Doctor Faustus, or Faust, is one of the most important characters in dramatic literature. The Faust legend influenced not just Marlowe and Goethe, but also writers like Bulgakov, Byron, Stein, and many others. But where did this legend come from?
In Latin, Faustus means "auspicious," and there are several figures in the classical world associated with this title. The father of St. Clement, who played tricks on the magician Simon Magus, was sometimes referred to as Faustus, and St. Augustine wrote against a Manichean philosopher known as Faust.
The modern Faust legend, however, seems to stem from a historical person who lived in the 16th century. Philipp Melanchthon mentioned an infamous Johann Faustus who died a violent death, with his body appearing mutilated by the devil. In 1566, in one of his Table Talks, Martin Luther mentions a certain Faustus he identifies as an instrument of the devil. Around 1585, the Calvinist writer Hermann Witekind, writing under the pseudonym of Augustin Lerchheimer, wrote a book called Christian Reflection and Recollection on Magic. In it, he uses Faustus as an emblem of intellectual pride.
These, however, all came after the death of the infamous Doctor. Several of the references to Faustus come from contemporaries writing while he was still alive. The first reference to this magician calling himself Faustus comes in a 1507 letter from an abbot, Johannes Trithemius, to the astrologer Johannes Virdung:
That man, about whom you wrote me, Georgius Sabellicus, who dared to call himself foremost of necromancers, is an unstable character, a babbler, and a vagabond. He deserves to be thrashed in order to prevent him from heedlessly and continuously asserting in public things that are abominable and contrary to the Holy Church. What are his assumed titles if not the manifestations of an extremely muddled mind, showing him to be a fool rather than a philosopher? For he composed a calling card to suit his taste: Magister Georgius Sabellicus, Faustus junior, the inspiration of necromancers, astrologer, the second magus, palmist, practitioner of divination with the use of high places and fire, and second in the art of divination with the use of water. Behold the foolishness of this man; with what great madness does he dare call himself the inspiration of necromancers. One who is ignorant of all good arts should call himself a jester rather than a master of the arts.
The abbot goes on to mention several claims by Georgius Faustus, including that if all the works of Plato and Aristotle disappeared, he through his genius could restore them all, and with a greater degree of elegance. Even more audaciously, he supposedly claimed that the miracles of Christ were not so amazing, and that anytime he desired he could do all of the things Christ had done. These claims apparently did not keep him from getting a teaching position, which the abbot writes Faustus lost after it was discovered he had been seducing boys.
The next record we have of the man comes from the monk Mutianus Rufus, a friend of Trithemius. His 1513 account is similar:
Eight days ago there came to Erfurt a certain soothsayer by the name of Georgius Faustus Helmitheus of Heidelberg, a mere braggart and fool. His claims, like those of all diviners, are idle, and this kind of character has not more weight than a water spider. The ignorant marvel at him.
Rufus entreats all theologians to rise up against the man but not to destroy true philosophers. Others, however, believed that this Faustus was worth hearing, and in fact paid him for his services. An account book for the Bishop of Bamberg records a payment of ten gold pieces in 1520 to a Doctor Faustus for the casting of a horoscope.
Kilian Leib, a prior known for his hostility to Martin Luther, recorded meeting Georgius Faustus in 1528. His remarks also suggest an astrologer:
Georgius Faustus of Helmstadt said on the fifth of June that when the sun and Jupiter are in the same constellation, prophets are born (presumably such as he). He asserted that he was the commander or preceptor of the Order of the Knights of St. John at a place called Hallestein on the border of Carinthia.
That same year, the city council of Ingolstadt recorded:
On Wednesday after St. Vitus Day, 1528, a certain man who called himself Doctor Jorg Faustus of Heidelberg was told to spend his penny elsewhere, and he promised not to take vengeance on the authorities for this order.
In 1532 the city of Nuremberg refused safe conduct to one "Doctor Faustus, the great sodomite and practitioner of black magic." However, Faustus later became involved in a dispute with an astrologer in Nuremberg, Joachim Camerarius.
When the explorer Philipp von Hutten set sail for the New World, Camerarius predicted success. Faustus, however, took a darker view. In 1540, von Hutten wrote:
Here you have a little about the provinces so that you may see that we are not the only ones who have been unfortunate in Venezuela up to this time; that all the aforementioned expeditions which left Sevilla before and after us perished within three months. Therefore I must confess that the philosopher Faustus hit the nail on the head, for we struck a bad year.
Around the time von Hutten wrote of the successful prediction Faustus had made, the magician met his end. The earliest account of his death appears in a chronicle written by Froben Christoph von Zimmern.
About this time Faustus died in or not far from the town of Staufen in Breisgau. In his day he was as remarkable a sorcerer as could be found in German lands in our times. He had so many strange experiences at various times that will not easily be forgotten for many years. He became an old man and, as it is said, died miserably. From all sorts of reports and conjectures many have thought that the evil spirit, whom in his lifetime he used to call his brother-in-law, had killed him.
With his mysterious death, Doctor Faustus left the world of history and entered the realm of legend.