Most people with even a slight interest in the history of Reformation Europe have heard of the legendary Dr Johann Georg Faust: alchemist, healer, astrologer and thorn in the side of Luther and Melanchthon. Many will be familiar with Christopher Marlowe's play, Dr Faustus, or Goethe's even more famous plays, known simply as Faust I and Faust II, or perhaps some might even have read the chapbook that started it all, Historia Dr Johann Faustus.
Faust (c1480 - 1539), an actual historical figure who sparked urban legends in his own day, was reputed to have sold his soul to the devil for 24 years of prosperity and magical power. The mysterious manner of his death in the town of Staufen, near Freiburg in southeastern Germany, fuelled speculation that the devil had claimed him, body and soul, in fulfilment of his pact. The chapbook itself points to Faust's sad end as a moral lesson and a warning to those who are too curious about the nature of matters best left to heaven.
But what actually happened in Staufen? Does the combination of locale and historical context offer us a clue as to the fate that befell the most famous of alchemists?
Alchemy in 16th Century Europe
In 16th Century Europe, belief in the possibility of the transmutation of metals was widespread. Alchemists concentrated on the attempt to turn lead into gold, as well as to find the elixir vitae1, in order to confer immortality upon the creator.
Although alchemists were often in bad odour with religious authorities, many of them were among the best scientific minds of their generation, and the work they did helped lay the groundwork for modern chemistry.
Many alchemists were also arrogant braggarts. Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, aka Paracelsus, has left us the word 'bombast' as a legacy of alchemical attitude. Some of them, like Faust, may have deliberately cultivated a reputation for sorcery and dealings with the devil to throw an aura of mystery around their doings and possibly up the price for their services.
The Invention of Gunpowder
Although nobody, as far as we know, ever succeeded in turning lead into gold, another chemical invention from the 14th Century was beginning to have far-reaching effects on life in Europe: gunpowder.
Gunpowder, an explosive mixture of potassium nitrate, sulphur and charcoal invented by the Chinese in the 9th Century, but hitherto unknown in the West, was first experimented with by Roger Bacon in 1267. Bacon, however, could never get the proportions right, and it was left to Marcus Graeccus and Albertus Magnus, two important alchemists, to discover the correct composition.
Local belief in Freiburg, Germany, however, gives the honour of the discovery of gunpowder in Europe to a Franciscan monk, Berthold Schwarz. His statue stands in Freiburg today, an ironic memorial to someone whose order practiced love and tolerance, but whose discovery led to so much death and destruction.
Could the fact that gunpowder was invented so close to the town where Faust met his end provide a clue to the events of that fateful night in 1539?
The Search for Gold
The Counts of Staufen, an aristocratic family of the region, derived most of their wealth from silver mines in the nearby Muenster Valley. The mines, however, were almost played out. It is probably for this reason that Count Anton von Staufen invited the infamous Dr Faust to visit him in Staufen in 1539.
High on a hill overlooking the small town, the castle of Staufen stood towering over the brooding vista of the Black Forest. Faust, however, was not the sort of person you might want in your castle; his reputation was far too unsavoury. So Faust was domiciled in a room at the Gasthaus Loewe (Lion Inn) in the town at the foot of the hill. It is there that his tragedy played out, as is noted on the plaque still affixed to the inn:
And the legend says one of the chief devils, Mephistopheles, whom he had called his brother-in-law, after the pact of twenty-four years was completed, broke his neck and committed his poor soul to eternal damnation.
According to local legend, there was a terrible noise inside the inn that evening, and in the morning, Faust's body was found, with its neck broken, on the manure pile outside. In the room Faust had occupied, there was a 'terrible smell of sulphur'.
It was the smell that clinched the argument for 16th Century Germans. Obviously, the devil had claimed Faust's soul in payment of the pact. But it raises the question: was Faust conducting alchemical experiments that night, in an attempt to solve Count Anton's money woes, and did those experiments involve explosives?
Of course, we will never know. But the death of Faust does shed an interesting light on the connexion between magic, superstition, and the origins of modern chemistry.
The town of Staufen im Breisgau is 20km south of Freiburg, at the edge of the Black Forest. If you would like to see the ruins of the castle, as well as the inn where Faust died, take the train from Freiburg to Bad Krozingen, and change there to the local train line, called SWEG. The town is a pedestrian paradise.