Faust Book                                         about the Faust Book



  The Historical Faustus

       So familiar in world literature, music and the arts, Faust is a figure whose origins are almost forgotten, or even quite unknown.  Most popular is the argument that there really existed such a fellow in Germany in the early 1500s.  It is certainly true that literary scholarship has been pursuing its quest for an "historical Faust" within the homeland ever since the beginnings of that discipline among the German Romantics.  Scholars still value the Faust Book (Historia von Dr. Johann Faustus, late 1500s) as a source of information about this celebrated national figure.

       Reciprocity between history and legend is familiar to students of ancient lore, witness Arthurian romance, or the monumental work by Robert Graves with Greek myth.  Whether you are trying to discern "authentic" parts of a tale, or using the tale to infer historical fact, you are liable to bump into your own nose, since literary and imaginative components of a tradition soar far beyond actual events.  Obviously, precisely those tales in the Faust Book which are not confirmed in German archives are the ones more likely to be authentic literary creations.

        Unlike King Arthur or Theseus, however, the Faust figure rose to notoriety through the print medium, still new in the 16th century, and on a tide of religious dispute with its flood of popular pamphlets and chap books.  Among these, the first surviving Faust tales turn up in Nuremberg.  In one little collection, that by Christoph Roßhirt in about 1580, tricks on peasants, moneylenders, and on the nobility, etc., differ from other tales of rascality in that the prankster is a sorcerer aided by a familiar spirit.  About the same time, and probably in the same city, a truly gifted writer puts together a charming little novel using some of these same Faust tales, and some more besides.  This is the manuscript which I offer here in English translation.  It is important as one of the very earliest novels in any modern language.

       Why do I call it a novel?  The Faust Book author pulls all his episodes together artistically, no small accomplishment at this early date in northern Europe.  His work has a beginning, a middle and an end, all narrated with grace and a sense of humor that sets the author apart from the tales he tells.  Yet he puts the whole story into the service of his own idea, his personal sense and view of the world.  That is no doubt what directed his choice of protagonist in the first place.  Faustus was already a name which meant a great deal in the religious debate at the focus of intellectual life in 16th-century Germany.

       Nuremberg was one of those cities still wrapped in the church schism begun by Martin Luther and finalized by a separate council of the Roman Church at Trent in 1545, not attended by Luther's reform clergy from northern Europe.   They, of course, differed among themselves, too.  Doctrine played a central rôle in everyone's thinking.  It constituted the principal guide not only in private life but also for public policy and even for basic business assumptions.  In Nuremberg Luther's pupils (among them Andreas Osiander, famous today as publisher of Copernicus' work) occupied important church offices.  The unknown author of the Faust novel need not have been a preacher, or at all connected with the church, to have been fluent in the terms of the debate.  For most participants the name Faustus was already charged with a meaning quite its own.  To theologians, Faustus was connected with the central problem in Christian doctrine:  can salvation be attained through a man's good works, or only by God's redeeming grace?  --Or perhaps by both working together, as claimed by some in a narrower Protestant controversy of the 1580s? It was in this context that the Faust figure began to capture creative imaginations.  The novel quickly took on a life of its own, quite independent of the church. 

       Eventually of course, the denominational quarrels which had loomed so large in 16th-century thought became outdated and were forgotten.     Modern readers are not so religiously involved.  Scholars of history and literature associated Faust less with faith than with an Enlightenment classic, and then with a folk tradition.  Enthusiasts began to call the Faust Book by the Romantic term Volksbuch.   No longer able to see religion as central to thought or to writing, researchers devoted their efforts and enormous resources to their quest for a "historical Faust"--by which they meant a secular figure more or less contemporaneous with the novel itself.  And they found him, of course.  Several plausible individuals could be attested in archives, in memoirs, and  in public records.  Some of these may have been known to the author of the Faust Book, or to the citizens of Nuremberg.  Perhaps not.

         But a truly historical Faustus was very well known among Luther's contemporaries, even though he had lived nearly a thousand years earlier, and not in German lands at all, but in Roman Africa.  To theologians, the teachings of this 4th-century Numidian bishop were closely related to the dispute between Catholic and Protestant and then also among Protestant factions themselves. Faustus was prominent in the writings of Saint Augustine (published in 1506 by Joh. Froben, then widely circulated in the ten-volume edition by Desiderius Erasmus.  Here the largest individual work comprises Augustine's treatises Contra Faustum (précis here).

       As Augustinian monk, Luther had naturally sought authority, next only to the Bible, from the patron saint of his order, Aurelius Augustinus (354-430).   Augustine's decisive rôle as Church father during its formative years lay in setting orthodox Catholic belief off from unacceptable heresies.  Among his principal opponents was the leader of a sect to which Augustine had himself earlier belonged, the redoubtable debater Faustus of Mileve. He was a bishop among the Manichees, a sect which claimed to base everything on reason.  Its members were in fact skilled in astronomical calculations and predictions.  But Faustus made his greatest pretensions to understanding good and evil.  Characteristic of Manichaeism was an incisive dualism which saw all creation as divided between powers of light and darkness.  To Augustine, that seemed tantamount to rejecting monotheism.  Fortunately, Augustine preserved for us his own trenchant debates (ca. 383) against Faustus, as cited above.   Lutherans  gratefully found support in them for their own insistence that the Grace of God is all inclusive, yet everywhere and always present in the world, far surpassing human understanding.  As to Faustus' confidence in the intellect, they easily equated reason with the influence of the devil, and of course Luther liked to draw a parallel between the Manichees and the Church of Rome, which he charged with also dispensing and manipulating God's Grace.

       The Augustinian / Lutheran notion of an all-encompassing Grace of God seems to be the central problem in the Faust Book.  Faustus simply cannot believe it.  The novel tells us over and over again how Faustus is committed to the proud imagining that his wicked deeds surpass even God's forgiveness.  That leads him to the fundamental sin of despair.  We see Faustus availing himself of every means he can devise to persuade himself that the Grace of God is valid.  His devil tells him flatly that by these very efforts he damns himself to hell.  The Faust Book's preoccupation with this problem of "justification" reflects the concerns of Protestantism toward the end of the sixteenth century.

       Martin Luther devoted the last few years of his life toward the diplomatic effort to present a united front at the anticipated Church Council.  He invited colleagues from Switzerland, South and West Germany, even England, first to Wittenberg, then to Schmalkalden (1537), where their "Articles of Faith" were indeed formulated.  But the Church Council did not convene until the year of his death, and the Germans were not represented there.  Although one of the council's first acts was to affirm Papal authority in matters of doctrine (rejecting Lutheran sola scriptura), the council did also reject the heresy that man can effect his own salvation (Pelagianism). Subsequent Protestant debate continued to dispute this question as to whether man's good works cannot at least prompt God's grace.  This socalled "synergism" dispute culminated in the Book of Concord (1579-81), formulated during the same years as the Faust Book.  Gustav Milchsack, the first editor of theWolfenbüttel MS, urged us to read it in the light of those contemporary arguments.  Should we do so, then Faust's stubborn persistance in trying to achieve salvation on his own hook might be termed Pelagianist:  Faustus embodies the heretical notion that man can overcome original sin to achieve moral freedom and responsibility.

Read the  Faust Book                                                                                                Home

or read about the Faust Book                --and I would be most grateful for your comments.