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Faust: 16th century

Since the 16th century the western mind has been fascinated by the idea of Faust, whose thirst for knowledge and experience is so great that he will sell his soul to the devil in return for it. The theme emerges at a time when two strands of intellectual ferment coincide - the Renaissance, with its passion to rediscover ancient wisdom, and the Reformation, with its emphasis on the individual's responsibility for his own spiritual health.

Enthusiasts of either kind have much to dwell upon in the story of Faust, who in origin is a historical character.


In the early decades of the 16th century there is a magician, astrologer and charlatan by the name of Georg Faust. There are references to him in contemporary German documents, almost invariably uncomplimentary, up to the year 1540. Even in his lifetime one of the tricks he is credited with is summoning up characters from Homer (just as Mephistopheles produces Helen of Troy for Faust's delight in the subsequent legend).

Faust would have been entirely forgotten but for the publication of an anonymous Faustbuch in Frankfurt in 1587. Supposedly about the historical Faust, the book brings together a much wider range of legends attached to magicians through the centuries.


This first Faustbuch introduces the character of Mephistopheles, with whom Faust makes his famous pact, and evokes with medieval vividness the terrifying inferno awaiting Faust at the end of the agreed 24-year term.

The Faustbuch becomes an immediate bestseller throughout Europe, with early translations into several languages. But it too might soon have been forgotten, if it had not caught the attention of a young dramatist in England. Christopher Marlowe writes his play Doctor Faustus at some time before his death in 1593 (six years after the first German Faustbuch). Nearly all later versions derive from Marlowe's treatment of the theme.


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