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Faustus - The Life and Times of a Renaissance Magician

Secrets of a Real Magician

Do you have to sell your soul to the Devil to master the magic arts? Find out in this true-life account of the secrets of a real Renaissance magician. Set in a time of witchcraft trials and magical adventure, "a work of meticulous scholarship" and "a gripping page-turner".

Faustus: The Life and Times of a Renaissance Magician

The following table has been supplemented with an excerpt from the first paragraph of each chapter.

Table of Contents

1. A Renaissance Scandal

Lightning tears the sky asunder. Electric veins of heaven’s quicksilver beat a furious, fiery pulse. Thunder, like the demon’s drumroll, rumbles in the black, starless sky. The wind howls in the treetops like a chorus of the damned. His candles guttered and snuffed out, his carefully drawn circle spotted and smudged by rain, his nerves in shreds, the magician cries aloud in ancient tongues with names of gods forsaken and words unknown. In a fanfare of shrieks and moans – of the wind in the trees or souls in hell he cannot discern – in the flicker of thunderbolts hurled by a disapproving God, out of flames and grotesque shadows a figure resolves itself.

2. Born of the Devil (1466)

He appeared in 1507. Without warning he walked into the pages of history, already infamous and condemned, already a legend. We do not know with absolute certainty where or when he was born, where or when he died, or where and when he went in between those two dates. Scholarly arguments have even been put forward to prove that he did not exist at all and today many people believe that he was entirely the figment of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s imagination.1 But they would be wrong. Before there was the legend, there was a man called Faustus.

3. The Diabolical Faculty (1472-1489)

Until he is mentioned in 1507 by the hostile Trithemius we hear nothing of ‘Faustus’, but what we do hear tells us something of Faustus’s early years. Trithemius writes his letter in Latin, however, he had evidently seen Faustus’s calling card and it seems possible that the Latin was used by Faustus himself. Trithemius also says that Faustus made mention of Plato and Aristotle which hints at a university education and points to some schooling beforehand. Few people were literate in the vernacular, let alone able to produce their own calling card in Latin. The evidence later provided by Mutianus and Leib leads us to the person of Georg Helmstetter and his documented university career, but even if we did not know that Faustus was Helmstetter, the information provided by Trithemius indicates a university background.

4. The Magus Arrives (1500-1506)

As the fifteenth century came to a close Millennial fears produced reports of wondrous signs and portents. Prophets sprang up like mushrooms to preach of Antichrist and the Second Coming, and Arquato (Antonio Torquato) prophesied the destruction of Europe. There were stories of monstrous births, downpours of milk and blood, and stains upon the heavens. A triple moon was seen in the skies over Germany. In 1500 coloured crosses miraculously appeared on people’s clothes in two villages near Sponheim and again in Liège the next year, portending plague, said Trithemius. Legions of deformed children were born in Greece. Plague ravaged France. A corona of flaming swords illuminated Italian skies. It was said that a thunderbolt had struck the Vatican and toppled the Pope from his throne.1

5. Sex Crimes in Kreuznach (1507)

Towards the end of Lent of the present year he came to Kreuznach.1

Trithemius had more to say about Faustus. The events he next described took place about a year after his first encounter with the magician in Gelnhausen, in a town 126 kilometres away – by modern roads – now called Bad Kreuznach, but which was then simply Kreuznach. According to Trithemius, Faustus was there around late March or April of 1507.

6. Harrowing Times (1507-1512)

What happened to Faustus immediately after his fateful near encounter with Trithemius? He probably little guessed the abbot’s venomous reaction, Faustus, afterall, had sent him his card and was probably somewhat perplexed that Trithemius had moved on without seeing him. According to Trithemius’s report, Faustus had just lost his position in Kreuznach. If Trithemius was right about the situation, then Faustus would have been unlikely to linger long in the town. Trithemius’s letter gives the vital clue that Faustus was expected by Johannes Virdung. The question then is, did Faustus visit Virdung?

7. The Hellbrand of Erfurt (1513)

There were portents in the skies and such wonders in 1513. The widely famed scholar Girolamo Aleandro (1480-1542), a native of the war-torn Veneto, noted in his diary for September of that year the extraordinary luminosity of Jupiter. In Paris at the invitation of the French King Louis XII, he pointed out the planet to his students at the Collège de la Marche and together they observed that its brilliance was strong enough to cast a shadow. However, it was not just strange lights in the sky that illuminated Erfurt that year, but the fire of riot and the diabolical radiance of the ‘Hellbrand’ himself.

8. Meeting Mephistopheles (1514)

Now at last the demonic spirit so central to the tale, so bound up with Faustus, appears, but why so late? There are no contemporary nor even near-contemporary references to Mephistopheles in the historical sources. If the real Faustus did invoke him, then he did so quietly and without apparent publicity. The name of this spirit is recorded for the first time around 1580 and the only date we have to go by comes from an unreliable source – Carolus Battus’s 1592 Dutch edition of Spies’s 1587 Historia – but as it is the only source let us entertain it, if only as a chronological fancy.

9. Deal with the Devil (1514)

If Faustus must have his Mephistopheles, then Mephistopheles must have his pact: ‘he will buy my services with his soul’ states Marlowe’s spirit; ‘Give me a line or two, I pray’ solicits Goethe’s gentlemanly demon.1 The pact has become a central element in the legend of Faustus. It has entered into our language as a ‘Faustian bargain’. After reading Marlowe and Goethe we are all convinced that it must have taken place, that the pact was the source of all Faustus’s power as well as the legalese of his destruction. And yet we all know Marlowe and Goethe to be dramatists, spinning tales for our delight and occasional edification. So which is it? Fact or fiction? Where did it come from, this idea of the pact, and what truth is in it?

10. The Philosophers’ Stone (1516)

Driven out of Erfurt sometime after 1513, the only dated reference to him being there, Faustus resurfaces closer to home sometime in 1516. The intervening years were ones of change and warfare – dangerous times to be wandering the highways and byways of the Empire. François I had been crowned King of France in 1515 and resumed the Italian game with a victory at the Battle of Marignano (Melegnano) to regain control of Milan. Social dissent was widespread. The Gypsies were expelled from Burgundy and more than five hundred people were said to have suffered capitally for the crime of witchcraft in the city of Geneva in the course of just three months. On a more personal scale, von Sickingen’s wife had died giving birth to what would have been their seventh child. Perhaps Faustus had been sent for to intercede with astrological medicine or seek out her shade with necromancy.

11. The Court Magician (1519-1522)

After Maulbronn the trail runs cold. A smattering of legends and historically datable incidents puts Faustus in the company of nobles, high-ranking clergy and even the Emperor himself in the role of something like a court magician. He appears in Heilbronn, in Boxberg, in Frankfurt, in Bamberg and in Innsbruck, wandering the roads of the Empire again in search of fame and fortune. The sightings are often mere hearsay. Rumours were rife and out of such fertilizer legends grow easily.

12. The Planets Collide (1523-1525)

Contrary to usual opinion, the astrologers proclaimed that the solar eclipse of 23 August 1523 would be beneficial. The benevolent Jupiter would dominate the maleficient Saturn and all would be well. It was only to be the calm before the storm.

13. All the Victories in Italy (1521-1527)

The whole world was now in warfare.

– Cellini1

A remark supposedly made by Melanchthon suggests that Faustus was neither holding court in a Leipzig inn nor in Germany at all to witness the peasants’ uprising, but farther south with those much needed soldiers of the Swabian League. To be sure, the sporadic nature of the Italian campaign would not necessarily prevent either of these possibilites, but Manlius reported that Melanchthon had said the following:


14. On the Road to Exile (1527-1528)

The Sack of Rome cast a heavy pall across Europe. Even Lutherans like Melanchthon regreted the indiscriminate mayhem of the philistine soldiery. Leonardo Da Vinci had spoken prophetically when he wrote that ‘Creatures shall be seen upon the earth who will always be fighting one with another with very great losses and frequent deaths on either side’.1 The cannon smoke had hardly cleared, but France and England allied themselves against Charles V and declared war. Three months later, Odet de Foix was leading yet another army into the Milanese. As if she was not troubled enough, a typhus epidemic was ravaging Italy that by the end of the year would claim tens of thousands of lives. Whilst the European powers resumed their old games, the armies of Suleiman the Magnificent were gathering for the final assault on Christendom.

15. Entertaining the Emperor (1529-1530)

Whilst Faustus was dealing with Ingolstadt councillors, the Treaty of Cambrai had brought temporary peace between France and the Empire, but Charles V was almost immediately embroiled in countering the increasing militancy of the Reformists. At the Reichstag of Speyer that year, Charles argued for the withdrawal of all concessions made to the Lutherans, but six princes and fourteen cities protested against this action, thereby giving the name of ‘Protestant’ to their cause. Just as it had been during the Peasant War, it was the question of self-determination that proved divisive. The Protestants moved to consolidate their position and in 1530 the League of Schmalkalden was formed, threatening the future of Catholicism in Germany.

16. The Fugitive (1530-1534)

Whilst war still raged in northern Italy, in the Colosseum in Rome, Benvenuto Cellini witnessed a dramatic and terrifying invocation of demons. But it was not Faustus who was invoking them. Cellini’s experiments aside, 1530 was a bad year for occultists generally. Agrippa had published his De incertitudine, an apparent recantation of the occult philosophizing of his youth. Friedrich Peypus’s underground edition of Paracelsus’s book on syphilis – the French Disease – caused such a great hue and cry that Paracelsus was forced to flee Nuremberg. Further publication of his books was banned.

17. Baptism of Blood (1534-1535)

The Empire seemed as though it were being compressed in a vice, its internal flaws and tensions threatening to explode it at any moment. The French and the Ottomans were exerting tremendous external pressure, whilst religious upheaval in the German states seemed like the prelude to open war. Luther had completed his translation of the Old Testament into colloquial German and now issued a complete Bible. Germany was swarming with French agents and French support promised to the Lutheran princes made them bold in their opposition to the Emperor.

18. Beyond the Black Forest (1535-1536)

Old antipathies between France, the Empire and Venice split Christendom and invited Europe’s ancient foe, the Turk, to plunder her. War was everywhere, but where was Faustus? Would he again lend his wand to the Emperor’s cause as he had allegedly claimed before? Faustus was now in his late fifties. He had seen many of his former clients and possibly friends die before him. He needed to find security and that meant money, a position, or another wealthy patron. At this stage in Faustus’s career we begin to see a cluster of locations around the place generally identified as Faustus’s final destination. There would be no more adventuring in Italy or in the dangerous borderlands abutting the Ottoman Empire. Towards the end of his life he seems to have travelled south, into the Black Forest and beyond.

19. The Wages of Sin (1537-1538?)

It is a common proverb in Germany, that although a Conjurer have all things at commandment, the day will come that he shall not be worth a penny: so is it like to fall out with Doctor Faustus, in promising the Devil so largely.

– P.F.1

Epilogue: A Damnable Life?

During his lifetime Faustus had acquired a black reputation, but it was nothing to the one he would acquire after death. In life he was the Prince of Necromancers, the Second Magus, an equal of Jesus, a philosopher ranked amongst Plato and Aristotle, who could foretell the future better than any other astrologer of his age – as he apparently told his audiences. In death he became the arch-Satanist, the blackest of black magicians.

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Works Attributed to Faustus
Principal Sixteenth Century Sources
Published Works

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Faustus: The Life and Times of a Renaissance Magician


Faustus, Faust, magic, black magic, alchemy, astrology, necromancy, witchcraft, grimoires, Germany, Renaissance, sixteenth century, Goethe, Marlowe, biography, history, folklore, legend, Devil, Mephistopheles, pact, damnation, soul


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