E. Belfort Bax

Doctor Faustus and His Contemporaries

A Study of Sixteenth Century Europe

(November 1887)

First published in Macmillan’s Magazine no.57, November 1887. [1*]
Republished in The Ethics of Socialism, pp.147-179.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There is a fascination peculiarly their own attaching to the great transitional periods of history. The special characteristics of the civilisation which is expiring, seem in them to blossom out, so to speak, into rank luxuriance unknown to their days of health and vigour; they exhibit a change like the unnatural, morbid appearance of energy which in some diseases is the herald of death. The manners, customs, and beliefs of the dying epoch assert themselves in an exaggerated and altered form, and, moreover, with a certain self-consciousness, which seems to betoken a sense of insecurity and a struggle against approaching dissolution, yet strange to say often unconsciously assimilating the while some of those very tendencies which are destined to supersede them. Thus in the early centuries of the Christian era we find the dominant features of the civilisation of antiquity, appearing in the most distorted and bizarre forms. The centre and starting point of ancient life and culture, the “City,” has become reduced to a grotesque meaninglessness in the great all-devouring empire-city whose citizenship is degraded to a commercial value. The religions cults of Paganism receive everywhere new and fantastic accretions and developments; weird combinations such as Gnosticism arise; forms which were once instinct with life and meaning become crystallized into rigid shapes in which the original meaning is lost or forgotten. In the same way the period with which the present paper is concerned, which constitutes the dividing line between the mediaeval and the modern worlds, exhibits the spirit and many of the institutions of the middle ages in an exaggerated yet changed and distorted form. Never before has the magnificence of the Prince, the Noble, the Ecclesiastic, been so great; never before has the poverty and degradation of the Serf been so real. Of all medieval pageants, none have equalled in splendour the Field of the Cloth of Gold or the entry of Charles V into Antwerp; or in barbaric indecency that of the same monarch into Bruges, including its procession of naked burger-maidens. Even the Anabaptists of Münster inaugurated their “Kingdom of God,” with all the pomp and circumstance characteristic of the age. Of all the feudal oppressions none have approached the oppressions of centralizing monarchs and potentates such as Henry VIII, Francis or Charles I. No mediaeval baron had exceeded in lawlessness the knights of the Palatinate. Never had the Church been more wealthy or more powerful outwardly than in the decades immediately preceding the Council of Trent; never throughout the whole period of the middle ages had men’s minds generally been so keenly occupied with Theological questions; never before did Astrology, Alchemy, and the “occult sciences” in general, exert such a fascination over so many minds, or the Black art excite such apprehension. Like all ages of transition, the 16th century was an age of unrest, material and intellectual; this double characteristic of the period was embodied in one of its most noteworthy social products – the travelling scholar. The invention of printing had given wide currency to ideas which in an earlier century would have been confined to the monastery. The ideas and aspirations here referred to are immediately traceable to the new learning which had arisen in the preceding age. The emigration from Constantinople had opened up to the Western World the literature of the last period of transition, that of the fall of classical antiquity – the works of the Neo-Platonists, of the Pseudo-Orpheus of Hermestrismegistos; and last but not least, the mysteries of the Jewish Kabbala had been expounded by Reuchin and others. Learning had now ceased to be the exclusive appanage of the clerical class, and was beginning to be pursued as a calling special to itself, with the travelling scholar as its more or less humble representative. The travelling scholar went about from town to town, and from village to village in the combined character of teacher, astrologer, divinator, and medicus, offering his services in return for entertainment and such honorarium as the means or liberality of his hosts admitted. Like the minstrel of an earlier age, he was generally welcomed and treated with an amount of respect wherever he went. But the goal of a travelling scholar’s ambition was always some sort of appointment, however humble, at one of the established seats of learning. The mythical embodiment of this type is Doctor Faustus.

In the following pages we propose to consider briefly, first, the question as to the historical existence of Faustus, together with such traces of the myth as are discoverable previous to its receiving literary form in the Frankfort Faust-Book of 1587; and to attempt the portrayal in a few words of two undoubtedly historical personages who flourished at the same time, and who may be taken as living representatives of the type to which Faust belonged. If we admit an historical Faustus at all, the special interest attaches to the Faust legend of being the last instance in history of the complete incrustation of a real personality in myth. The medieval spirit had always been inclined to assign unusual gifts or learning to an infernal origin; the notion of a compact with the Devil, itself moreover was not by any means new. It had been embodied in one form or another in sundry early Christian legends, and was generally familiar to popular medieval thought. It nevertheless fastened itself with pre-eminent force on the German mind of the 16th century, and as a natural consequence speedily assumed the shape of a mythos. The more learned itinerant scholar of the 10th century had been preceded in the days before the invention of printing and the new learning by the itinerant fortune-teller, who is a noticeable figure in medieval society from the 13th century onwards. It would seem that a personage of this description was notorious in the 15th century, who called himself or was called, “Faustus” or “the fortunate one.” Of this individual we know nothing, and the only evidence we have of his existence is the inference front the statement of the abbot Johann von Trittenheim in 1507 respecting a certain Magister Georgius Sabellicus, then living, who described himself as Faustus the younger. [1] This letter of Trithemius is the most important piece of contemporary evidence as to the existence of an historical Faustus which we possess. The name indeed appears therein for the first time. The Abbé is writing from Würzburg under date August 20th, 1507, to the Court Astrologer of the Elector Palatine, Johann Virdung von Hasfurt, the same who cast the horoscope of Melancthon.

“The man,” says he, “of whom you speak, this George Sabellicus, who impudently calls himself the Prince of Necromancers, is a vagabond and impostor who only merits the whip, to the end that in future he may cease to profess principles so odious and so contrary to the Holy Church. What indeed are the titles that he claims but the mark of a foolish and vain mind in which pride takes the place of Philosophy! Behold how he styles himself: Magister Georgius Sabellicus Faustus Minor, Prince of Necromancers, Astrologer, second Magian, Cheiromancist, Agromancist, Pyromancist, and second Hydromancist! Behold the mad audacity of this man who dares to proclaim himself the Prince of Necromancers, and who, ignorant of all letters should rather style himself fool than master! But his perversity is known to me. On my return journey last year from Brandenburg I encountered this man at the town of Gelnhausen; at the hostelry there, I heard speak of the brilliant promises he had the audacity to make. But when he knew of my arrival he left the hostelry and never dared present himself before me. The pretences of his folly which he has had transmitted to you, he has also sent to me by messenger. In the town, priests reported to me that he had vaunted in the presence of a great number of people of the possession of so great a science and memory that if all the works of Plato and Aristotle were lost, he, like another Esdras, could resuscitate them with more elegance than before. Later, when I was at Spire he came to Würzburg, and actuated by the same vanity is reported to have said before many people that the miracles of Christ were not so marvellous but that he could do the same things as often as he pleased. During last Lent he came also to Kreuznach, and as boastful as ever he promised all manner of marvels, alleging that he was the first of all the Alchemists, and that he could accomplish every object of men’s desires. Just at this time he obtained the post of professor which was vacant, through the interposition of Franz von Sickingen, the bailiff of your Prince and a man much given to mysticism. But soon it was discovered that his system of education consisted of debauches with the students, and he only escaped punishment by a prompt flight; such is the reliable testimony I have to offer you concerning this man whose arrival you await with so much impatience. When he presents himself before you, you will discover not a philosopher, but a rogue and a charlatan. Adieu, remember me.”

The evidence afforded by this letter is manifestly of the first importance, but there are one or two points in it worthy of note, which as far as they go must be allowed to discount the value of its testimony as to the character of its hero. It is evident that Trittenheim had not personally come into contact with George Sabellicus. All that he knew concerning him was from report, and it is quite possible that the ecclesiastic himself, who although he repudiated the “Black Magic” as befitted his position, was nevertheless much addicted to the pursuit of Alchemy, may not have been above allowing himself to be biased by professional jealousy. That Sabellicus was a man of some learning is indicated by the reference to Plato and Aristotle, also by the Academic post given him by that most enthusiastic patron of letters and “last flower of German chivalry” Franz von Sickingen.

The next mention we find of the name Faust is in the Acta Philosophica of Heidelberg University under the year 1509, where Johannes Faustus is mentioned as having obtained the degree of bachelor on the 15th of January in that year. In 1513 Conrad Muth of Gotha, the “humanist” and friend of Reuchlin, writes in a letter to a brother ecclesiastic:

“About eight days ago there came to Erfurt a Chieromancist of the name of Georgius Faustus Hemitheus Heidelbergensis; he is simply a braggard and a fool ... The unlearned, however, are dumfounded by him. It is against him that the theologians should direct their attacks rather than seek to destroy a philosopher like Reuchlin. I heard him prate at the Hostelry, but did not chastise his presumption, for what matters to me the folly of a stranger.”

The questions arise; is this Faust of Muth identical with the one mentioned in the Acta of Heidelberg University, and are either of them the same with the George Sabellicus Faust of Trithenicus? These are questions very difficult to answer. The allusion to Heidelberg in the style and title of the Erfurt Faust of 1513 world seem to point to his identification with the student of 1509, were it not for the difference of Christian names. The one is Johannes, the other Georgius; this discrepancy, however, it is possible, might be susceptible of an explanation. Against the identification of the Heidelberg Faust of 1509 with the Tritthemian Sabellicus may be urged in addition to the discrepancy between the Christian names, the much more important fact that the latter had, it appears, some years previously already occupied a position as teacher. Finally as against the identification of the latter with the Erfurt Faust of 1513 is to be alleged, notwithstanding the omission of any mention of the name Sabellicus and also the allusion to Heidelberg of which Trithemius in his very full report says nothing whatever. The opinion expressed by Conrad Muth of the desirability of Faustus being exposed by the theologians, is not very consistent with his own conduct in allowing him to impose on the good burgers of Erfurt, unrebuked merely on the ground that he was a stranger.

In the next notice of Faust, we find him described as a guest of the Abbé of Maulbronn in 1516. A list of the Abbés of Maulbronn observes respecting Entenfuss the Abbé in question, that he gave hospitality to his fellow-countryman Faust. The worthy ecclesiastic as might be expected was an enthusiastic Alchemist, and had built a laboratory in one of the cloisters of the monastery which retained till recently the local appellation of “Faust’s kitchen.” One of the towers of the building was also called Faust’s tower, from a tradition of its having contained the apartments he occupied during his stay there. This would seem to close the strictly contemporary evidence respecting Dr. Faustus.

A legend of a later date represents Faust as at Leipzig in 1525, and as having in that year performed his celebrated exploit of riding out of Auerbach’s cellar on the wine tun. Two frescoes dating probably from the 17th century illustrative of this incident may be seen at this day on the walls of time establishment in question. Stromer, the proprietor of the famous Gasthaus, who took the name of Auerbach from his birth-place in Bavaria, was an ardent follower of the new doctrines in religion as well as of the new learning. It was with him. that Luther dined in 1519 when he came, to Leipzig to dispute with Eck. It is curious as regards this Leipzig incident that its traditional date 1525 accords with that given in some versions of the legend as the year of Faust’s death; it is also a year with which other incidents in the career of the legendary Faust are connected.

In a little book, bearing date 1539, entitled, Index Sanitatis. Eyn schön und vast nutzliches Büchlein genant Zeyger der Gesundhet, etc. Worms, 1539, by one Begardi, occurs a reference to

“... a man of surprising boldness whose name I will not mention, notwithstanding that he does not seek to remain hidden and unknown. For but a few years ago he traversed provinces, principalities and kingdoms, offering his name to those who wished to know it, and boasting of his talents not only in medicine but in Chieromancy, Necromancy, Physiognomy, Chrystalomancy, and other such sciences. He further proclaimed himself both in speech and writing as a celebrated master who had acquired complete knowledge. He called himself Faust and claimed the title Philosophus Philosophorum. But a great number have complained to me of having been deceived by him. His promises were as magnificent as those of Thessallus, his renown equalled that of Theophrastus, but his acts to my knowledge were found to be trickish and deceitful.”

The theologian Gast professed to have supped with Faust at Basle, and describes some miraculous dishes provided by him. It is extremely probable, however, that his narrative is an echo of Paracelsus’ residence in Basle. Conrad Gesner alludes to Faust in a letter of the 16th August 1561 as having not been dead so very long and as having enjoyed an extraordinary renown. The legend which makes Faust to have been a friend of Melancthon rests on the supposed testimony of the latter’s disciple Mennet or Manlius in his Collectanea. But the passage has been misinterpreted as a quotation from Melancthon himself, whereas Manlius is speaking in his own person. According to Manlius Faust studied at the University of Cracow in Poland at that time a renowned seat of occult learning. He also repeats an already current statement that his birth-place was the little town of Kundling or Knittlingen in Würtemberg. The passage in question from Manlius, contains the original explicit narrative of Faust’s last day, and of his seizure and destruction at midnight in a village inn, by demons. Manlius also makes Faust visit Wittenberg and Nuremberg, besides connecting him with the Court of Charles V. and the battle of Pavia, all of which points are incorporated in the later Faust-book. Wier, the pupil of Cornelius Agrippa, in his De praestigiis daemonum published at Basle in 1563, has two or three references to Faust, but as these are obviously second or third-hand legends, they have no special interest for us here.

We now come to the important question, is there any authentic evidence of Luther having referred to Faust? Widman, the author of the second independent literary redaction of the Faust legend, inserts a chapter headed The opinion of Dr. Luther on Dr. Faust, the information contained in which he professes to have derived from a private document. The edition of Luther’s Tischreden published in 1568 at Frankfort, contains a report of a conversation between Luther and his friends on the subject of Faust similar to that embodied in the chapter in question. He states that Faust resided for some time at Magdeburg with the monks, who held him in great esteem. On someone’s alluding to some recent achievements of the magician, Luther is reported to have replied to the effect that “notwithstanding all his arts, Faust was bound to come to a bad end, inasmuch as he was possessed of a haughty and ambitious devil, who arrogated to himself the Glory of God”, &c., but adding that “neither he nor his master, the devil, could practice magic against himself.” For said he, characteristically, “if the devil had wanted to injure me he could have done it long ago; he has often seized me by the head, but has been always forced to let me go; I have experienced what sort of a comrade he is since he has often brought me to a state in which I knew not whether I was dead or alive. He has also reduced me to despair,” &c. &c. Another of the company relating how that recently Faust had visited the elector of Bavaria, and had organised a hunt, and caused to appear all manner of animals by supernatural means, Luther described how a rich noble had invited him in company with several savants of Wittenberg to his castle to participate in the chase; and how at a given signal a fine fox made its appearance running almost between the legs of the huntsmen, but that as the leader started to pursue it his horse dropped dead from under him, while the fox mounted in the air and vanished. Another present related, how Faust changed a bag of game some huntsmen had brought home, during the night into horses’ heads, Luther replying, “doubtless he never organises a chase but for the purpose of playing some trick on those engaged in it; for,” he added, “the devil rails at all the exercises of men, for the devil is a spirit of presumption.” Commenting on the story of a quarrel between Faust and his host at an inn at Gotha, in which Faust caused such a disturbance in the cellars, that no one dared venture down, Luther observed “that is the system of the devil, when he enters it is difficult to dislodge him.” Luther also related how the Italian magician, Luk Gauric, Bishop of Civitate, had told him that once his own familiar spirit appeared to him and tried to force him to leave Italy for Germany, alleging that Dr. Faust possessed a more powerful spirit than himself, who could teach him many things; to which the Bishop diplomatically replied that it was not seemly for one devil to run after another. Of the genuineness of this alleged conversation of Luther, it is impossible to speak with certainty.

We have now given all the evidence of any importance bearing upon the legend in its course of formation, and while it was mainly an oral tradition. The basis of the literary Faust-sage is the Faust-book of 1587: first sold at the Frankfort fair of that year, and the title of which runs History of Doctor Johann Faust, the renowned magician, and adept in the Black Arts; how he pledged himself to the devil at an appointed time, what strange adventures he passed through, meanwhile, ordered and carried out by himself, till in the end he received his well-deserved reward; for the most part derived from his own writings that he left behind; and printed, as an awful example, frightful illustration, and earnest warning to all vain, curious, and Godless men. The work is dedicated by the writer and printer, Johann Spies, to his “ most gracious dear lords and friends, Caspar, Rolln, secretary to the Kurfürst of Mainz, and Hieronymus Heff, rent-master in the County of Königstein.” In this little book all the widely dispersed legends, oral and written, respecting Dr. Faustus, were brought together into literary shape. Its success was unbounded, and imitations sprang up in all directions. A year or two later appeared an English version, the History of the damnable Life and deserved Death of Dr. John Faustus. A continuation appeared in 1591, entitled, The second report of Dr. John Faustus containing his appearances and the deeds of Wagner. etc. Before the end of the century, histories of Faust were circulating throughout well-nigh every country of Western Europe. The only one of these embodying any new material, is that of Widman published at Hamburg in 1599, of which mention has already been made. Widman claims to have based his work mainly on original sources. In addition to the prose versions, numerous ballads appeared, dealing with the history of Dr. Faustus. The subject became immediately a favourite one for dramatists, and every strolling company of players was expected to leave some play dealing with the career of the great magician in its repertory. The English Elizabethan poet, Christopher Marlowe, seems to have founded his famous drama on the original Frankfort book, the story of which at least was in all probability brought over to this country in the year of its publication by an English company of players who had been in the service of the Duke of Saxony. Henceforward the Faust mythos was established in the world’s literature and art, and only awaited the final form it was to assume at the end of the 18th century from the hand of the immortal master, who in making it the vehicle of his greatest conceptions, raised it to an undying place in the higher thought of mankind.

It will be sufficiently clear from the above summary of evidence that there are many links wanting to the establishment of any definite historical personality. We cannot feel quite certain that in the Faustus referred to by Trithemius, by the Heidelberg university archives, by Conrad Muth, by the traditions of the Maulbronn Monastery, by Berardi, by Manlius, &c., respectively, we have before us one person or more than one. The most probable conclusion we can come to, would seem to be that we have to do with a type, rather than a single individual; that, to use an often quoted expression originally employed in an analogous case, early 16th century Europe presented “a glut” of Fausts, of which the historical Faustus happened to be the bearer of the traditions. One of the established laws of myth-formation probably obtained here, that namely whereby a single individual, either by accident or some slight temporary prominence, becomes the centre round which the characteristics and the traditions, in reality covering a whole class, cluster, Every story of Necromancy or of marvellous adventure, originating in great part in current beliefs, but in the first instance related of various persons henceforth attach themselves to Dr. Faustus. Faust passes out of the domain of history, into that of myth. As illustrating this point we propose now to consider the careers of two well defined historical personages, who also lived during the first half of the 16th century, and the anecdotes told of whom bear a striking resemblance to those connected with the Faust-legend.

The most prominent name among the Necromantic scholars of the age, in which Faustus is said to have lived, is that of Theophrastus Paracelsus. The real name of this personage was Phillippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, or, as some accounts allege, Höhener, the appellation Paracelsus (above Celsus) being assumed. The birthplace of Paracelsus is said to have been Einsiedeln in Switzerland where his father (who was probably of a Swabian family) driven from his native land by poverty, settled down a short time before his birth in 1493. [2] Probably induced by his characteristic love of effect, Paracelsus not content with the names he already possessed, appended thereto the name of his birthplace in a Latinized form – Eremita. The first ten years of his life were spent at Einsiedeln, after which his father repaired to Villach where he died in 1534; he himself imparted to his son his earlier education, and almost as a matter of course his training was in the direction of his father’s faculties, that of medicine. Young Theophrastus, it seems, early showed the penchant for the occult sciences which were characteristic of his age, and as he grew up, states that he received initiation therein from sundry ecclesiastics. “From childhood,” he says, “I have pursued this matter and have learned of good instructors, the most deeply read in the adepta philosophia, and wonderfully cunning in these arts. Firstly, Wilhelmus von Hohenheim my father, who has never forsaken me, and besides him well-nigh too great a number to name; men who have busied themselves with all manner of writings, old and new, such as are of much authority; among others Bishop Scheyt von Settgach, Bishop Erhartt and his ancestors of Lavantall, Bishop Nicholas von Yppon, Bishop Matthaus Schacht, Suffragan of Fressingen, and many abbots, as the Abbot of Spannheim, &c.” This enumeration must presumably not be taken to refer exclusively to those with whom he had had personal intercourse; indeed it is possible thatheonly personally came into contact with the last mentioned, namely, Johann von Trittenheim (Trithemius). Whether as some assert he worked in the alchemistic laboratory of the abbot either at Spannheim or at Würzburg, whither the latter removed in 1506, is uncertain. Paracelsus subsequently turned his attention more exclusively to medicine, visiting various schools in Germany, Italy and France, but the result of his studies was the conclusion that medicine was “an uncertain art not properly to be employed.” Thenceforward his dominating thought was the reconstruction of the science of medicine on an alchemistic and theosophical basis, and its rescue from the domination of Aristotle, Galen and Avicenna. About this time he commenced a series of almost incredible wanderings, in the course of which, as alleged, he visited Spain, Portugal, England, Prussia, Poland, Hungary, Wallachia and Russia. At Moscow he was captured by the Tartars and brought to Constantinople by the son of the Khan. All this, if true, must have taken place before his twenty-fifth year, for about this time we find him again in Germany. He has little to relate respecting his journeys, save that he underwent many hardships and was employed in a medical capacity in sundry campaigns. Mining operations seem always to have attracted his attention; he occupied himself for a long time in the mines of Sigismond Fugger, at Schwatz, in the Tyrol, with researches having for their end the discovery of the great alchemistic secrets, the transmutation of metals, the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life. On his return from Eastern Europe to Germany he once more entered upon the life of travelling scholar. The foundation of his fame in medicine is traceable, it would appear, to a cure he affected on a bookseller of Basle, by name Johann Probanius, who was suffering from a disease of the ankle which the Basle faculty had declared would render amputation necessary; under the treatment of Paracelsus the worthy bookseller was enabled in a few weeks to carry his wares to the annual fair at Frankfort, the same fair at which some sixty years later one of his successors in the trade offered for sale the original Faust-book which in its narrative of the life of arch-necromancer not improbably embodied many elements from that of Paracelsus. Soon after this success, in 1526, Paracelsus acquired the post of town physician at Basle and medical professor at the University. His first act on entering the chair was to consign to time flames the works of Avicenna whose treatise on medicine was then the standard authority. This demonstration was intended to point the moral of the Latin programme of his course for the session of 1527. In this document he proclaimed his intention to cast aside in its entirety all tradition and all the textbooks of his predecessors, and alone to deliver the results of his own researches. Large numbers of students flocked from all sides to hear the renowned medicus who had pronounced himself supreme, and assured the world that his shoe latchets possessed more medical learning than Galen and Avicenna together.

We may presume that after such an opening the further development of the course must have been awaited with breathless expectation by the assembled aspirants to the Aesculapian art. But the pompous and in some cases unintelligible jargon of which the lectures consisted – the character of which has been immortalised ever since in the word bombastic – before long had served effectually to thin his audience. As was naturally to be expected with a man who despised all book learning and who held so high an opinion of his own qualifications, his relations with his academic colleagues had in a little while become to the last degree strained. The unpopularity and disgust which he inspired was increased by his intemperate habits. It is alleged that he rarely ascended the professorial chair sober. We cannot therefore wonder that he had not occupied the post a year, before it had become practically untenable by him. His precipitate flight from Basle was immediately traceable to his resentment at a legal decision which was palpably animated by spite against himself or servility to his adversary or perhaps both. A wealthy canon, Cornelius von Lichtenfels, who was suffering from an attack of indigestion, offered Paracelsus a hundred gulden if he would cure him; the cure was readily effected by a small dose of laudanum which seems to have been the main constituent in a secret and wonderworking preparation which Paracelsus employed. The canon finding himself recovered refused Theophrastus’ stipulated fee; the dispute coming before the court, the case was decided against Paracelsus in favour of the customary honorarium. Upon this Paracelsus broke out into such violent invectives against the judges that he was advised by his friends to fly from the prosecution with which he was threatened. He settled down at Colmar in Elsass where he remained about two years before recommencing his wandering career. He began now to think about having his manuscripts printed. The first book of his Grossen Wundarzhei was probably printed at Ulm, but the work was completed at Augsburg. Henceforward the places of his temporary sojourn are only to be gathered from the prefaces and dedications of the various works. From these we infer that he was at Nuremberg in 1520, and that within the next ten years he visited successively Zürich, St. Gallen, Pfäfers, Mönchroth, Augsburg, Kromau, &c. In the year 1540, he was summoned by the archbishop to Salzburg where he died on the 24th September 1541.

Paracelsus was eminently a type of the travelling scholar of the period, at least in his mode of life; whether his appearance and manners may be taken as equally representative, may be doubtful, notwithstanding that it is highly probable that even the average itinerant man of learning did not possess the dignity and polish of his more fortunate brother the ecclesiastic or the academic dignatory. According to all accounts Paracelsus was exceptionally coarse in his appearance and habit. He is described as more like a labourer than a scholar; his addiction to drink is admitted on all hands. During two years it is said he never undressed himself, but late at night after hard drinking, he would throw himself upon a couch, his great sword by his side; after an hour or two, he would rise up suddenly, whirling the sword in the air, or plunging it violently into the wall or ceiling of the apartment. His terrified famulus [3] appearing, Paracelsus, his hand on the hilt of his sword, would stand and dictate by the hour together. Oporinus, the famulus from whose narrative the account is taken, relates that he stood in hourly dread of his master even when absent, believing him to be in a sense omniscient. Another famulus he was in the habit of frightening, in his midnight ravings with the threat of invoking a million devils, upon which the miserable creature would fall upon his knees and beg him not to do so. The latter subsequently in all seriousness would attribute his own escape from demonic destruction to the earnestness of his entreaties. Fire, we learn, was always burning in his laboratory where something was always distilling or preparing. The staff of Paracelsus was universally believed to possess a demon enclosed in its handle. The name of Paracelsus descended to generations long subsequent as representing the incarnation of Alchemy and Occult medicine, He left a crowd of followers, who saw in him the prophet of the mystical-theurgic or quasi-scientific tendencies which were so popular just before the dawn of physical science proper.

As Sigwart (Kleine Schriften, vol.I. p.41) remarks, Paracelsus in spite of his repudiation of tradition and authority, was quite as much dependent on authority and tradition, as his orthodox opponents of the schools, though the tradition was not altogether the same. Paracelsus founded on a tradition “which had flown steadily on in a kind of under-current throughout the middle ages, and in the 15th century had, through the zeal of the humanists, suddenly come to the fore.” This newer tradition was supplied by the revived Neo-Platonic philosophy, with the astrology and magic which were associated with it, especially in its later phases, and perhaps still more from the cognate doctrines of the Cabala recently opened up by the researches of Reuchlin. The Neo-Platonic notion of a tripartite division of the world, Paracelsus possibly derived more immediately from the Medicean Florentine, Marsilius Ficinus, the Nestor of the Humanist movement. The three worlds, the intelligible, the celestial, and the terrestrial, stand in continuous and mysterious communication with one another. The Heaven with its stars, has its counterpart in the Earth, with its metals, plants, and animals of which the heavenly or astral world is the prototype; that which in the heavens appears as star, or planet, exists as mineral, vegetable or animal in the Earth; he who understands the signatures of things, that is, the signs denoting their connection, understands their true signification and their secret power. All three worlds are bound together by a reciprocal sympathy; on this the possibility of magic rests. Man is a microcosmos, that is, he contains within himself all the elements of the tripartite macrocosmos, his body is compounded of the terrestrial elements, his astral soul is the repository of planetary influences, his rational soul is a part of the Divine or intelligible world principle. As the astral soul regulates the body, so the rational soul dominates the whole man. The carrying out of these positions is, to the last degree, fantastic. Every element has its archoeus or spiritual principle. Human nature, as the unity and pinnacle of the universe, comprises within itself the characteristics of the animal world, of the world of elementary spirits, and of the angelic world. To the world of elementary spirits, belong the undines, or beings composed of the spiritual principle of water, the gnomes, kobolds, or earth-spirits, beings whose dwelling place is the interior of the Earth: sylphs or lemures, the spirits of air, and salamanders or the creatures native to the element of fire. These entities being possessed only of an inferior or elementary soul, can only be rendered immortal by their marriage with human kind. According to the doctrine of Galen the four elements have their counterpart in the four cardinal humours of the human body, the relative preponderance of these gives the distinctions of temperament and constitution, as well as the basis for the diagnosis of disease. Against this Paracelsus vehemently rails, opposing thereto his own doctrine of mercury, sulphury, and salt as the three principles, which he terms the counterpart of the trinity; for with Paracelsus the recognised four elements did not constitute a hierarchy in themselves, but only one division, the terrestrial, in the triune hierarchy of the kosmos. In wood the element which passes off in smoke is mercury, the fire is sulphur, while the ash is salt. We refrain from entering with further detail into these quaint conceits. But that a man like Paracelsus should have been regarded as something like a prophet by large numbers, is significant of the intellectual atmosphere of the 16th century, and indicates a soil ripe for development of such a myth as that of Faustus. We now pass on to the consideration of yet another figure contemporary with the rise of the Faust legend.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim was born of a noble family at Cologne in the year 1487. He received his early education in the university of his native town, where he entered in the faculties of Law and Medicine. Like a true son of his age, he also soon became attracted to the occult sciences. When about twenty years of age he went to Paris, full of romantic dreams as to the unknown possibilities hidden in the nature of things. In Paris, in conjunction with some other young men of divers nationalities, but all inspired by the same hopes, he instituted a secret society, having for its object the study and exploitation of the magical sciences for the ends of personal ambition. That they succeeded in obtaining credence for their pretensions is evinced by the fact that Agrippa received a commission from a noble of Catalonia to deliver one of his castles which was besieged by insurrectionary peasants. Agrippa, by dint of cunning and address, but at great personal risk, succeeded in inducing the insurgents to disperse. Escaped without loss of credit from his dangerous adventure, Agrippa seems for the time being to have had enough of the thaumaturgic profession, and accordingly we find him, in 1509, endeavouring to obtain an academic position in the Theological Faculty. The mystical doctrines he professed in this department were founded on Reuchlin, Mirandola, and the cabalistic writers of the period. His lectures, which were well attended, did not succeed in their purpose, for the Franciscan provincial, Catilinet, denounced Agrippa before the Duchess of Burgundy who was then holding court in Ghent as a dangerous heretic; and not even an essay on the superiority of the female to the male sex, with which Agrippa sought to curry favour with the lady in question, sufficed to efface the ecclesiastical stigma cast upon him as a follower of Reuchlin. Agrippa now came to London, where he pursued more theological studies, but in a short time returned to Cologne, delivering lectures against the worship of relics, pictures, as well as against processions, the observance of feast days and other Catholic practices. He next undertook a journey for the purpose of visiting the renowned Abbot Trittenheim of St. Jacob’s cloister at Wurzburg. This personage, as will have been already evident, was the centre of attraction for all students of occult lore in those days.

Encouraged by the Abbot, Agrippa wrote his first great treatise, De Occulta Philosophia, which claimed to place magic on a philosophical basis. The whole is founded on the principles of Neo-Platonism, and on the characteristic division of the universe, into a spiritual, astral, and elementary world. The system is in all essentials similar to that of Paracelsus, but is rather more coherent, and worked out with greater literary skill. It treats of mysterious affinities, astrological, alchemical, and mystical, the influence of angels, spirits, and demons, etc., etc., in the approved fashion of the time, and of the means, the magical formulae, and signs, etc., by which they may be subjected to man’s influence. This work was no sooner finished, than we find Agrippa transformed into an officer in the Imperial army. In this capacity he seems to have attained distinction, being created a knight on the battle field. But he soon came back to his old pursuits, accompanying the Cardinal da Santa Crochet as theologian to the council of Pisa. After returning for a short time to his military career he once more started as teacher, delivering orations on Hermes Trismegistos, in the uniform of the Imperial officer. The success of these lectures was such as to obtain for him the double Doctorate in law and medicine, and what was of still more importance to him, the hand of a noble maiden. But troubles soon followed. Francis I. retreated across the Alps; the house of Agrippa was plundered in the popular tumult, and it was only through the fidelity of one of his pupils, that his manuscripts were saved. Reduced to great straits after a temporary sojourn with the Marquis of Montferrat, he was invited simultaneously to become syndic and orator to the town of Metz and to a post with the Papal legate at Avignon. He decided upon Metz whither he repaired with his wife and child in 1519. A sceptical tendency as regards all human knowledge now came over the man whose reputation for magical practice and occult science had opened for him the gates of palaces. He became involved in disputes with the ecclesiastical authorities. In one of these he succeeded in rescuing a peasant girl, accused of witchcraft, from the Inquisition. She had been tried before the Inquisitor of Metz and bid fair to be condemned to the stake. It has been remarked as one of the singular contradictions in Agrippa’s life, that the man who would spend so much time in the study and promulgation of doctrines springing from the same stern as the belief in witchcraft, should nevertheless have risked his livelihood to combat its results in the particular case in question. Soon after this, becoming disgusted with his position, he returned once more to Cologne, where he encountered Ulrich von Hütten; but Hütten ‘s plans for the separation of Germany from the Roman Church, displeased him. His wife dying about this time, he again set out on his wanderings; in the following year we find him at Geneva, a native of which place he married. Soon after this he obtained the post of town Physician at Freiburg, but he did not long remain here. In 1524 he received the appointment of Physician and Astrologer to the French Court. He accordingly repaired to Lyons, when political events consequent on the battle of Pavia proving unfavourable to him, he began to negotiate with the Constable de Bourbon, the enemy of Francis, but the unsuccessful campaign at Rome in 1527 threw him again on the French Court. About this time he composed his celebrated work, Declamatio de incertitudine et vanitate omnium scientiarum et artium, in which the sceptical tendency, already alluded to, receives its fullest expression in a somewhat dreary declamation against all departments of learning, and indeed all human interests whatever. A call to Antwerp freed Agrippa from the serious financial and other difficulties which surrounded him. An Augustine monk, much addicted to magic, offered him an asylum there. Although owing to delays on the journey, it was several months before he reached his destination, once arrived, it was not long before he obtained through the Duchess Margareta of the Netherlands the post of Imperial councillor, historiographer, and keeper of the archives. In this capacity he has left an account of the entry of Charles V into Antwerp. His wife at this time died of the plague, then prevalent, and a third marriage which he contracted shortly after, resulting in a separation, his house was broken up, and his children placed in the hands of strangers. The publication of his work on the vanity of sciences, drew upon him a storm of indignation from all sides. The orthodox men of learning, no less than the humanists, had no words severe enough for a writer who would involve all learning in a common condemnation as the off-spring of the evil one, and as fruitful in nothing but sophistry and illusion. Agrippa, apparently, did not realise the fact that it was impossible for him to remain a courtier after the wholesale attacks contained in this work on the powers that were, temporal and spiritual, though Erasmus had warned him of the rashness of his proceeding, and had written urgently begging Agrippa not to involve him (Erasmus) in the conflicts with authority which were certain to ensue. The forecast of Erasmus was soon verified. Charles V withdrew Agrippa’s pension, and drove him from the Netherlands, but not until after he had been immured for some time in the debtor’s prison at Brussels. In this extremity, however, the free-thinking Archbishop of Cologne, Herman von Wied, invited him to reside in his castle near Bonn. Under the shelter of this powerful protection, he entered upon a sharp controversy with his opponents. At this time, too, under the patronage of the Archbishop, to whom it was dedicated, the manuscript treatise of Agrippa before-mentioned, De Occulta Philosophia, was for the first time printed. The inconsistency of Agrippa’s proceeding, in publishing this book after his denunciation of magic in the De Vanitate, will be especially apparent when we consider a passage from the latter work which expressly repudiates the earlier treatise.

“I, being also a young man,” says Agrippa (I quote from the English translation of 1569), “wrote of magical matters three books in a sufficient large volume, in which books, whatsoever was then done amiss through curious youth, now being more advised, I will that it be recanted with this retractation, for I have in times past consumed very much time and substance in these vanities. At length I got this profit thereby, that I know by what means I should discourage and dissuade others from this destruction.”

It is amusing that after having written thus, Agrippa consented to the publication of the work in question, for, it must be remembered, he never doubts of the reality of magic; the “vanity” that he finds in its pretensions consisting in the fact, that these lure men on to their souls’ destruction, instead of fulfilling the promises held out to them. Whether on this particular matter, the Archbishop Herman succeeded in modifying the opinions of Agrippa as expressed in his more recent treatise, or whether a desire of doing honour to his patron, outweighed his concern for the spiritual welfare of his contemporaries, we are unable to say. Agrippa for some unknown reason left Bonn in 1535. He was desirous of visiting Lyons and presumably of again paying his attentions to the French king, but he had no sooner crossed the frontier, than he was arrested by order of Francis, on the ground of some disrespectful letters concerning the Queen mother he had had printed. His friends before long procured his release, whereupon he repaired to Grenoble on the invitation of a friend of position in the town, in whose house he died, in 1536, after a short illness, in the 49th year of his age.

Legend soon began to fasten itself on to the memory of Cornelius Agrippa. He too was reported as having sold himself to the devil, and as having become possessed of miraculous powers. By means of his incantations it was said, that during the war in Italy events occurring in Milan were simultaneously known in Paris. The story which connects Faust with the battle of Pavia, is, we think, clearly traceable to a legend which relates that the arts of Agrippa contributed to the success of the Imperialists in the engagement. Other stories connecting Faust with the court of Charles V also in all probability have their origin in Agrippa’s relations with that monarch. It was said that Agrippa discoursed daily between nine and ten o’clock at Freiburg and between ten and eleven near Mentz. This and other marvellous deeds recorded of him, be is reported to have effected through the agency of a small black dog which remained always close beside him, lying on his writing table and sleeping in his bed, and which was believed to be an incarnate demon that Agrippa had bound to his service by means of a collar whereon was engraved mysterious formulae and signs. Here again, there can be little doubt that we have the origin of the demon-poodle’s part in the Faust-legend. After the death of its master the animal was said to have sprang into the river and never to have been seen again. The character and career of Cornelius Agrippa, so wayward, so contradictory, and so romantic, is an interesting study in itself, but with it we are not here concerned. We have taken Agrippa as we have taken Paracelsus, as the embodiment of a tendency which reached the height of its development in the earlier part of the 16th century At periods like the one we speak of, at what we may term the “great divides” of history, the most opposite tendencies co-exist or are separated from each other only by an interval of a few years. In the previous century, the science and philosophy of the middle ages proper, had been undermined by the new learning. The pseudo-science based on the ancient literatures newly opened up, which had come into vogue, though apparently opposed to the science which preceded it, was really opposed not so much to this as to the science of modern times which succeeded it. The period of its zenith was also the period when its decline was already written on it. The same century, the first half of which produced a Paracelsus, an Agrippa, a Trithemius, as men representative of its conceptions of nature, produced in its second half a Bacon, a Galilei, a Kepler. Nay, while Paracelsus and Agrippa were still alive, and at that seat of occult learning, Cracow, at the very time too when Doctor Faustus was alleged to have been studying there, a Copernicus was pursuing the unpretentious researches which were destined to revolutionise in a modern sense at least one department of science. There is no century in which the antithesis of old and new is so sharply manifested as in the 16th.

With the l6th century and its Faust-legend, the mythos proper finally disappears, as one of the factors of the evolution of human culture. There have been of course plenty of legendary anecdotes, which have arisen and been current concerning various personages, since then; but there has been no great legendary cyclos, whose influence has made itself felt throughout the most advanced nations, which has embodied any special conception, or which has taken complete possession of any personality, since the Humanism and awakening aspirations toward an understanding of nature were seized upon by the theological ideas of the time (“reformed” even more than Catholic) from their own point of view and embodied in the legend of the “Life and Death of the Arch Conjuror and Necromancer, Dr. Faustus.” Speaking broadly, we may characterise the Faust myth as portraying the antagonism between the “Reformation” and the “New Learning.” To the dogmatic reformers, to a Luther, a Calvin, a Zwingii, and their followers, the scholarship of an Erasmus, a Conrad Muth, a Reuchlin, with their indifference to the claims of the rival dogmatic systems, (although for the most part nominally adhering to the older church) was an impiety only to be accounted for on the ground of diabolic influence. Any special skill in art or in science, or any new discovery being immediately attributed by the thought of the age to a supernatural source, it is not difficult to see that the materials for the myth were at hand, for whichever side happened to take them up.

In thus taking farewell, so to speak, of the ages of myth for that modern period, in which physical science, commerce, and personal gain, succeeds to the old world learning and fancy, with its labour for use and pleasure, rather than exchange, and with its dependence on status, it is impossible one would think for any one to avoid putting to themselves very pointedly, the question: how much has the world gained by the improvements of which we are accustomed to hear so much be praised? There are probably few who have considered the matter at all, who at least, at times, have not been inclined to answer in the negative. Who is there, for instance, who as the evening closes comes upon a view of one of those quaint mediaeval towns (which survive, even to the present day, in some parts of Southern Germany, where the break with the past has been less complete than in this country) does not feel as someone recently expressed it, that he would give twenty years of his life to be transported back, even to the period we have been considering, in which, although in many respects corrupt, the main fabric of the middle ages was still intact – so preferable does the rest and peace of the world, typified in those narrow-gabled streets, and tiled buildings, seem to him to the turmoil of that other world, typified in the brand new Bahn, and of the shunting yard, and factory chimney which will probably not be far off? This may be sentiment, but sentiment here as elsewhere, has a meaning, which may not be blinked. This sentiment is after all only the ideal expression in one form of the utter and complete failure of modern civilisation, so far as human happiness is concerned, even with those who are not materially crushed by it. Looking at it apart from its broader issues, and merely on its artistic and sentimental side, the hideousness of the machine-world of to-day only requires a contrast like that indicated, to become apparent to the most casual observer. We feel irresistibly under such circumstances, that even the middle ages in their decay – the world in which a Faustus, a Paracelsus, an Agrippa, lived and wandered from town to town – would compare favourably, with all its superstition, and straightforward ferocity, with the matter-of-fact, hypocritical 19th century. In taking leave of the world of the Faust-mythos, we cannot help feeling, we are taking leave to a great extent of contact with reality, the naive simplicity of human nature, and entering upon the beginning of the modern age of shams. There are no three centuries in history which have witnessed so great a change, not only in the surroundings of life, but in human nature itself, as those between the 16th and the 19th centuries inclusive. But it is of no use looking back. The hope for humanity of those who think with the present writer is that the 22nd century will exhibit a vaster and more complete contrast to the 19th century, than the latter does to the age which produced a Faust-mythos.


1. Risterhuber would seem to regard the expression Faustus minor as intended to distinguish Sabellicus Faust from the Fust or Faust the printer,

2. The name of his father appears to have been Wilhelm, Bombast von Hohenheim. The family was an old one and had its seat in the plateau land to the south of Stuttgart. One of its members accompanied Count Eberhard of Würtemburg to Palestine, another member we find noticed as Forest-ranger of Kurnbach about the middle of the 15th century.

3. The famulus, it is perhaps hardly necessary to explain, was a poor student who performed menial offices for a professor or man of learning in return for board and instruction. He was a recognised institution of mediaeval German university life.


Note by MIA

1. Because of a typo, Bax is printed Bar in the original publication.


Last updated on 14.1.2006