Historia von D. Johann Fausten Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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