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Faust Johann Georg
(1480 – c. 1540)

Faust Johann Georg (1480 – c. 1540)

Dr. Johann Georg Faust was an itinerant alchemist, astrologer and magician of the German Renaissance. His life became the nucleus of the popular tale of Doctor Faust from ca. the 1580s, notably culminating in Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604) and Goethe's Faust (1808).

Because of his early treatment as a figure in legend and literature, it is very difficult to establish historical facts about his life with any certainty. In the 17th century, it was even doubted that there ever had been a historical Faust, and the legendary character was identified with a printer of Mainz called Fust. Johann Georg Neumann in 1683 addressed the question in his Disquisitio historica de Fausto praestigiatore, establishing Faust's historical existence based on contemporary references.

Possible places of origin of the historical Johann Faust are Knittlingen (Manlius 1562), Helmstadt near Heidelberg, or Roda. Knittlingen today has an archive and a museum dedicated to Faust.

Faust's year of birth is given either as 1480/1 or as 1466. Baron (1992) prefers the latter. The city archive of Ingolstadt has a letter dated 27 June 1528 which mentions a Doctor Jörg Faustus von Haidlberg. Other sources have Georgius Faustus Helmstet(ensis). Baron searching for students from Helmstet in the archives of Heidelberg University found records of a Georgius Helmstetter inscribed from 1483 to 1487. This student exceptionally refused to reveal his surname. He was promoted to baccalaureus on 12 July 1484 and to magister artium on 1 March 1487.

For the year 1506, there is a record of Faust appearing as performer of magical tricks and horoscopes in Gelnhausen. Over the following 30 years, there are numerous similar records spread over southern Germany. Faust appeared as physician, doctor of philosophy, alchemist, magician and astrologer, and was often accused as a fraud. The church denounced him as a blasphemer in league with the devil.

Johannes Trithemius in a letter to Johann Birdung dated 20 August 1507 warns the latter of a certain Georgius Sabellicus, a trickster and fraud styling himself Georgius Sabellicus, Faustus junior, fons necromanticorum, astrologus, magus secundus etc. According to Trithemius, in Selnhausen and Würzburg Sabellicus boasted blasphemously of his powers, even claiming that he could easily reproduce all the miracles of Christ. In 1507, Trithemius alleges, he received a teaching position in Sickingen, which he abused by indulging in sodomy with his male students, evading punishment by a timely escape.

Conrad Mutianus Rufus in 1513 recounts a meeting with a chiromanticus called Georgius Faustus, Helmitheus Heidelbergensis (likely for hemitheus, "demigod of Heidelberg"), overhearing his vain and foolish boasts in an Erfurt inn.

On 23 February 1520, Faust was in Bamberg, doing a horoscope for the bishop and the town, for which he received the sum of 10 gulden (Baron p. 42).

In 1528, Faust visited Ingolstadt, from where he was banished shortly after. In 1532 he seems to have tried to enter Nürnberg, according to an unflattering note made by the junior mayor of the city to "deny free passage to the great nigromancer and sodomite Doctor Faustus" (Doctor Faustus, dem großen Sodomiten und Nigromantico in furt glait ablainen ) Later records give a more positive verdict, thus the Tübingen professor Joachim Camerarius in 1536 recognises Faust as a respectable astrologer, and physician Philipp Begardi of Worms in 1539 praises his medical knowledge. The last direct attestation of Faust dates to 25 June 1535, when his presence was recorded in Münster during the Anabaptist rebellion.

Faust's death is dated to 1540 or 1541. He allegedly died in an explosion of an alchemical experiment in the "Hotel zum Löwen" in Staufen im Breisgau. His body is reported to have been found in a "grievously mutilated" state which was interpreted to the effect that the devil had come to collect him in person by his clerical and scholarly enemies. While the exact year of his death is uncertain, we can assume he died before 1548, in which year the theologian Johann Gast in his sermones conviviales states that Faust had suffered a dreadful death, and would keep turning his face to the earth in spite of the body being turned on its back several times.

In his 1548 account, Gast mentions a personal meeting with Faust in Basel during which Faust provided the cook with poultry of a strange kind. According to Gast, Faust travelled with a dog and a horse, and there were rumours that the dog would sometimes transform into a servant.

Another posthumous account is that of Johannes Manlius, drawing on notes by Melanchthon, in his Locorum communium collectanea dating to 1562. According to Manlius, Johannes Faustus was a personal acquaintance of Melanchthon's and had studied in Krakow. Manlius' account is already suffused with legendary elements, and cannot be taken at face value as a historical source. Manlius recounts that Faust had boasted that the victories of the German emperor in Italy were due to his magical intervention. In Venice, he allegedly attempted to fly, but was thrown to the ground by the devil. Johannes Wier in de prestigiis daemonum (1568) recounts that Faustus had been arrested in Batenburg because he had recommended that the local chaplain called Dorstenius should use arsenic to get rid of his stubble. Dorstenius smeared his face with the poison, upon which he lost not only his beard but also much of his skin, an anecdote Wier says he heard from the victim himself. Philipp Camerarius in 1602 still claims to have heard tales of Faust directly from people who had met him in person, but from the publication of the 1587 Faustbuch, it becomes impossible to separate historical anecdotes from rumor and legend.

In the light of records of an activity spanning more than 30 years, it has been suggested that there were two itinerant magicians calling themselves Faustus, one Georg, active ca. 1505 to 1515, and another Johann, active in the 1530s. This cannot be disproved, but neither is there a compelling reason to accept it. Even assuming the earlier date of birth, Faust would have died at the above-average but not impossible age of 74 or 75.


Czechoslovakia, 1961, Faust and Caspar

German Federal Republic, 1979, Doctor Faust and Mephistopheles

Paraguay, 1982, Faust

German Federal Republic, 1975.03.24, Knittingen. City of Faust

German Federal Republic, 1979.11.14, Bonn. Doctor Faust

German Federal Republic, 1976, Staufen — city of Faust

German Federal Republic, 1979, Statue of Faust in Knittlingen

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