He was born in Solothurn as a Bürger (citizen) of Bettlach. After studying at the University of Munich he went to Stuttgart, where in 1846 he became librarian to the royal library. In 1856, Pfeiffer founded Germania, a quarterly periodical devoted to German antiquarian research. In 1857, having established himself as one of the foremost authorities on German medieval literature and philology, he was appointed professor of these subjects at the University of Vienna, and in 1860 was made a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences.
Pfeiffer's most significant work is arguably the second volume of his Die deutschen Mystiker (German Mysticism). In this volume Pfeiffer collected the surviving German texts of the 14th Century mystic Meister Eckhart, who was at that time largely forgotten. This publication of the German Eckhartian corpus led to the modern revival of interest in Eckhart. Though there was subsequent dispute as to how many of the texts in Pfeiffer's edition are genuinely by Eckhart, his edition remains the standard and classic reference. The early translators of Eckhart into English, Evans and Blakney, depended largely on Pfeiffer for their source material.
His own work:
- Zur deutschen Literaturgeschichte
- Freie Forschung: kleine Schriften zur Geschichte der deutschen Litteratur und Sprache (1867)
- Über Wesen und Bildung der hofischen Sprache in mittelhochdeutscher Zeit
- Der Dichter des Nibelungenliedes (1862)
- Forschung und Kritik auf dem Gebiete des deutschen Altertums
- Altdeutsches Übungsbuch.
- Barlaam und Josaphat, Rudolf von Ems (1843)
- Edelstein, Ulrich Boner (1844)
- Die deutschen Mystiker des 14. Jahrhunderts (1845-1857)
- Nikolaus von Jeroschin, Deutsche Ordenschronik (“Chronicle of the Teutonic Knights,” 1854)
- Buch der Natur of Konrad von Megenberg, a 14th-century writer (1861)
- Die Predigten des Berthold von Regensburg, vol. 1, vol. 2 (1862,1880)
- Poems of Walther von der Vogelweide (1864; 6th ed., 1880) This work was his contribution to a series he founded called Deutsche Klassiker des Mittelalters (“German classics of the Middle Ages”).
- Alfons Semler, Überlingen: Bilder aus der Geschichte einer kleine Reichsstadt,Singen, 1949, p. 173.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Pfeiffer, Franz". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press This work in turn cites:
- Biographical sketch by Karl Bartsch in Franz Pfeiffer, ed., Uhlands Briefwechsel mit Freiherrn von Lassberg (1870)
- "Pfeiffer, Franz". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.