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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 Wolfenbttel (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 "Wolfenbttel Manuscript."
The Faust Book as I am presenting it here is based on that manuscript.

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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 notconfirmed in German archives are the ones more likely to be authentic literary
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 Rohirt 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 rle 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 16thcentury 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
treatisesContra Faustum (prcis 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 rle 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 theWolfenbttel 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.

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Historical Context for Faust
Relates to:

Faust is considered the most famous work of German literature. Yet, when Goethe began
writing the drama in 1773, he lived in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, a
crumbling realm of principalities and free cities. The German nation state would not be
founded until 1871.
Despite their considerable cultural differences, the German-speaking territories were affected
by common demographic, political, and economic changes. Following the ravages of the
Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the population increased significantly during the mideighteenth century, straining traditional forms of social control. After 1750, an ever-increasing
portion of the nobilitywhich had previously monopolized political and socioeconomic life
through land ownershipwas forced to sell its property to newly affluent commoners. The
rise of these non-noble elites, who thought of social prestige in terms of wealth, political

expertise, educational achievement, and moral stature, challenged the nobilitys claim to
power. It was this new social order into which Goethe, the son of a wealthy Lutheran family,
was born. He became a public intellectual whose works reached a broad secular readership
and whose status made evident the new opportunities available for someone of his social
By the 1770s, the Germans had developed a vernacular literary tradition comparable to that of
England and France, and intellectuals like Gottfried Ephraim Lessing and Johann Gottfried
Herder led efforts to promote a national literary culture. Herder, in particular, argued that
the Germans could not build such aliterature by simply imitating English or French models;
they needed to utilize theirown traditions and folklore. Goethes text, in dramatizing the
legend of Faust, does just that.
In the sixteenth century, Faust was understood to be a historical person: he is mentioned in
Martin Luthers Table Talks of 1566, and the publisher of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten
of 1587 (see Explorations) asserts that this story is based on the life and writings of an
infamous magician of the dark arts. Reformation-era texts such as the Historia recounted and
embellished the story in order toinstruct a religious readership about the dangers of the devil
and human arrogance. With its references to magic, alchemy, and scholasticism, Goethes
drama retainsmuch of the sixteenth-century character, while also reflecting sentiments of its
owntime. Goethes Faust explores modern aesthetic and existential concerns. In 1947,Thomas
Mann would reimagine the story in more contemporary ways in his DoctorFaustus (see