The Faustian Contract

November 2, 2009

[This should really be properly researched, instead of thrown together from wikipedia browsing and googling. Maybe when I have time. In any case, I think it’s at least suggestive.]

Joannes Faustus

In a letter of 1507, Johannes Trithemius warns his correspondent of “Georgius Sabellicus, Faustus junior, fons necromanticorum, astrologus, magus secundus etc”. In 1532 Johann Georg Faust attempts to enter the city of Nurnberg – the junior mayor demands that the city “deny free passage to the great nigromancer and sodomite Doctor Faustus”. In 1540 or 1541 Faust’s body is discovered in a “grievously mutilated” state – perhaps the result of an explosion during alchemical experiments. In 1587 the chapbook Historia von D. Johann Fausten is published in Frankfurt am Main

The sorcerer, wherein is described specifically and veraciously:
His entire life and death,
How he did oblige himself for a certain time unto the Devil,
And what happened to him,
And how he at last got his well-deserved reward

This chapbook is widely read and translated. Its 1592 English translation forms the basis for Marlowe’s 1594 Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Multiple other versions of the Faust story are published over the following years and decades – Das Wagnerbuch, 1593; Das Widmann’sche Faustbuch, 1599; Dr. Fausts großer und gewaltiger Höllenzwang, 1609; Dr. Johannes Faust, Magia naturalis et innaturalis, 1612. The Teufelsbücher – devil book – is a new popular literary genre. At the same time, and apparently independently, the story of Pan Twardowski is emerging in Polish folklore. Like Faust, Twardowski sells his soul to the devil in exchange for wealth and knowledge – he writes an encyclopedia, dictated by the devil. Like Faust, his contract can only condem him – though he ends up not in hell, but on the moon, through the intervention of the Virgin Mary. (Twardowski is accompanied by a spider, who can, on occasion, descend to earth on a thread, to bring back news from below.)

Faust meets the Devil

Stories of a bargain with the devil have a far longer history. According to a 4th century legend, the servant of Senator Proterius of Caesarea made a pact with the devil, to marry his master’s daughter, which was broken by the prayers of St. Basil. In the 13th century, Jacobus de Voragine wrote of Theophilus of Adana – whose pact with the devil was only broken when a bishop burned the contract. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Mystery Plays about pacts with the devil were widespread.

Saint Wolfgang and the Devil, by Michael Pacher

But in the late 16th century, the myth of a pact with the devil takes on a new popular potency, and changes. As Ingrid H. Shafer writes:

The above mentioned medieval legends involving Faustian types reveal surprising continuity. Most of those depicted as having entered a pact with the devil are saved rather than damned.

Theoretically, invoking the Lord in the process of calling up Satan was considered a sin. On the other hand, it was common knowledge that demons could be called forth in the name of God. If the ritual was performed properly, they would have to do the conjurer’s bidding. After all, Light was more powerful than Darkness, and to bind the devil or his servants in Jesus’ name could even be interpreted as an act of faith. Hence, there seemed no reason not to make use of Satan’s special powers for a few months or even years, as long as one made sure not to die without having repented first. It was a gamble, but one with reasonably good odds.

Before the late 16th century, a contract with the devil can be broken.

After the late 16th century, the contract cannot be broken.

This change is channelling a widespread and dramatic shift in the social, legal, political and economic institutions in the European societies the Faust myth suddenly appeals to. Capitalism is beginning. Suddenly, the social form of the contract is beginning to assume a far greater pervasiveness and power. Suddenly, a contract becomes something far more fundamentally – apparently metaphysically – binding.

This is connected to a change in the nature of the devil’s contract, also. The nature of the devil is changing – the contract is not one negotiated between worldy actors (even if supernatural), but between a human actor and an actor far more thoroughly withdrawn from the human realm (like the God of Calvin), whose power apparently cannot be broken by any human action. A contract now spans and swallows lives.

Capitalism is beginning. And the contracts that inaugurate it are signed in blood.