|Collegium Maius, Krakow's Jagiellonian University|
Of all the prophets, wandering scholars and conjurors produced by sixteenth century Germany – a society undergoing profound change – few have captured the imagination of later generations quite so much as Dr. Johann Faust. Marlowe’s play (1592) is based on an apparently real figure, whom we can just about glimpse in the historical sources: in decrees issued by city officials, and above all in gossip, letters and rumours circulating among educated men. This shadowy Faust, trailing from German town to German town until his reported death in an alchemical explosion in the 1540s, is described as a trickster, great sorcerer (necromancer) and blasphemer. But while Faustus may have existed on the margins of recorded history, and on the margins of acceptable society in his own day (banned from entering various German towns), his interest in magic was anything but marginal in sixteenth-century Europe.
Poland, for example, has its own Dr. Faustus figure – celebrated for centuries in literature, art and even in the Cold War children’s songs I sang at my Polish Saturday School in London in the 1980s. He is called Pan (or Mr) Twardowski. Twardowski was rumoured to be the magician employed by King Sigismund Augustus of Poland (d. 1572) to conjure the spirit of his late wife Barbara, and this grew into a bigger story, about a Twardowski who made a pact with the devil and became the Man in the Moon (one of only two Poles to make it into space so far!). In fact, the Polish royal capital of Kraków was one of Renaissance Europe’s great hot-spots of fortune-telling and magic. The first professor of astrology at Kraków was appointed in 1459, and the predictions of the university’s astrologers were much sought thereafter, reprinted across the continent. At the Polish court, a crystal-gazing prayer book (now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford) was produced for the royal family, which explained how the monarch could summon four archangels to tell him the future. In an episode reminiscent of Faustus’ reported demise, two Kraków friars were killed in the 1460s in an alchemical experiment which went badly wrong. In fact, a Central European capital like Kraków could have such a reputation for magic, that the great Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon asserted that Johann Faust must have been ‘a scholar of Kraków’, where magic was openly taught.
Historians pay a good deal of attention to magic and astrology in medieval and Renaissance Europe, because contemporaries themselves saw it as a serious if problematic branch of knowledge. In the Renaissance period, European magic underwent a profound shift. Medieval magic (as numerous well-handled 14th century manuscripts in the British Library well testify), employed spells derived from mainstream Christian prayers, typically with the intention of summoning spirits. A new Renaissance magic was, by contrast, focused on recovering from the ancient Greek or Jewish past new methods for seeking higher truths: by practising Kabbalah, or singing the mystical hymns of Orpheus. Figures such as Faustus and Twardowski have perhaps inspired so many stories since their own day, because they represent a kind of shadowy last gasp of that older, medieval form of magic – spells, Christian liturgy said backwards, spirits, demons, in other words traditional necromancy.
This, as Christopher Marlowe well knew, was a European tradition in which England very much participated. There was a legend of a Cambridge student who had made a pact with the devil, in order to achieve his dream of becoming professor of theology at the great Italian university of Padua - but was promptly found dead. There is a sea of scholarship on Queen Elizabeth’s I advisor John Dee (d. 1608/9), occult philosopher and astrologer. In the seventeenth century, England would produce in the words of John Maynard Keynes ‘the last of the magicians’, that passionate pursuer of ancient mystical truths, Sir Isaac Newton (d. 1727). The methods for doing magic changed, but the dream of acquiring secret knowledge lived on among the scholarly elites of early modern Europe, very long after the curtain fell on that first performance of The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.