the Faust Book                                                                                                  the historical figure

History of the Faust Book

       Publishing old documents to a web page may be more different from printing them than we know--still, there is nothing for it but to go ahead and to make our mistakes. One day someone may correct them. For example, the old Faust Book was published during a similar transition, that from manuscript to print during the late 1500's in Germany. There resulted a confusion at the most elementary level, and it continued for four hundred years. By way of clearing the air, I would like to start from scratch. Please  click to "Textual Critcism" if you are interested in a few general background considerations.

       The Faust Book seems to be a very early novel written during the Lutheran church squabbles (1568-81) or shortly thereafter.  It comes down to us in manuscript (Historia vnd Geschicht Doctor Johannis Faustj des Zauberers) written in clear hand by a professional scribe in Nuremberg, still in very good, unused condition, and also as a 1587 imprint from the prominent Frankfurt publishing house of Johann Spies. The availability of the work in print may explain the unused condition of the manuscript, suggesting that it was copied down not too long before 1587.

      All this means that we are actually very lucky, for the following reasons.  The manuscript and the print are obviously both versions of the same (lost) parent or grandparent, but it can also be shown that they were made quite independently of one another.  That means we can compare them and get a pretty good idea of what their common source looked like.  On the other hand, we remain ignorant as to whether that common source might have been the original Faust Book, or only a perhaps corrupted and / or expanded copy of it, and of course, as to how many unknown copyings may intervene.

       Of the two versions, the better known one is the Spies imprint of 1587.  It came out in September, was reprinted again in the same year and very frequently thereafter, each time with yet more tales about Faust.  Not that more tales turned up, just that there were plenty of good old stories which could be transferred to Faust's name, appropriately or inappropriately. In accord with the theological reputation and clientele of the Spies printing house, their 1587 imprint is also heavily larded with religious commentary.  Such "admonitions to the Christian reader" played so well to the readership that by the end of the century they had grown to become the major part of the (printed) Faust Books.   The general sloppiness and repetitiveness of all these additions, though, had to diminish the book's popularity in the long run.  As people became less disposed to religious controversy it ceased to be such an attractive book.  Besides, the Faust figure had found another popular venue.

       Some one of the early Spies prints, as very freely translated into English by 1594, must have inspired Christopher Marlowe's famous Tragicall History of D. Faustus (ca. 1601).  English players may have brought some version of Marlowe to Germany, for Faust became a beloved puppet figure on market squares (and can be seen to this very day).  The puppet play is most probably the way the German classics, Lessing and Goethe, became acquainted with the material, and Goethe was in turn the inspiration for Gounod's Faust opera, Heine's satirical Faust ballet, and many other treatments.  Inspired by the American film The Devil and Daniel Webster, which brings the Faust theme to bear on the problem of national guilt, Thomas Mann returned to the form of the 1587 Faust Book for the structure of his sombre wartime novel Doctor Faustus (1945), taking delight in mimicking the old Faust Book's archaic language and religiosity.  Mann's protagonist is a 20th-century composer whose ambition is to refute Beethoven's harmonious vision of humankind, much as Thomas Mann feels compelled to defy Goethe's optimistic Faust vision.

        Literary historians have by and large been so intrigued by this grand reception of the Faust figure that they ignore the Faust Book manuscript. Although it brings us much closer to the original version of the novel than the Spies print even attempted, it was little known in its own day.  Purchased by Duke August of Wolfenbüttel (near Brunswick), probably in 1620, and duly catalogued in that important library, it received little attention until a librarian near the turn of the twentieth century undertook its publication as the "Wolfenbüttel Manuscript." The Faust Book as I am presenting it here is based on that manuscript.

      I have made the assumption that the history of the Faust Book as revealed in the successive editions of the Spies print may tell us something also about its prehistory.  The Wolfenbüttel Manuscript, while much purer than the Spies print, probably already contains well-intentioned scribal supplements of the same kind as can be seen to accumulate later (in Spies).  My detailed arguments for trying to extract the original novel are easily available.  Here, I have wanted simply to make that charming little work accessible to all who might be interested.  --But I confess that I, too, have added something.  The Spies print was avidly translated, and a Dutch version (1590) contained the wood cuts which accompany this web version of the Faust Book according to the Wolfenbüttel Manuscript.

       For a page from the Wolfenbüttel Manuscript, click here,                  or go to the Faust Book.