A monography on Dr. Faustus
Part I – his life according to official documents and letters from his contemporaries
Few magicians have raised as much interest in their biography as the notorious Dr. Faustus. The first biography had been published by Johann Spies in Frankfurt in 1587. It had been one of the very first best sellers in the history of printed books, as it reached 14! in words fourteen editions between 1588 and 1592.
The story about the unlucky magician, his pact with the devil, his pranks, his adventures and his mysterious death became subject of several books, plays and folk tales.
The myths, which were spun around Dr. Faust already during his lifetime make it difficult to separate facts from fame.
The question if Dr. Faust had been a really existing person can be answered positive.
He was born around 1480 or 1481 in Knittlingen, a village near Karlsruhe in the south of Germany. Nowadays it is proudly hosting an extensive archive and a little museum, dedicated to the community’s most famous son.
A copy of a document, which had been the official registration of the sale of an estate beside the city’s church to the family Faust had been made in the 1930ties. That copy’s authenticity is officially attested. The original document fell victim to a city fire during the Second World War (1939 – 1945).
The next proof for the existence of the family and their presence in that region is the appearance of the name in a recruiting list of Maulbronn’s induction station.
Faust seems to have studied in Wuerzburg. Afterwards he used the name George Sabellicus Faustus, junior.
From Trithemius’ remarks, referring to Faustus in a letter we know that the young man had worked for some time as a teacher in the village school of Kreuznach. He seems to ave got that job with the help of Franz von Sickingen’s mediation. Somewhen around 1507 he was forced to flee from Kreuznach as he had been blamed of depravity.
In that same letter Trithemius described Faustus as “a vagabond, a necromancer, platitudinarian and fraudulent scallywag, deserving nothing else but to be whipped out of town”.
There is a gap of about 2 years, for which no documents on the Doctor’s vita are existing. In 1509 his name appears in a registration list of enrolments for the arts’ faculty.
The next mention of Dr. Faustus is to be round in a letter, written by Conradt Muth, canon of Gotha, also mentioned in historical sources as Martinus Rufus because of his red hair.
The letter from October, 7th, 1513 to his pupil Henry Urbanus the canon tells about Faust, that “a certain chiromancer, calling himself the ‘demi-god from Heidelberg’ ” had come to Erfurt. Muth describes the impression, which that ” demi-god” left to him, as that of a boaster, fool and charlatan, prophetysing braggart admired by the simple folks.”
From the chronicles of the abbots of the monastery at Maulbronn from 1516 we know that the abbot John Entenfuss had given shelter to Dr. Faustus. As the diocese’s coffers were always empty he expected the magician to make gold for him. The abbot’s hopes were not fulfilled, and the doctor’s trail is lost again or some time.
Several of his contemporaries report of his wish to study magic at one of the ” magicians’ schools” , the universities of Toledo and Salamanca in Spain and in Cracow, Poland.
Some of the early biographies report that Faustus after his leaving Maulbronn in 1516 and before his reappearance in Bamberg in 1520 had studied magical sciences in Cracow.
The doctor’s stay in Bamberg is proved by an invoice from the bishop’s court, as Faustus has been paid for a horoscope, casted by him for the bishop.
According to the chronicles of the city of Leipzig by John Jacob Vogel and the dedication of a book of the Protestant theologian John Gast in Basel, Switzerland, Faustus seems to have spent some time in these two cities in 1525.
The first biography on the magician’s life gives 1525 as the year, in which he made his pact with the devil.
Next he appears in the chronicles of Rebdorf monastery, where he had spent some time in 1528. In the same year he had been turned off Ingolstadt, as the city’s annals of that year are reporting.
It may be speculated about Faustus’ next stay, that he had spent some at the French court of Franz I. That king’s sons were held hostage at the court of Charles V. in Spain. Agrippa of Nettelsheim tells us that a certain magician had claimed to be able to liberate them with his spirits’ help and bring them safely home by letting them fly through the air – also by magical means, as we may guess.
Although Agrippa does not namecheck Dr. Faustus, it is not unlikely that he had been that optimistic magician, as several sources report his boasting of his rule over spirits / devils at his obedience and their ability to carry him over long distances through the air.
We know for sure that Dr. Faustus had spent the years from 1530 until 1532 in Wittenberg, where at the same time the German reformer Martin Luther was living. In his famous and mostly well documented table talks Luther did not only mention and describe spooky activities, he also ranted against pleasure loving magicians and their infernal assistants.
Luther, a child of his time, awfully – sometimes nearly to the degree of pathological paranoia – afraid of the devil, his hellish entourage and their human worshippers – had suffered from temporary fits of fear, which made him think his home and himself being haunted by the inhabitants of hell.
It may be suspected that Dr. Faustus may have sent one of his spirits, producing poltergeist phenomena to Martin Luther’s home after the magician had heard about himself being occasionally the object of the theologist’s pious revilements.
In 1532 Dr. Faustus had to leave Wittenberg, a the country’s ruler, John the Persistent, issued an arrest warrant for the doctor. No reason for that is given, but the wizzard’s posing in every pub and backyard as the wise magician, knower of future events and master of spirits may have contributed to the elector prince’s decision.
From here the trail of Faustus appearances in historical documents becomes thinner.
Stays in Nuremberg and Battenberg are reported.
Dr. Faustus met his death in the little village of Stauffen. According to some sources this happened in 1539; others state 1541 as the year of the wizzard’s death. All agree in the fact of a sudden, mysterious and violent death, that came to Faustus during his stay in that little village near Freiburg.
To be continued
Part II tells about the magical adventures and pranks according to the early books on the wizzard’s life.
In Part III we will have a look on the impact of the myths about Dr. Faustus on German folk magic.