Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2013
When we look back in history, our perception of differences is fore-shortened in time the way our perception of the horizon reduces distinctions in space. A millennium of the ancient world boils down to antiquity. The centuries from 800 to 1500 can be amalgamated into medievalism. Early modern periods are spoken of as homogeneous ages. Not only are ages and centuries homogenized, movements such as the Reformation or the Renaissance acquire a monolithic aspect. The equalizing resolution of phenomena distances them from one another by eliminating nuances and ambiguities. An example of such leveling is our perception of the 1587 Faustbuch as an embodiment of the theological conservatism of the Reformation, which rejected the humanism of the Renaissance. It makes far better sense to recognize the German work of 1587 as the expression of an anticlerical impulse within the ranks of the Reformation, a voice within a forgotten debate over authority and knowledge.
More than half a century separates the early notoriety of the magician Dr. Faustus from his seminal reappearance in printed literature. In focusing on the moral of the Faust story, we overlook aspects that do not fit our understanding of nature and religion in the age of the Renaissance or Reformation. One striking detail distinguishes the work of 1587 from the accounts of a half century earlier. Dr. Faustus, we learn in chapter 1, has become a “Doctor Theologiae.” After beginning life as the son of a good and pious peasant family, he had been entrusted as a child to his cousin, a burgher of Wittenberg.