On the Shelf Review – Ruickbie’s Faustus: The Life and Times of a Renaissance Magician

I don’t know what I pay you guys for, because nobody mentioned to me that the most thorough treatment of the Renaissance magus Faust,  Leo Ruickbie’s Faustus, had just appeared.  Nevertheless, you’re all forgiven, and I’ll review it for you.

Writing a biography of Jorg Faust is an extremely daunting task.  First, you have the historic references to him, which are so spotty that some have questioned whether Faust really existed and often considerably polemic in nature.  Then you have the legends from the various Faustbooks, which seem to be little more than fanciful morality tales of magical shenanigans with a few place names and historic figures thrown in here and there.  Finally, you have the Faustian grimoires, derivative works of ceremonial magic designed to cash in on the fame of the magician.  In short, it’s a tremendous mess for anyone who’s trying to learn about the most infamous wizard in Western history.

This is the task that Leo Ruickbie sets out to do, and his solution is novel.  Working with the historical evidence, he assesses it and uses it to set up likely dates when Faust was in particular places.  Within this framework, he assesses the legends of Faust, speaking of the possibility of whether he really could have been in Ingolstadt or Wittenberg at a particular time as the legend suggests.  He also discusses the Faustian grimoires, placing them in the biography at the time in Faust’s life to which they are attributed.  Describing this makes the whole affair sound simply awful, but it results in an often-entertaining semi-biographical account of Faust and his times without eschewing historical accuracy or giving inordinate credit to legends or fraudulent statements.

Ruickbie also provides us with some interesting new perspectives on Faust.  For example, he gives a likely first name (Jorg, instead of the legendary Johannes), his origin (likely from a noble family in Heidelberg, not Wittenberg), a birth-date (April 23, 1466), and even a possible post with the Hospitallers.  If nothing else, this should incite a great deal of scholarly debate over Faust which has been needed for some time.

I do have some cautions about this book, mainly because it often bases its conclusions on areas far removed from my own.  Is Trithemius truly as jealous and unreliable source as Ruickbie at times suggests?  If Faust was indeed traveling with the armies in the wars of his time, shouldn’t there be some documentation of this?  While we await the opinions of more knowledgeable individuals on these topics, we may nonetheless enjoy the first full biography of Faustus as a window into the life of a fascinating, and likely very misunderstood, individual.

Published in: on July 3, 2009 at 9:35 am  Comments (4)  

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  1. Hi Dan, I’ve just accidentally discovered your review of my biography of Faustus and I’m delighted to read that you found it useful and informative. I thought I would just reply to the two questions you raise.

    1. Trithemius was as biased and unreliable as I suggest. His character assassination of Faustus was typical of his reaction to people who disagreed with him. This is not to say that he was not an important figure in the Humanist movement – he was – but he was not above being prejudiced and this is supported by other evidence. For example, he was roundly defamatory of another of his enemies in his supposedly historical Annals. In many ways, Trithemius seems to have tried to use Faustus as a scapegoat for his own increasingly poor reputation. Whilst he had his strong supporters, there were many who thought him a necromancer who raised the dead and consorted with demons. But it’s Faustus’s position as a potential rival that really gets Trithemius hot under the collar.

    2. The possibility of Faustus attaching himself to the Imperial forces of the period is suggested by his own recorded remarks, as I’m sure you recall from reading my book. The fact that there is no surviving official documentation of this does not mean that there never was any documentation. However, any role that he may have played would have been highly specialised and as such would have been unlikely to be recorded on a mercenary paymaster’s lists. It is quite exceptional that we have a record of the sum paid to him by the Bishop of Bamberg and the records of armies on campaign were of course subject to a level of risk that the ecclesiastical files were not. My approach has been to take Faustus temporarily at his word and consider what it would have meant to have been involved in the wars of the period, whilst holding a question mark over that involvement. At the very least, this helps us to understand the impact of these claims amongst his contemporaries.

    To sum up, Trithemius was indeed a dangerous character to cross, and regrettably few documents have survived 500 years of carelessness and wilful destruction.


  2. […] Having seen it, we made it back to town without incident, window browsing in some shops and getting some excellent ice cream before taking the train back.  On the way up and back, I managed to finish Ruickbie’s Faust biography, which I’ve already reviewed. […]

  3. […] is an unusual demon, insofar as his first appearance was in works of fiction based upon the life of the magician Georgius Sabellicus Faustus.  When grimoires began to be attributed to Faust, Mephistopheles followed along as one of the […]

  4. […] Thanks to Dan Harms for this review. You can read the full review at his webiste. […]

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