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.