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[This essay was first presented at the conference on CONTEXTS: The Interdisciplinary Study of Literature,

University of Manitoba (13-16 May 1987); a revised version was read the Renaissance Seminar, University of
Sussex, 25 October 1988. It was first published in Mosaic 22.2 (Spring 1989): 79-94.]

[Index: Faustus legend, Herrmetism, Georgius Faustus, Henricus Cornelius Agrippa,

Simon Magus]
[Date: 1989]

Right Eye and Left Heel: Ideological Origins of the

Legend of Faustus

Michael H. Keefer

The old is dying, and the new cannot be

born. In this interregnum there arises a
great diversity of morbid symptoms.
(Antonio Gramsci, qtd. on Marzani 296)

My subject is the sixteenth-century legend of Doctor Faustus, the protagonist of

which is a university scholar in full rebellion against the received system of knowledge. I
shall argue that the early forms of this legend both participate in and record the orthodox
suppression of an actual challenge to this system; the legend may therefore speak to us
with renewed relevance at a time when the current organization of the field of textual
studies is again being challenged, in the name this time of comparatist or
interdisciplinary modes of analysis.
The words of Gramsci which I used as an epigraph might with equal validity be
applied to both situations. The very familiarity of this dictum, however, permits the
reader all too easily to forget its figurative nature. Consider then, a more recent
development of the same allegory, drawn from a well-known essay by Jacques Derrida:
Here there is a kind of question, let us still call it historical, whose

conception, formation, gestation, and labor we are only catching a

glimpse of today. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance
toward the operations of childbearingbut also with a glance
toward those who, in a society from which I do not exclude
myself, turn their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnamable
which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary
whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the
nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of
monstrosity. (293)
Ripped untimely from their contexts and superimposed in this manner, as
variations on a theme, the words of Gramsci and Derrida seems to coalesce into a single
grotesque imagegrotesque, in the first instance, because Gramsci's words evoke,
though without laughter, that bizarre image of the senile hag in childbirth which Mikhail
Bakhtin identifies as a recurrent, perhaps an organizing feature of the Renaissance
counterworld of carnival; and in the second grotesque, not just because what is at issue is
emphatically paradoxical, but also because of the way in which the reader's glance is
made to flicker between the unnameable birth in progress and the unnamed ones whose
averted eyes certify it as monstrous. Yet while the superimposed layers of this image may
appear to coalesce, there remains an obvious and powerful tension between them. The
monstrosity that is no more than implicit in Gramsci's words becomes inescapable in
Derrida'swhich, if their perhaps disingenuous ambivalence be counted as morbid, may
themselves be taken to exemplify at least one of the symptoms alluded to by Gramsci.
One subsidiary function of this essay will be to pose the question of whether, or to
what degree, this conflated image of a laboring expectancy, of a monstrous birth in the
offing, of the old struggling to deliver or miscarry the new, can convey what is at stake in
the turn to an interdisciplinary mode in literary studies. This interdisciplinary turn might
by the cynical be seen as an attempt to generate new and productive forms of intellectual
practice out of the interstices between disciplines, some of which have themselves been
described by their more searching practitioners as played-out and sterile. (One thinks, for
example, of Richard Rorty's remarks to the effect that that literary genre we call
'philosophy' has outlived its usefulness [xiv], or of Terry Eagleton's recent study of
literary theory, which begins by recognizing literature as an illusion and ends by
identifying literary theory as another one and proposing that the best possible thing for it

to do would be to argue itself out of existence [204].) Indeed, an ambivalence comparable

to that of this grotesque compound image appears to traverse the very notion of an
interdisciplinary approach to literaturefor to speak in such terms is at one and the same
time to transgress disciplinary boundaries and to re-assert them as defining the limits to
that which is being approached, and consequently its nature as an object of study.
Thus, if certain forms of ideological closure are implicit in the division of textual
studies into disciplines, it is arguable that interdisciplinary studies may serve as much to
perpetuate as to subvert these forms of closure. A discipline in the human sciencesto
hazard a partial definitionmight be termed an apparently self-authenticating, selfperpetuating social narrative which recounts a variously defined us to ourselves, in the
process disconcealing, structuring and objectifying this collective identity (Lyotard 18
ff.; Gadamer 103). The material substratum of this meta-narrative is in every case a
sequence of relationships, of authority and of submission, between doctor and discipulus
a banal fact which may, however, suggest a similarly close relationship between the
derivative terms doctrine and discipline. Such a relationship is more clearly
perceptible in the manner in which the subject-matter of the methodologies that
apparently shape the meta-narrative of the discipline are themselves delimited by certain
broad doctrinal or ideological commitments which the discipline in turn legitimizes.
English studies, for example, in their New Critical phase commonly took as
axiomatic the autonomy and organic unity of the text, consequently imposing a
severely reductive meaning upon the idea of context, which came to denote an inert
background from which the individual canonized text had decisively separated itself,
rather than something inextricably interwoven (contextus) with all texts as a condition of
their textuality. At the same time, not surprisingly, New Critics tended to attribute an
analogous autonomy both to the act of writing and to characters in the texts that they
explored. The discipline thus both echoed and legitimized an ideology of individualism
which, in attenuated form, is still routinely an object of devotion for liberal (and illiberal)
political orators. After a period of conceptual disorder in which traditionalists have
regularly lamented a lack of system and coherence (see for example Cain 93), a similar
cycle of legitimation may now be developing in the new new criticismwhich perhaps
seeks less to complete the overthrow of its once-hegemonic namesake that (in a familiar
deconstructive doublet) to supplant and supplement, replicating its ideological functions
in a mood of ironic dispersal rather than of unification.

My primary concern in this essay, however, is to propose an ideologically-based

analysis of the origins of the legend of Faustusa legend in which, as every reader of
Marlowe or Goethe knows, the inadequacy of the traditional academic disciplines is
proclaimed at the outset. In mastering philosophy, medicine, law and theology, Goethe's
Faust has learned only dass wir nichts wissen knnen (line 363). His gestures of
dismissal echo those of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, who in summarizing his rejection of
the principal academic disciplines of his day declares that Philosophy is odious and
obscure, / Both Law and Phisicke are for pettie witsand Divinitie, traditionally the
queen of the sciences and the ideological matrix in which the others subsist, is basest of
them all, Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vilde... (A: 139-42).1 Marlowe's Faustus
has at this point already turned to the Metaphysickes of Magicians (A: 79), which hold
out to him, not the dialectical skills of which he already boasts, nor the medical powers
which, having mastered, he could respect only if they enabled him to raise the dead and
to be more than human, nor the despicable trivialities of the law nor, finally, that promise
of everlasting death (A: 76) which is all he can find in the New Testamentbut rather a
dominion that Stretcheth as farre as doth the minde of man (A: 91).
Yet in this play, as in other Renaissance versions of the story, the attempt to
substitute for the orthodox disciplines a form of power/knowledge which would be
immediately transitive in its effects both upon the knower and upon the world that it
subjects to him, thus dislocating and transcending the hegemonic system of discourses, is
wholly abortive. It is noteworthy that the play contains a powerful analogue to that
grotesque compound image of a monstrous birth, or non-birth, with which I began. In the
first scene Faustus sums up his desires in two resonant lines: A sound Magician is a
mighty god: / Here tire, my braines, to get a Deity (A: 92, B: 89). 2 He thus announces a
project of a self-begotten rebirth into divine form which would deliver him into a world
of profit and delight, / Of power, of honor, of omnipotence, at the same time giving him
sway over the world itself: All things that moove betweene the quiet poles / Shalbe at
1 My quotations from the Greg edition are identified by line numbers and by text (A refers to the edition
of 1604 and its reprints of 1609 and 1611, B to the substantially revised and bowdlerized edition of
1616). U/v and i/j have been silently altered to conform with modern practice, and errors in Latin
phrases are silently corrected. For the principles governing my use of the A and B texts, see Keefer,
Verbal Magic and History.
2 These lines offer an interesting textual crux: the B-version of A: 92 contains what seems to be an
ideologically-motivated softening of the meaning (Demi-god for mighty god), but the following
line in A shows signs of memorial corruption (hypermetrical self-address, internal rhyme, suppression of
the metaphor of begetting). I have given to B: 89 the punctuation of Jump's Revels Plays edition.

my commaund... (A: 83-84, 86-87). This initial aspiration is inverted in Faustus's last
soliloquy, where he wishes futilely that he might evade eternal punishment by being
changde /Unto some brutish beast (A: 1490-91). Moreover, in what sounds perversely
like a kind of prayer, he cries:
You starres that raignd at my nativitie,
whose influence hath alotted death and hel,
Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist,
Into the intrailes of yon laboring cloude,
That when you vomite foorth into the ayre,
My limbes may issue from your smoaky mouthes,
So that my soule may but ascend to heaven.... (A: 1474-80)
Faustus is reduced to an abject attempt to surrender his bodily integrity in a disgusting
reversal of birth; having aspired to rend the cloudes (A: 89), he now begs for physical
dissolution in their entrails. The bargain proposedof resorption into a dismembering
womb, and of regurgitation and dispersal, in exchange for the salvation of his soulis the
most violent expression of despair in the play.
It is one of the many ironies of this play that Faustus's counter-disciplinary,
undisciplined, demonic way to a species of power/knowledge itself quickly assumes the
features of a parody discipline: what Faustus achieves with his sophistical critique of the
ends and limits of the academic disciplines is, in Constance Brown Kuriyama's helpful
portmanteau coinage, omnimpotence (95). Overtones of a conventional doctordiscipulus relationship are implicit in Faustus's desire to accelerate his study of magic
through the sage conference of Valdes and Cornelius (A: 131). (Perhaps because this
demonic counter-discipline is parasitic upon the forms of knowledge which he already
possesses, the arrogant novice has little to learn: Valdes tells him, First Ile instruct thee
in the rudiments, / And then wilt thou be perfecter than I [A: 194-95].) In the comic
scene which immediately follows Faustus's conjuration of Mephostophilis, however, a
doctor-discipulus, master-servant sequence becomes explicit.
Here Wagner, who is Faustus's servant, engages the beggarly clown as his own
servant with the promise to make [him] go like Qui mihi discipulus (A: 375), with the
inducement that (as he says) I will teach thee to turne thyself ... to a dogge, or a catte, or
a mouse, or a ratte, or anything (A: 421-22), and also with the coercive assistance of two
devils whose capacity to terrify the clown awakens the latter's interest in what he calls, in

the 1616 quarto, the conjuring Occupation (B: 379). Shortly thereafter, Faustus is
himself subjected to a similar coercion, and bullied by Lucifer, Belzebub and
Mephostophilis into accepting constraints upon his very thoughts: Thou art damn'd,
think thou of hell (B: 642); Thou shouldst not thinke on God. Thinke on the devill (B:
662-63). His surrender, with a vow never to looke to heaven, elicits from Lucifer the
suave reply: So shalt thou show thy selfe an obedient servant... (B: 666-67). However,
the reader or playgoer has already been made aware, in a lighter way, that this occupation
or discipline involves strict constraints. Wagner, in his sternest manner, says to the clown:
Villaine, call me Master Wagner, and see that you walke attentively, and let your right
eye be alwaies Diametrally fixt upon my left heele, that thou maist, Quasi vestigiis
nostris insistere (B: 384-87). God forgive me, says the clown, he speaks Dutch
fustian: well, Ile folow him, Ile serve him, thats flat (A: 435-36).
Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said of the scholars who have studied
the early forms of the legend of Faustus is that they would appear, with some notable
exceptions, to have followed Wagner's instructions to the letter. Goethe specialists
concerned to trace his footprints among a mass of source materials, or Marlovians getting
up the obligatory background; folklorists working to identify sources and analogues to
the motifs absorbed into the legend; practitioners of a sometimes more or less inert form
of literary historiography; students of Renaissance occultism or, more rarely, of
humanistic and Reformation controversiesthey have for the most part adhered to the
paths prescribed by their respective disciplines. It would be churlish to deny that these
scholars have provided a basis for the understanding of something more than the
disparate parts made visible by their studies. Yet, as may be suggested by the critical
perspective upon disciplinary constraints which is built into the legend, at least in its
Marlovian and Goethean forms, the origins and early development of the Faustus story
cannot be adequately comprehended within the bounds of any single discipline. Although
the legend is by common consent of major importance in that cultural manifold which is
their shared, or rather partitioned, object of study, from the point of view of each separate
discipline its early forms appear somehow peripheral. The reason for this, I would argue,
is that the intelligibility of these early forms of the legend is inseparable from their
ideological functions as polemical narrativeand it is these functions which the division
of textual studies into disciplines serves to suppress and to make invisible.
Polemical narrative, I have said: let us be more precise. Whatever may be said

about the motifs drawn into it from, for example, the patristic legend of Simon Magus
and the medieval legends of Cyprian, Virgilius or Theophilus (see Butler 73ff.), the
legend of Faustus arose in the early decades of the sixteenth century as a form of
ideological assassination, as an abusive attack upon representatives of a current of
thought which proposed to deconstruct and to transcend the orthodox categories of
knowledge, which appropriated Christian doctrine in the service of a kind of gnosis, a
radically heterodox power/knowledge, and in which, finally, the metaphor of rebirth that
is parodied and inverted in Marlowe's play occupied a central place.
There is not space here to do more than name a few of the prominent early
exponents of this Hermetic-Cabalistic traditionMarsilio Ficino, philosopher and
translator of Hermetic, Platonic and Neoplatonic texts; Giovanni Pico, polymath,
philosopher, and Cabalist; Joannes Reuchlin, embattled Hebrew scholar and Cabalist;
Joannes Trithemius, abbot, annalist and magician; Ludovico Lazzarelli, humanist poet
and Hermetic enthusiast, Jacques Lefvre d'taples, an evangelical humanist, the prime
reinterpreter of Aristotle for his generation; Cornelius Agrippa, encyclopedic occultist and
Similarly, at this time one can only gesture at some of the works of modern
scholarship which have restored this invasive tradition to view: the essays of Garin,
Kristeller, Secret, and Walker; iconological studies by Wind and by Klibansky, Panofsky
and Saxl; explorations by Zambelli, Zika, and Grafton of orthodox reactions to the
legendary Hermes Trismegistus and to such Hermetists and Cabalists as Agrippa and
Reuchlin; and Frances Yates's speculative historical reconstructionswhich have
themselves provided the occasion for cross-disciplinary warfare between intellectual
historians and historians of science.3
The connections between this current of thought and the Faustus legend may
intially seem far from obvious. In the first complete version of the legend to be printed,
the Historia von D. Johann Fausten published by Spiess in 1587, there remain only traces
of what I would call the originary polemic against the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition,
while a broad current of anti-Catholic polemic is in evidence throughout the text. If the
3 Yates's exaggerated claims about the formative role of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition in the
development of scientific mentalities have been challenged by Westman, by Vickers, and by Schmitt,
who is criticizing Yates went so far as to propose that Hermeticism never becomes a real driving force
of any significant cultural movement during the Renaissance (207)a remark which may suggest that
he, as much as Yates, would have done well to attend to Garin's warning against troppo facili sintesi
(Divagazioni 466).

narrative exfoliation of the legend resulted in an occultation of the ideological polarity

from which it sprang, however, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus might be said to constitute a
return of the repressed. As I have argued in another essay (Misreading), the more
authentic 1604 version of this play embodies an unbalanced dialectic between a
Reformed theological orthodoxy which it simultaneously affirms as inescapable and
exposes as intolerable, and that other ideology which is the basis of Faustus's unstable
ambitions, and to the nature of which he offers an important clue when he aspires to be
as cunning as Agrippa was, / Whose shadowes made all Europe honor him (A: 150-51).
The German humanist and magician Henricus Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535)
whose shadowes were the theatrical displays of necromancy with which this abundant
scholar was popularly thought to have astonished his contemporaries, among them
Erasmus, More, Luther's protector the Elector of Saxony, and the Emperor Charles V
(Nashe 297-99)can provide a focus for our inquiries. Of Agrippa's many books the best
known was De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium atque excellentia verbi Dei
declamatio, which anticipates Marlowe's Faustus in its rhetorical demolition of all
orthodox forms of knowledge, from logic to courtly place-seeking, and from whoremongering to scholastic theology. Despite the evangelical posture which gives shape to
its satire, this book was suspected (by, for example, Thevet vol. 2, 544r-v) of being a kind
of ground-clearing operation for the magical doctrines espoused in Agrippa's other major
work, his De occulta philosophia, an encyclopedia of occultism in which appear
rhapsodic flights (such as the Epistola nuncupatoria to Book III, and also that
would seem to underlie Faustus's praise of magic. The relationship seen by some
sixteenth-century readers between these books is thus parodied by the pattern of Faustus's
first soliloquy. Moreover, a Hermetic doctrine of spiritual rebirth which entails the
acquisition of divine powers is the basis both of Christian faith as Agrippa understands it
in De vanitate and of the highest forms of magic described in Book III of De occulta
philosophia (see Keefer, Dilemma).
There are strong reasons for locating the historical Doctor Faustus on the radical
fringe of that Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition of which Agrippa was one of the most
notorious exponents.4 Georg of Helmstadt, or Georgius Sabellicus Faustus (as he came to
4 Baron's attempt to do so on the basis of Faustus's possible associations at Heidelberg University in the
1480s (20-22) is purely conjecturalalthough his discovery that Faustus studied there is of major
importance. I have tried to show here that there are solid textual grounds for linking Faustus with the
Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition.

call himself), first comes to light as a magician in a letter written in 1507 by Joannes
Trithemius (to whom Agrippa three years later dedicated the first manuscript version of
De occulta philosophia). From this letter is appears that Faustus claimed astonishing
magical powers, boasting, for example, that if all the works of Plato and Aristotle were
lost he could restore themas Ezra did the writings of Moseswith increased beauty,
and bragging in addition that the miracles of Christ the Saviour were not so wonderful,
that he himself could do all the things that Christ had done, as often and whenever he
wishes. Faustus's transgressions were not merely verbal for, according to Trithemius, he
also disgraced himself as a sodomite (Palmer and More 83-86). Frank Baron's analysis of
this letter has shown both that Faustus, drawing with wild eclecticism upon a variety of
magical traditions, associated himself with Zoroaster and Numa Pompilius, among
others; and also that Trithemius, himself struggling against accusations of black magic,
took the occasion to denounce him as a means of displaying his own orthodoxy (23-29).
Nowhere, of course, does Trithemius associate Faustus with the HerneticCabaistic tradition to which he himself adhered. One may suspect, however, that he knew
more about Faustus than his letter reveals. In 1506, and again at greater length in 1514,
Trithemius described a visit to the court of Louis XII of France made in 1501 by a
similarly boastful magician, one Joannes Mercurius de Corigio (see Garin, Testi 45-46).
Here agin there are no direct indications of Hermetic or Cabalistic affiliations; but in this
case, unlike that of Faustus, the man left writings which have survived, as have those of
his disciple, the humanist Ludovico Lazzarelli (see McDaniel; Kristeller, Lazzarelli;
Ruderman). From these it is clear that Joannes Mercurius was more than just a bizarre
magician and prophet: he claimed, with something like the eclecticism of Faustus, to be
at once Hermes, Enoch, Apollonius of Tyana, and Christ; and Lazzarelli's writings about
him reveal a knowledge of the Cabala. Moreover, the wording of Trithemius's text lets
slip the fact that he was aware of the man's true oddity: he writes that Joannes Mercurius
scorned almost all the ancients together, the philosophers as much as the theologians,
since he might declare all of them, excepting only himself, to have been unlearned. 5 If
we knew nothing else about this bizarre figure, the words excepting only himself would
seem merely a clumsy turn of phrase. But as Trithemius undoubtedly realized, the man
literally believed himself to be one of the ancientsor rather, several of them
5 My translation. Trithemius wrote: contemnens veteres pene cunctos, tam Philosophos, quam
Theologos, cum prater se unum omnes diceret fuisse indoctos... (Garin, Testi 46).

combined. There are then grounds for believing that in the case of Faustus, Trithemius
also knew more than he was willing to commit to paper.
A further sampling of this learned abbot's correspondence reveals a fact that is of
equal interest. Like Mercurius's disciple Lazzarelli, who seems, shortly before 1494, to
have initiated the elderly King Ferdinand of Aragon into the mystery of Hermetic rebirth
into divine form (D.P. Walker, Spiritual 64-72), and like Mercurius himself, who would
appear to have had similar designs upon Louis XII of France in 1501, Trithemius
attempted to disseminate magical beliefs and practices through the conversion of
powerful princes. In 1503 he wrote to the Margrave of Brandenburg in the hope of
enrolling him as a student of natural magic, of establishing for him a program of studies
in this art, and (it would seem) of subsequently persuading other rulers to follow his
example (Trithemius sig. G3-Hv). Trithemius's persuasions, which emphasize the
political as well as spiritual advantages to be gained from a knowledge of magic, may
seem staid in comparison with those of Mercurius, who made wild promises of good
fortune and longevity to the King of France, or of Lazzarelli, whose conversion of
Ferdinand involved a strongly heterodox appropriation of Christian doctrine. While
Trithemius was playing the same game, however, it was obviously not in his interest to
reveal how much his own magical doctrines were derived from the same sources as those
of such embarrassingly indiscreet practitioners as Lazzarelli and Mercuriusor Georgius
The association of the historical Faustus with the radical wing of the HermeticCabalistic tradition is reinforced by a letter of the humanist Mutianus Rufus, who
encountered him in 1513, and scornfully proposed that the Dominican theologians who
were trying to destroy the philosopher Reuchlin should take aim at this man instead
(Palmer and More 87-88). Here again one may see an attempt to deflect hostile attention
from a mainstream exponent of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition to a figure on its radical
periphery. Besides being a noted Hebrew scholar, Reuchlin was the author of De verbo
mirifico (1494), a Cabalist exposition of the magical powers inherent in the name of
Jesus. Agrippa borrowed heavily from this work in De occulta philosophia (see Zika, De
verbo 138, Reuchlin 242-43), and also lectured on Reuchlin's book at the University
of Dle in 1509. (For this act he was denounced before the court of Margaret of Austria
as a judaizing heretic, and lost his position at the university [Nauert 25-28]another
instance of orthodox reaction to this current of thought.)

The Reuchlin connection can take us farther still. In 1515 and 1517 Reuchlin's
defenders struck out at the theologians with the famous Letters of Obscure Men. A riposte
published by Ortwin Gratius in 1518, the Lamentationes obscurorum virorum, contains
an intriguing exchange of letters about sinister demonic practices between Agrippa
Stygianus and one Georgius Subbunculator (Zambelli, Agrippa von Nettesheim,
280, Magic). The latter name, if indeed it is a derisive modification of Georgius
Sabellicus, is a telling onefor Faustus in his eclectic heterodoxy was in effect a
subbunculator, a botcher-up of old clothes.
The names of Agrippa and Faustus (who died in 1535 and c. 1537 respectively)
were subsequently paired with increasing frequency. Agrippa's brief service in the court
of Charles V was absorbed, within several decades, into the legend of Faustus: both
magicians were rumoured to have won victories for the emperor by magic (Palmer and
More 103; Thevet, vol. 2, fol. 542v-543). In addition, the libel, first printed in 1546, that
Agrippa's black dog was a devil, was echoed two years later by the claim that Faustus's
dog, and his horse as well, were devils (Nauert 327; Palmer and More 98). It seems to
have become almost a convention to associate Faustus, as Melanchthon did, with iste
nebulo qui scripsit De vanitate artium (Palmer and More 102), with that scoundrel
Faustus, however, proved to be a more appropriate focus than Agrippa for the
development of hostile legends. This great sodomite and necromancer, as the city
records of Nuremberg called him in 1532 (Palmer and More 90), was a far more extreme
transgressor of social and ideological codes; he also conveniently left no writings behind
him. Agrippa, in contrast, was a famous (and in some circles well-respected) man of
letters. His pupil Johannes Wier came to his defense in his widely-read De praestigiis
daemonum (1563), a book which also attempts to redirect the attention of persecutors
from the innocent women whom they were torturing as witches to the activities of learned
magicians (Wier fol. 67-77, 206v-207, 368; cf. Baxter 57-62), and the fourth edition of
which, printed in 1568, contains several anecdotes about the misdeeds and violent death
of Faustus (Palmer and More 105-07).
The development of the central core of the Faustus legend (to which popular tales
about, for example, Faustus devouring a load of hay could subsequently be added at will)
thus forms part of the history of orthodox responses to heterodoxies associated with
magical practices. Norman Cohn has argued persuasively that orthodox reactions to the

medieval tradition of ceremonial magic during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries laid
the foundation for the stereotype of the witch, which was fully elaborated only in the
early fifteenth century (164-205). After the 1470s, however, the church found itself facing
a new form of Hermetic and later also Cabalistic magic which claimed to be based upon
the purest and most ancient religious traditions and to be in conformity with the true
uncorrupted teachings of Christ. Medieval grimoires and pseudo-Solomonic texts could
be easily enough condemned as sorcery and witchcraftbut what was one to say of the
pious Hermes Trismegistus and the holy Cabalists? Were their modern interpreters
respected scholars and philosophers like Ficino, Pico, Trithemius and Reuchlinalso
witches and sorcerers? The question did not initially take that form. Giovanni Pico was
condemned in 1487 on theological rather than on demonological groundsand then
absolved in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI in terms that gave support to his theological
claims for magic and cabala (Yates 113-14).
As social, political and ideological tensions increased in the early sixteenth
century, however, the tone of the debate began to change. Shortly after the turn of the
century Charles de Bouelles, who had visited Trithemius at his monastery of Spanheim
and made use of his famous library, denounced him as having a pact with the devil (Wier
fol. 75v). At about the same time, Gianfrancesco Pico, a nephew of the more famous
Giovanni who shared neither his uncle's philosophical opinions nor his enthusiasm for
magic, attacked in his De rerum praenotione (1506-07) any conflation of Christian and
pagan traditions, denouncing Orpheus and Apollonius of Tyana as demonic magicians
and letting off Ficino, whose talismanic magic he linked with that of Apollonius, only
because of his submissive attitude to the church Walker, Spiritual 146-49). In this text the
younger Pico also told stories, among them one about a magician who had promised to a
curious and unwise prince that he would present to him the siege of Troy as on a stage or
in a theater, and would show him Achilles and Hector as they were when they fought.
This magician's pretended knowledge of future events let him down, however: he was
promptly carried off by a devil (qtd. in Wier fol. 71r-v). A decade later, in 1515, Jerome
Benivieni had to defend the reputations of Ficino and Giovanni Pico against the
accusations of a preaching friar that they had attempted to unite their souls with God,
perform miracles and prophesy by means of magical and cabalistic rites (Secret 77-78).
The philosophers, it would seem, were being assimilated by the orthodox to the pattern of
extreme Hernetists like Mercurius or Faustus, who actually claimed to be capable of such

Why, however, did the Faustus legend develop in Lutheran, rather than in Catholic
or Calvinist circles? A tentative answer to this question may be sought in several facts.
First, the Catholic church was less automatically predisposed than were the Reformers to
identify any mention of magic as demonic sorcery (Thomas 27-89). Next, the reforming
impulses of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition, its claim to restore the pristine verities of
the Christian religion, and its doctrines of illumination and rebirth all outflanked the
teachings of the neo-Augustinian Reformers.6 No less significantly, certain late-patristic
texts which Calvin rejected as putrid fables (vol. 48, viii) were used and transmitted at
the University of Wittenberg under Luther and Melanchthon.
I refer in particular to the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions, and to the apocryphal
Acts of the apostles Peter and Paul.7 These texts record a series of debates and magical
contests between St. Peter and Simon Magus, the Gnostic heresiarch and magician whose
teachings had been refuted by such orthodox polemicists as Irenaeus and Hippolytus in
the second and third centuries A.D. (The name Faustus, it may be added, appears in
association with Simon in the pseudo-Clementine texts; and heresies similar to those of
Simon recur in the late fourth century in the mouth of Faustus the Manichee, who was
refuted by St. Augustine [see Wentersdorf 215-19].) The heresies of Simonian
Gnosticism, as presented in the Recognitions, resemble those of the major gnosticizing
Hermetic texts, which date from the same period and which later formed the core of the
Renaissance tradition espoused by Reuchlin, Trithemius, and Agrippa. 8 The legend of
Simon Magus, moreover, shows the same pattern of developmentfrom doctrinal and
demonological polemic to a narrative exfoliation resulting in the occultation of the
6 An early instance of the unstable relationship between the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition and its nearopposite, predestinarian theology, is studied by D.P. Walker (Theology 42-62). In some cases the
reforming impulses of this tradition were absorbed into orthodox evangelical movements (see for
example Rice 19-29; Copenhaver 189-211). The concluding chapters of Agrippa's De vanitate, in which
a quasi-Lutheran vocabulary is used to convey a thoroughly instrumental, Hermetic view of
illumination and rebirth, exemplify an inverse process.
7 The Recognitions, first printed in 1504 by Lefvre d'taples, is one of two surviving fourth-century
recensions of a lost third-century work, itself a compilation of earlier Christian and Gnostic texts
(Cullmann 63-131; Hennecke-Schneemelcher, vol. 2, 542-45). The Acts of Peter and Paul, which dates
from the sixth or seventh century but incorporates parts of the second-century Acts of Peter (HenneckeSchneemelcher, vol. 2, 575) was current in the Renaissance in a Latin translation dating from 1490 (A.
Walker xiv).
8 These are the first, fourth, seventh and thirteenth tractates of the Corpus Hermeticum. For indications of
their significance as a group, see Festugire 11; Nock, Corpus, vol. 1, 16, 61, 128n); Nock, Essays, vol.
1, 85. There are English translations of these texts in Grant (Anthology 211-33); the term gnosticizing
is applied to them by Grant (Gnosticism 148).

Gnostic ideologythat I have shown to be traceable in the Faustus legend. Furthermore,

in several important respectsthe emphasis upon demonic flight, the episode of Helen of
Troy, and the magician's irretrievable damnationthe later legend borrows from the
earlier one. The Simon Magus legend is thus not merely the earliest of a large number of
textual sources of the Faustus legend; it is also in a full sense its prototype and parallel.
To these ideological, etiological and structural parallels can be added a further,
functional one. Melanchthon, whose statements about Faustus imply that he had
encountered him, both in Wittenberg and perhaps also previously (Palmer and More 10102)although what he says about the man's Christian name and birthplace is
contradicted by earlier sources (Baron 11-16)repeatedly compares the sorcerer to
Simon Magus. One may suspect that a kind of ratio is being constructed. The antichrist
Simon Magus opposed, and yet by his very presence also testified to, the apostolic
mission of S. Peter and St. Paul; Melanchthon's stories about Faustus imply a similar
guarantee through demonic opposition of his own and Luther's quasi-apostolic role. A
suspicion that such a ratio may underlie the Lutheran legend is strengthened by the
curious response of one Augustine Lercheimer, a graduate of Wittenberg in the 1540s, to
the publication of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten in 1587. Denouncing it angrily as
trivial, false, and nasty, as a libel both upon the university with which it associates
Faustus and also upon Luther, Melanchthon, and others of sainted memory, Lercheimer
then proceeds, very oddly, to tell a story which links Faustus more intimately to the
Lutheran leadership than does anything in the Faustbuch. It would appear that when
Faustus was in Wittenberg, he came at times to the house of Melanchthon, of all
people, where he received both hospitality and admonitions. Resenting the latter, he told
his host one day as they descended to dinner that he would make all the pots in his
kitchen fly up through the chimney. To which Melanchthon replied, with less than his
usual eloquence, Dass soltu wol lassen, ich schiesse dir in deine kunstand the
magician, of course, was powerless to harm the saintly man (Palmer and More 121-22).
This Kitchen Debate reproduces in miniature the rhetorical and magical contests between
St. Peter and Simon Magus. The fact that Lercheimer evidently felt it to reflect credit
upon his teacher speaks volumes.

The Faustus legend of the sixteenth century thus preserves, for those whose
disciplinary commitments do not blind them to the evidence, traces of a vicious
ideological struggleone in which, to oversimplify matters somewhat, a radically
relativistic current of thought which challenged religious and academic orthodoxies
succumbed to the onslaught of an authoritarian, exclusivist biblical fundamentalism that
had made its own compromises with the structures of political power. Such defeats are
seldom absolute: thus, in 1619, the young Ren Descartes's dreams of a mathesis
universalis and of a single method of inquiry which would reunify the scattered sciences
were stimulated by his reading of Agrippa and of the Hermetic fantasies of the
Rosicrucian manifestos (Descartes, vol. 10, 165, 167-68, 193-200, 214). Yet it was a
defeat. However misleadingly, Joannes Reuchlin has most often been remembered by
historians as the occasion of a violent ideological struggle between humanists and
scholastics (the real issues, as Zika [Reuchlin and Erasmus] and Overfield have
argued, were Reuchlin's courageous opposition to orthodox anti-semitism, in particular
that of the Dominican order, and his propagation of Cabalistic magic). Cornelius Agrippa
has survived, more dubiously, in the rhymes of Struwwelpeter as tall Agrippa, who dips
young racists into his enormous inkwell, from which they emerge as black as the child
whom they have been tormenting. Despite their reputations as scholars, however, the
comparatist, counter-disciplinary turn which Reuchlin and Agrippa represented had little
if any impact upon university curricula in their century.
This fact may seem hard to regret, if one pauses to reflect upon the more wildly
irrational elements in their writings, and upon their systematic failure to distinguish
between the natural order and the order of words. However, something more fundamental
was also at stakequite literally soin the ideological struggles whose traces I have
been investigating.
One can scarcely speak of the legend of Faustus without remembering the central
function in most of its versions of das Ewigweibliche. The eternal feminine, or the
eternal in womanwhether figured by Goethe as Una poenitentium ... sonst Gretchen
genannt, or by Marlowe as that glamorously demonic Helen whose lips suck forth
Faustus's souldraws the protagonist in the direction in which he was already going. It
cannot have escaped attention that the central metaphor of this essay is derived from a
different male image of the eternal feminine, one which registers quite precisely a male
fear of the female body, and which uses it to symbolize the monstrous processes which

escape masculine control.

It may therefore be relevant to observe, in concluding, that one of Cornelius
Agrippa's earliest writings was entitled De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus
(1509). In this text he argues (I quote from the translation of 1542) that betwene man
and woman by substance of the soule, one hath no higher pre-emynence of nobylytye
above the other, but both of them naturally have equall libertie of dignitie and
worthynesse. But all other thynges, the which be in man, besydes the dyvyne substance of
the soule, in those thynges the excellente and noble womanheed in a manner infynytely
dothe excell the rude grosse kynd [i.e. nature] of men... (sig. Aii v-Aiii). In this text
Agrippa subverts a long-established misogynist tradition with its own weapons of
philological argument and the citation of scriptural and patristic authorities. The work is
exuberantly playful, but that predominantly male scholarly tradition which has interpreted
it as no more than an exercise in paradox is perhaps mistaken. For while Agrippa's
arguments are in places deliberately frivolous, they also insistently call into question the
established order both of gender relations and of ecclesiastical power (Wirth 609-13). In
other writings Agrippa took a vigorous stand against the demonization of the feminine
and of the female body which was under way in his lifetime. He mocked the theological
faculty of the University of Cologne for having given its approval to that brutally
misogynist text, the Malleus maleficarum (Opera, vol. 2, 1043; see Lea, vol. 2, 337-43).
Moreover, in 1518 in Metz he put his career and his life on the line in his successful
defense of a woman who had been accused of witchcraft and tortured by the local
inquisitor (Nauert 59-61).
I conclude, then, with a question. Is it merely a coincidence that the period
between 1560 and the late 1580s, during which the Faustus legend received its full
narrative elaboration, also saw the first major outbreak of witch-hunts in Western Europe
(Monter 35; Midelfort 32, 86-89; Macfarlane 26-27)an outbreak in which, with the
vehement approval of orthodox intellectuals, thousands of people, most of them women,
were imprisoned, tortured and judicially murdered? One may be reminded of the image
of Gretchen, the desired and the betrayed, which appeared to Goethe's Faust on Walpurgis
Night, and of Faust's response to this apparition:
Welch eine Wonne! Welch ein Leiden!
Ich kann von diesem Blick nicht scheiden.
Wie sonderbar muss diesen schnen Hals

Ein einzig-rotes Schnrchen schmcken,

Nicht breiter als ein Messercken! (4201-05)
Or, in Barker Fairley's translation: What joy, what suffering. I can't take my eyes off her.
Strange how the red line round her lovely neck suits her. Not wider than the back of a
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