A much-loved form throughout the Middle Ages was the saint's legend. The science of hagiography, strictly speaking, provided official church documentation for the personnel of Christianity. But as the number of saints and the miracles that credenced them proliferated, the stories of their lives and exploits edged into popular literature, taking on more and more a dimension of entertainment and fantasy.
The story of Theophilus has been widely regarded as a preview of the Faust legend, which appeared in northern Europe in the late Renaissance. However, medieval tales of man's struggle with the personified forces of evil form a long and consistent tradition in themselves, built on an idea perfectly typical of medieval thought: the exclusive claim of the transcendental to reality. In fact, when St. Augustine fought free of the doctrines of Faustus of Mileve, who accepted and preached the reality of evil, the Middle Ages had begun. They were over when Dr. Georg Faustus, arch-charlatan of Heidelberg, at last realized (as chronicled in the Faustbuch of 1587) that the delights and possibilities of life on earth, evil or no, at merely the price of his miserable soul, were worth the bargain.
Pre-Renaissance stories of man vs. Satan begin with the sin of pride, as committed by Theophilus in our example, and always end in sublime renunciation of earthly corruption. That is to say, they emanate from and return into a world of pure abstraction. Between these poles, Theophilus goes further than did his legendary forebears in being the first to put the deal in writing. In the latter days of the Middle Ages, idealism had to make more room for harder worries. The material existence of the pact still imperils Theophilus, even after he has thoroughly repudiated its content and meaning. Sin, like other business, needed careful small print. All sorts of abstract values were becoming negotiable commodities, as illustrated most infamously by the market for indulgences, as well as other prerogatives and privileges once supposed to derive only from moral, ethical, or spiritual qualities. The day was coming, we can see, when a soul would be good currency for the price of admission to hell and its wonders. But for Theophilus, the supreme (and abrupt) reward was death, as it had been for all the Christian millennium, releasing him from tangible, mercantile illusions into pure, transcendental reality.
The Jew here plays his assigned stock role as human agent of magic and deviltry. As a non-Christian, so the reasoning went, he was ipso facto a member of the opposition. Such an assignment was safer, in any case, than admitting that a powerful and effective intellectual tradition might have anything to do with his undeniable talents. In many stories he practices ruinous usury, a business forbidden to orthodox Christians, thus marking himself as a functionary of the Fiend himself.
The other stock character here is one of the most facile and beloved in all medieval narrative: Mary, the holy virgin mother. She performed the executive function in the operation of divine will on earth. Not only does she quietly intercede in visions and dreams to answer whispered prayers; whole cycles of stories tell of her exploits on behalf of faltering humans who have got themselves into every kind of scrape. She wades into the thick of the action when, for example, she magically takes the place of a knight, armed and mounted, and sets things right by knocking her evil adversary for a loop. She was the comic-book masked avenger of her day, a fine example of how the medieval imagination put every ideal into tangible form, or conversely, inspired all the things of everyday experience with supernal meaning.
The story of Theophilus comes to us from the Greeks, dating at least from the early sixth century a.d., and popularly connected with a vicar under a bishop of Adana, an important, ancient city at the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean. Greek manuscripts of the story date from as early as the tenth century. But by then, it was also well-known in Latin; so well, in fact, that there is little profit in trying to find exact sources for the many versions in the European vernaculars. Suffice it to say that poets, dramatists, and artists continued to chronicle Theophilus' narrow escape from perdition until he was upstaged by Faust. The version translated here forms one episode in a large cycle of Mary legends composed and collected early in the thirteenth century.