely related to the topic of Faustus. The nature of these stories seriously undermines the value of the Zimmerische Chronik as a reliable historical source. The Faustus we find here is not the historical Faustus who was known to Johannes Trithemius, Mutianus Rufus, the Bishop of Bamberg, Joachim Camerarius, and Philipp von Hutten. We discover here another Faustus, whose origins point to certain developments in Wittenberg, the Faustus who made a pact with the devil, the Faustus of the legend. Thus, whatever we may lose in certainty about the death of Faustus is outweighed by the valuable insights into the process of legend formation and into the mysterious origins of the most important Faustus publication, the anonymous Historia of 1587.

Due to the publication of Wolfgang Brückner's Volkserzählung und Reformation, we have today a much better idea about the context in which the legend of Faustus evolved. There is a wealth of evidence here that a new image of Faustus was inspired by and drawn from numerous exempla or story collections.2 These works provide information about the life of this particular diabolical magician, and they relate other stories that eventually found their way into the Historia of 1587. An early example of this kind of publication is Johannes Gast's Sermones conviviales in 1548; in the 1560s, these works proliferated to an unprecedented degree. Although the Zimmerische Chronik was not published in the sixteenth century, it is assumed that it was written down and completed in 1564-1566.3

The Zimmerische Chronik is not the first report about how Faustus died. Without stating where or when it occurred, Johannes Gast tells us that "… he (Faustus) was strangled by the devil and his body on its bier kept turning face downward even though it was five times turned on its back."4 On the other hand, about fourteen years later, Johannes Manlius was able to provide a location for Faustus's death: "… in a certain village of the Duchy of Würteemberg … In the middle of the night the house was shaken. When Faustus did not get up in the morning, and when it was now almost noon, the host with several others went into his bedroom and found him lying near the bed with his face turned toward his back. Thus the devil had killed him."5 According to the Historia of 1587, Faustus died in Wittenberg. The Zimmerische Chronik contradicts Manlius as well as the Historia with regard to the place where Faustus died, and we need to understand why and how these and other contradictions developed.

The Zimmerische Chronik also sees Faustus as a practitioner of the black arts ("Schwarzkünstler"): "Derselbig ist nach vilen wunderbarlichen sachen, die er bei seinem leben geiebt, darvon auch ain besonderer tractat wer zu machen, letzstlich in der herrschaft Staufen im Preisgew in großem alter vom bösen gaist umbgebracht worden" (Zimmerische Chronik, I, p. 577). To understand the specific problem of the new location of Staufen an awareness of the context in which the Faustus narrative appears is helpful. The Zimmerische Chronik treats the black arts frequently. Johann Werner von Zimmern as well as Froben Christoph von Zimmern were keenly interested in the black arts, but both realized finally the danger and evil in this practice and resolved to abandon it. The first mention of Faustus follows a narrative describing how before his death Johann Werner had most of his valuable books burned. He also made sure that his sons had ample warnings about these "arts" that had caused him great harm. With this background the introductory statement about Faustus is more easily understood: "Das aber die pratik solcher kunst nit allain gottlos, sonder zum höchsten sorgclich, das ist unlaugenbar, dann sich das in der erfarnus beweist, und wissen, wie es dem weitberuempten schwarzkünstler, dem Fausto, ergangen."6 In a wider context, the references to Faustus are part of a series of anecdotes or exempla warning about the dangers of black magic. In my studies concerning the evolution of the Faustus legend in Wittenberg, I have treated the history of three such exempla from the Zimmerische Chronik briefly.7 The story of the Zimmerische Chronik about a nobleman of Almanshofen capturing a devil in glass can be found in many variations. It was published in 1562, for example, next to Manlius's biographical sketch of Faustus. We find that it was a popular story that was told about Vergil in the Middle Ages and, subsequently, about Faustus's contemporary, Paracelsus. Then, following a passage about the diabolical Faustus, the Zimmerische Chronik tells us about a magician who flies and falls to the ground: "So hat der doctor … zu Marggrafen-Baden sich dieser kunst auch verschwunden; als im aber die kunst felet und den gaist in ainem experiment wolt übertreiben und netten, ward er in die höche gefüert; da ließ er ine herab wider fallen; doch belib er bei leben" (Zimmerische Chronik, I, p. 577). In this reenactment of Simon Magus's attempt to fly, the Zimmerische Chronik is clearly under Manlius's influence. His Collectanea (1562) describes the situation in the following manner: "(Faustus) wolte hinauff in Himmel fliegen. Alsbald füret in der Teuffel hinweg, und hat jn dermassen zermartert unnd zerstossen, daß er, da wider auff die Erden kam, vor todt da lag. Doch ist er das mal nicht gestorben."8 The chronicle unmistakably preserves Manlius's unusual formulation of the close call with death; Simon Magus is said to have been killed under the same circumstances. Finally, there is the story of the Cologne doctor, whose violent death at the hands of the devil follows in the Zimmerische Chronik after the story of the doctor from "Marggrafen-Baden." But this story is very similar to the one told by Melanchthon about a Regensburg nobleman, also a practitioner of magic and also victim of a violent death caused by the devil. We find, in other words, a consistent tendency to borrow anecdotes from other sources; these anecdotes reappear in the Zimmerische Chronik with changes in detail and in new geographical settings.

The Zimmerische Chronik illustrates this characteristic pattern, furthermore, by a series of anecdotes told about a certain Ludwig von Liechtenberg, an Alsatian nobleman of the fourteenth century. These stories are, once again, borrowed from other sources, and they are very closely related to stories that are destined, eventually, to find their way into the Historia of 1587. This fact, like the direct link between the Zimmerische Chronik and Manlius's Collectanea, has been overlooked in recent Faust scholarship.

There is, for example, the lavish banquet with expensive foods on silver plates with the French royal coat of arms. On the same day the king of France holds a banquet from which the food and dishes mysteriously disappear (Zimmerische Chronik, I, p. 469). Barbara Könneker discovered a related story about the Jewish magician Rabbi Adam, who prepares a similar banquet for the Emperor Maximilian II (1564-1576) in Prague, and in this instance the food and dishes are mysteriously stolen from the king of Spain.9 These stories are strongly influenced by legends concerning Albertus Magnus, and it is appropriate that the Zimmerische Chronik also refers to his feats immediately after the banquet story. Among the stories about Albertus—available from another source—we also find the narrative that must have been the source of these magical banquet feats in the sixteenth century. When a prince once asked for oysters, Albertus knocked at a window and someone immediately handed him a full plate, and the plate itself was decorated with fleur-de-lils. Since one made inquiries, it was learned that a plate with oysters had been taken from the kitchen of the French king.10 In other words, it appears that the Zimmerische Chronik simply substitutes the name of Ludwig von Liechtenberg for Albertus Magnus, slightly revising and expanding on the older narrative.

In the Historia the magical summoning of exotic foods appears in a number of passages; for example, in chapter 46, where Faustus declares to his guests in Wittenberg: "Nun wisset jr, daß in vieler Potentaten Höfen die Faßnacht mit köstlichen Speisen und Geträncken gehalten wirdt, dessen solt jhr auch theilhafftig werden.…"11

It is difficult to believe that the author of the chronicle made this radical adaptation unconsciously. He shows, after all, that he had access to texts containing stories about Albertus Magnus (Zimmerische Chronik, I, pp. 469-470). This tendency to transfer stories from one magician to another is a common phenomenon in the sixteenth century; the evolution of the Faustus legend provides numerous examples. The question remains: Why did this occur? Why did the author of the chronicle attach stories that were told about Albertus Magnus to Ludwig von Liechtenberg? A partial explanation may be possible with a reference to the witchcraft persecutions. The witch trials of the sixteenth century convinced many people that there were certain consistent elements in the conditions, rewards, and punishment of diabolical magic. This awareness guided the work of lawyers and judges. Being exposed to the same influences, the author of the chronicle could have been convinced that in any particular instance of diabolical magic one could reasonably expect the same kind of behavior or feats as in previously recorded instances.

The Zimmerische Chronik relates that on another occasion Ludwig von Liechtenberg reluctantly sells his beautiful...

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Marguerite De Huszar Allen (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Montage and the Faust Theme: The Influence of the 1587 Faustbuch on Thomas Mann's Montage Technique in Doktor Faustus," in Journal of European Studies, Vol. 13, 1983, pp. 109-21.

[In the following essay, Allen argues that the montage technique used by Thomas Mann in his 1947 novel Doktor Faustus was adapted from the fragmented structure of the anonymous 1587 Historia. She also discusses the appropriateness of the montage structure to the Faust story.]


In his scholarship on Thomas Mann's use of the 1587 Faustbuch in Doktor Faustus, Dietrich Assmann observes that the Faustbuch exhibits "eine...

(The entire section is 5379 words.)

Frank Baron (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Faust Book's Indebtedness to Augustin Lercheimer and Wittenberg Sources," Daphnis, Vol. 14, No. 3, 1985, pp. 517-45.

[Below, Baron provides both biographical and textual evidence in support of the imfluence of Augustin Lercheimer's Christlich bedencken und erjnnerung von Zauberey (1585) on the original Faust Book, the Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published by Johann Spies in 1587.]

The Faust-Book, originally entitled the Historia von D. Johann Fausten and published by Johann Spies in 1587, has been, directly or indirectly, the catalyst for the entire European Faust tradition in literature. Its instant popularity and its...

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Alfred Hoelzel (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Faust and the Fall," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXXII, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 315-31.

In the following essay, Hoelzel offers an interpretation of the Faust story in general and the Historia in particular as deriving much of its archetypal power fromits relationship to the story of Adam and Eve's transgression in Genesis.

Scarcely any legend or myth has so fired the imagination of writers or so captivated their readers as the Faust legend, the story of a man who willfully risks eternal doom by trading with the devil for a limited period of superhuman knowledge and power. The literary tradition surrounding the legend that took root in the...

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Marguerite De Huszar Allen (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Reception of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten," in German Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 582-94.

In the following essay, Allen provides an overview of Faustbuch scholarship and argues that, by reading the Faust stories as a sort of rreversed hagiography, the Historia can be understood as both a collection of anecdotes and as a unified text.]

When Robert Petsch developed in 1911 the hypothesis of a Latin text for the original Ur-Faustbuch, he set up the contrast between a superior but unfortunately theoretical text and an inferior but actually extant text. This Latin Ur-Faustbuch had been a unique Renaissance...

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Frank Baron (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Making of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten: The Trial of Faustus: The Legacy of Witches and Learned Magicians," and "The Making of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten: The Contributions of Johann Spies to the Historia," 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 excerpts, Baron reads the 1587 Historia as a text primarily concerned with the mid-sixteenth-century debate concerning witchcraft and with the struggles between opposing religious factions. He also presents evidence suggesting that Johann Spies may have been more than just the...

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Further Reading

Allen, Marguerite De Huszar. The Faust Legend: Popular Formula and Modern Novel. Germanic Studies in America 39. New York: Peter Lang, 1985.

Examines the influence the Faust legends and the Historia in particular have had on modern fiction.

Baron, Frank. Doctor Faustus: From History to Legend. Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1978.

Provides a detailed analysis of the process whereby first- and second-generation accounts of the various Faust and Faust-like figures were made into popular legend.

——. "The Faust Book's Indebtedness to Augustin Lercheimer and the Wittenberg Sources." German Quarterly 59.4 (Fall 1986): 582-94....

(The entire section is 322 words.)