The Real Doctor Faustus

Faustus summoning Mephostophilis
Faustus summoning Mephostophilis

The legends of brilliant men making pacts with the Devil in order to acquire their knowledge is a tale as old as time.  Theophilus the Penitent was one of the earliest legends, but a man from Germany would become more famous, and immortalized in many works such as Christopher Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus, and Goethe’s Faust, just to name a few.  The legend of Doctor Faustus served to show the consequences of one’s decision to commit themselves to evil, but also, it seems to me that it also showed the views of those who were rather brilliant so to speak, and that “obviously” someone must have made a pact with the Devil in order to be that intelligent.  Evidence also suggests that he was a “sodomite” and a “sorcerer” that found him to be banished from several of the towns he visited in his travels.

While Doctor Faustus remains a primarily German legend, this man, named John or Idealporträt_Joannes_FaustusGeorge Faustus was most likely an actual person who was an itinerant scholar or a fortune-teller of some sorts who was a well-traveled man.  Documents that have surfaced date his activities around 1507 until around 1540, and it is believed that he died not long before 1545.  Unfortunately, any historical accounts of the real Faustus do not paint a very favorable picture of him.  The first full account of Faustus was written by an anonymous Protestant and published in 1548 was the first to associate him with the supernatural and any possible pact with the Devil.  This text would be called, Historia von D. Iohan Fausten.  The German-text’s introduction called him “a conjuror and master of black magic” and someone who “sold himself” to the Devil, as well as claiming that the enclosed accounts were from the real diaries of Faustus during his travels.

Another portrait of Faustus circa 1480
Another portrait of Faustus circa 1480

Evidence of the cause of death of Doctor Faustus have been hard to come by. Allegedly, the real Doctor Faustus died a brutal death from an explosion from an alchemical experiment.  His body was terribly mutilated, which supported the idea that the Devil did indeed collect what was due.  However this was recorded by Wikipedia and I haven’t been able to find a strong source to be completely convinced.

Then an English translation called, The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor Faustus, within five years after the German-text was released.  The author was only known as P.F., and while P.F. remained consistent in the translation, there is a very apparent branch off when Damnable Life includes details that are not included in the German text.  Because of these extra details being included in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, it is very likely that Marlowe used Damnable Life as his main source.  Whether he used the German-text is quite possible, but there isn’t enough evidence to confirm it since Damnable Life includes all the information from the German-text.

Hopefully, this has piqued some interest for you to explore more about the Faustus legend, and make the decision for yourself.  Do you think Doctor Faustus really consorted with the Devil?  Or was he the victim of ignorance?

Further Reading

Faust Legends Translated by D.L. Ashliman

Goethe’s Faust

The Faust Book (or Faustbuch)

Christopher Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus

If you want to obtain the original text for The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor Faustus, go to your local library or university and inquire as to whether they have a partnership with Early English Books Online (EEBO).

Cambridge – The Source of Doctor Faustus

2 thoughts on “The Real Doctor Faustus”

  1. Just a note to say that the portrait of “IOANNES FAUSTUS” that you include in your post has been positively identified as an imaginary portrait, not of Dr. Faustus, but of Johann Fust (1400-1466), Johann Gutenberg’s creditor and, with Gutenberg’s assistant Peter Schoeffer, the first printer/publisher in history. The alternative spelling of Fust’s name as “Faust” established itself in the early 16th century and resulted in a century-long confusion between the two figures. I live in the town where this portrait now hangs.


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