His father, a retired major in the Baden army, was a civil engineer and member of the commission for regulating the course of the Rhine; his mother, née Josephine Krederer, the daughter of a prosperous tradesman at Oberndorf am Neckar, was a woman of great intellectual powers and of a romantic disposition. Young Scheffel was educated at the lyceum at Karlsruhe and afterwards (1843-1847) at the universities of Munich, Heidelberg and Berlin.
After passing the state examination for admission to the judicial service, he graduated Doctor juris and for four years (1848-1852) held an official position at the town of Säckingen. Here he wrote his poem Der Trompeter von Säckingen (The trumpeter of Saeckingen) (1853), a romantic and humorous tale which immediately gained extraordinary popularity. It has reached more than 250 editions and was made into an opera by Viktor Nessler in 1884. Scheffel next undertook a journey to Italy.
Returning home in 1853 he found his parents more than ever anxious that he should continue his legal career. But in 1854, defective eyesight incapacitated him; he quit the government service and took up his residence at Heidelberg, with the intention of preparing himself for a post on the teaching staff of the university. His studies were, however, interrupted by eye disease, and in search of health he proceeded to Switzerland and took up his abode on the Lake of Constance, and elaborated the plan of his famous historical romance Ekkehard (1857); (Eng. trans. by Sofie Delffs, Leipzig, 1872).
The first ideas for this work he got from the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. It was hardly less popular than the Trompeter von Säckingen. In 1901 it reached the 179th edition. Scheffel next returned to Heidelberg, and published Gaudeamus, Lieder aus dem Engeren und Weiteren (1868), a collection of joyous and humorous songs, the subject- matter of which is taken partly from German legends and partly from historical subjects. In these songs the author shows himself the light-hearted student, a friend of wine and song; and their success is unexampled in German literature and encouraged numerous imitators.
For two years (1857-1859) Scheffel was custodian of the library of Prince Egon von Fürstenberg at Donaueschingen, but giving up his appointment in 1850, visited Joseph Freiherr von Lassberg, at Meersburg on the Lake of Constance, stayed for a while with the grand duke Charles Alexander of Saxe-Weimar at the Wartburg in Thuringia, then, settling at Karlsruhe, he married in 1864 Caroline von Malzen, and, in 1872, retired to his Villa Seehalde near Radolfzell on the lower Lake of Constance. On the occasion of his jubilee (1876), which was celebrated all over Germany, he was granted a patent of hereditary nobility by the grand duke of Baden. He died at Karlsruhe on the 9th of April 1886.
Volumes of Reisebilder (1887); Epistein (1892); and Briefe (1898) were published posthumously. Scheffel's Gesammelte Werke have been published in six volumes (1907).