The little girl from Heilbronn

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Title: The Käthchen von Heilbronn or The Trial by Fire
Genus: Fairy tale drama
Original language: German
Author: Heinrich von Kleist
Publishing year: 1810
Premiere: March 17, 1810
Place of premiere: Vienna, Theater an der Wien
Place and time of the action: Swabia
  • The emperor
  • Gebhardt, Archbishop of Worms
  • Friedrich Wetter Graf vom Strahl
  • Countess Helena, his mother
  • Eleanor, her niece
  • Knight Flammberg, the Count's vassal
  • Gottschalk, his servant
  • Brigitte, housekeeper in the count's castle
  • Kunigunde von Thurneck
  • Rosalie, her maid
  • [Sybille, her stepmother ]
  • Theobald Friedborn, gunsmith from Heilbronn
  • Käthchen, his daughter
  • Gottfried Friedborn, her bridegroom
  • Maximilian, Burgrave of Freiburg
  • Georg von Waldstätten, his friend
  • [Ritter Schauermann, his first vassal ]
  • [Knight Wetzlaf, his second vassal ]
  • The Rhine Count vom Stein, fiancé Kunigundens
  • Friedrich von Herrnstadt, friend of the Rhine Count
  • Eginhardt von der Wart, friend of the Rhine Count
  • Count Otto von der Flühe, councilor of the emperor and judge of the secret court
  • Wenzel von Nachtheim, councilor of the emperor and judge of the secret court
  • Hans von Bärenklau, councilor of the emperor and judge of the secret court
  • Jakob Pech, an innkeeper
  • Three gentlemen from Thurneck
  • Kunigunden's old aunts
  • A charcoal boy
  • A night watchman
  • Several knights
  • A herald, two charcoal burners, servants, messengers, henchmen, servants and people
First print from 1810

Das Käthchen von Heilbronn or The Trial by Fire (1807–1808) is a great historical knight play in five acts by Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811). It was premiered on March 17, 1810 in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien . The action takes place in Württemberg .


Before kangaroo court the armourer Theobald Friedeborn accuses the count from the beam to have his daughter Katharine kidnapped with the help of magic. Because after the count had his armor fixed in Theobald's forge, the girl had thrown herself out of the window and followed him as soon as her broken bones had healed. But it turns out that she followed him voluntarily.

Graf vom Strahl frees Kunigunde von Thurneck and believes he recognizes the imperial daughter in her, since she was announced to him as a wife in a prophetic dream ( motif of the Fernidol ). However, this is out to his lands and uses the opportunity to get to her goal not by war, but by marriage.

The Count of the Rhine, Kunigunde's previous fiancé, learns of her plans to marry and wants to take revenge on her because Kunigunde had made a fool of him. Enraged, he attacks Thurneck Castle, where Kunigunde is staying as a guest of Count Wetter vom Strahl, and the castle catches fire. Kunigunde asks Käthchen to save the picture of her fiancé, which is important to her (in whose case the deeds of title for the disputed lands are) from the flames. She hopes to use it to send the girl to certain death or, if the job is successful, to recover the letters of gift. But a cherub comes to Käthchen's help and saves her and the picture from the flames. However, Graf vom Strahl only recognized the intrigue later through a conversation with Käthchen. He discovers that the girl is an illegitimate daughter of the emperor who slept with the wife of the armorer Theobald during a visit to Heilbronn. Käthchen and Graf vom Strahl marry after the Emperor, at the Count's insistence, recognized the illegitimate daughter and placed her in her ancestral status. Last but not least, the couple takes old Theobald into their castle.

Historical templates

Kleist himself described his work as an "excellent invention". The term "invention" can mean different things in Kleist's time and also today. It does not simply stand for “fiction” (example: “The automobile is an excellent invention”). The classically-philologically educated author Kleist was able to use the well-known rhetorical term "inventio" in the sense of "finding material". Since a clear statement by the poet is missing, the interpretation could understandably remain controversial within the history of reception. There are only very few testimonies to the history of its origins that can be found in his letters or that the Kleist researcher and editor Helmut Sembdner compiled in his standard work Heinrich von Kleist's Traces of Life and which can now also be researched on the Internet. In addition, there are no historical sources, only questionable chains of evidence and speculations without evidential value. That didn't stop the local patriots from presenting role models, so-called “Ur-Käthchen” from Heilbronn, and even from Stuttgart.

The Oldenburg Germanist Dirk Grathoff († 2000) has distilled three strands of influence from the numerous literary studies on the sources of the play:

  1. genre-historical (the knight drama),
  2. material history (fairy tales, folk poetry),
  3. historical motif (double dream with Christoph Martin Wieland , somnambulism )

In doing so, he comes to the conclusion: "Ironically, one could say that almost all of world literature was summoned in order to make references to the history of material or motifs to 'Käthchen'."

The oldest tradition of a so-called "Ur-Käthchen" with a certain probability character ( Eduard von Bülow , 1848) names no Heilbronn woman, but Julie Kunze from Dresden , who Kleist met in the house of Schiller friend Christian Gottfried Körner .

Although the play is very generous with historical facts and does not stand up to any factual verification, in the course of historicism there were local historical efforts to find a Heilbronn model for the heroine. In Heilbronn local historiography, Lisette Kornacher (1773-1858), patient of the doctor Eberhard Gmelin , who worked in animal magnetism with hypnosis , was the model for Kleist's Käthchen, as Kleist could have heard her medical history in 1807. More recent local historical research brought another patient Gmelins, the Heilbronn merchant daughter Charlotte Elisabethe Zobel (1774-1806) into conversation. One researcher takes the view that Kleist was not inspired by any Heilbronn woman at all, but by a Stuttgart bourgeois daughter, namely Johanna Christina Carolina Heigelin , later married (by) Scheffauer (1768–1808) when designing the Käthchen figure.

The Kleist researcher and director of the Kleist Archive Sembnder, Günther Emig , interprets “invention” in Germanist terms as “fiction” and then judges: For reasons that are as inexplicable as one did not believe the poet's statement, one has the message of the very same well-informed Dresden eyewitness Karl August Böttiger from 1819 ignored, according to which Kleist found “the whole legend of Käthchen as a folk tale” on a printed leaflet that he bought at a fair. The fact that this leaflet has not been found to this day does not speak against its existence, because the leaflet tradition from this time is extremely sparse and incomplete in archives and collections. According to Günther Emig, it could have been a leaflet with the Griseldis story, which Boccaccio tells in his Decamerone (100th story) and which has been widely used over centuries. In the meantime, Griseldis leaflets from the Kleist period are known, even if not yet from southern Germany.

The classically-philologically educated Germanist and rhetoric expert Reinhard Breymayer, on the other hand, points out that "inventio" in the classical philology received from Heinrich von Kleist does not simply mean "fiction", but rather the finding of the subject matter in rhetoric. The discussion of the article “Das Käthchen von Heilbronn” should be noted: Breymayer expects the possible suggestion of several girl figures on Kleist.

The Käthchenhaus in Heilbronn, a late medieval stone building on the market square, was only given its name after the play was published and does not provide a historical background for Kleist's work.

Stage fate

Like hardly any other play, the work has been reworked over and over again to make it “theater-ready”, whereby a central stumbling block was that Käthchen is the illegitimate child of the emperor. In addition, her supposed father becomes a horned husband. Goethe , who could not make friends with Kleist for a lifetime, described the "Käthchen von Heilbronn" as a wonderful mixture of sense and nonsense and refused to perform the piece.

The stage versions of the 19th century include those by Franz von Holbein (1822), Eduard Devrient (1852), Heinrich Laube (1857), that of the Meininger Hoftheater (1879), that of Karl Siegen (1890) and the version for the paper theater by Inno Tallavania (1900).

Käthchen depiction on a postcard from 1908
Käthchen fountain figure (1965) by Dieter Läpple in Heilbronn
Relief on the Heinrich von Kleist monument in Frankfurt (Oder) from 1910

Evidence of the history of its impact

The Käthchen von Heilbronn , painting by Wilhelm Nerenz , 1836

The high level of awareness of the piece in the 19th century led to a wide variety of forms of effect: From collective pictures ( Liebig's meat extract ) to colportage novels such as that of Robert Frankenburg with over 3,000 pages and 100 full-page illustrations, which tells the story of the alleged Heilbronn bourgeois girl, the in truth the daughter of the emperor has been expanded to include the story of the warring families Rossitz and Warwand (Kleist, Die Familie Schroffenstein ) and other, as yet undeciphered literature fragments .

The numerous popular adaptations and retellings of Käthchen's material, some of which appeared in large editions, are still unexplored to this day, because libraries have usually not taken care of such “inferior” products.

Opera adaptations

Another part of the history of the company's impact takes place on the opera stage. To date, a total of nine Käthchen operas are known, mostly by lesser-known composers.

The setting of the same name by Carl Martin Reinthaler (1822–1896), which after its world premiere in Frankfurt a. M. was played at the major German opera houses, was performed again on March 21, 2009 at the Erfurt Theater .


Preliminary remark: The literature on Heinrich von Kleist and his plays, including Käthchen von Heilbronn, cannot be overlooked. From the reporting period 1990 onwards, it is recorded in the Kleist bibliography edited by Günther Emig , which appears in the Heilbronn Kleist sheets . A retrospective bibliography (until 1990) was published in 2007.

  • First printing: H. von Kleist: Das Käthchen von Heilbronn or the ordeal by fire / a great historical knight play. Performed at the Theater an der Wien on March 17, 18 and 19, 1810. Realschulbuchhandlung, Berlin 1810. ( Digitized and full text in the German Text Archive ) (Reprint: 2002, Die Käthchen-Bibliothek . Volume 1)
  • Günther Emig: Everything (what you need to know) about "Käthchen von Heilbronn". With numerous, e.g. T. color. Fig. Heilbronn: Kleist-Archiv Sembdner 2016. 82 p. ISBN 978-3-940494-74-0
  • Heinrich von Kleist: The Käthchen von Heilbronn or the ordeal by fire. Reclam, Stuttgart 1983, ISBN 3-15-000040-8 ( Universal Library . No. 40)
  • Heinrich von Kleist, Claudia Schernus: Das Käthchen von Heilbronn or The Trial by Fire. A great historical knight spectacle. With eleven color drawings by Matthias Steier and an analysis of the piece as an allegory of the political situation at the beginning of the 19th century by Claudia Schernus: From the dream? Viademica Verlag, Berlin 2011, ISBN 978-3-939290-77-3 .
  • Günther Emig: Kleist's "Käthchen" - new "traces of life". In: Heilbronner Kleist sheets. 8. 2000 (new finds for the world premiere)
  • Günther Emig: The Käthchen Festival 1952 in the Deutschhof in Heilbronn. A documentation . Heilbronn 2005. ( Käthchen in Heilbronn . Volume 2)
  • Dirk Grathoff: Heinrich von Kleist, Das Käthchen von Heilbronn or the ordeal by fire. Explanations and documents. Reclam, Stuttgart 1977, ISBN 3-15-008139-4 ( Universal Library . No. 8139 [2])
  • Lothar Heinle: Heinrich von Kleist's "Käthchen von Heilbronn" on the opera stage. A contribution to the history of reception. Heilbronn 1994.
  • Nanna Koch : Between hagiographic stylization and breaking illusions. In: Heilbronner Kleist sheets. 18. 2006 (about the opera arrangements)
  • Katharine Weder: Kleist's magnetic poetry. Experiments of Mesmerism. Göttingen 2008, pp. 158-205.
  • Barbara Wilk-Mincu: "As if the Swabian sky created them". Kleist's "Käthchen von Heilbronn" in the visual arts. In: Heilbronner Kleist sheets. 17th 2005.
  • Friedrich Röbbeling: Kleist's "Käthchen von Heilbronn" . 1913. (Reprint: 2005, Heilbronner Kleist reprints )
  • Lothar Schirmer : "The love wreath of sparkling stars, since we only became, has already been woven". Kleist's "Käthchen von Heilbronn" on Berlin stages. In: Heilbronner Kleist sheets. 11. 2001 (from 1824 to the present)
  • Richard Stecher: Explanations of Kleist's "Käthchen von Heilbronn". 1901. (Reprint: 2005, Käthchen Library )
  • Reinhold Stolze: Kleist's "Käthchen von Heilbronn" on the German stage. 1923. (Reprint: 2004, Heilbronner Kleist reprints )

Film adaptations


  • 2016 - Cathy of Halliwell by Lege & Lena as a jazz-hip-hop operetta


  • Roller sport team name S'Käthchen Roller Derby (Heilbronn) .

Web links

Wikisource: Das Käthchen von Heilbronn  - sources and full texts
Commons : Das Käthchen von Heilbronn (1810)  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Kleist in a letter to Marie von Kleist, summer 1811. See:
  4. Dirk Grathoff: Heinrich von Kleist, Das Käthchen von Heilbronn. Bibliographer. erg. ed . Stuttgart 1994, pp. 73ff.
  5. Grathoff, ibid., P. 72
  6. Emma Juliane (Julie) von Einsiedel Erbfrau auf Gnandstein, born. Kunze (1786–1849), was the foster daughter of Christian Gottfried Körner and foster sister of his son Carl Theodor Körner before they got married . In December 1808 she became the wife of Alexander August von Einsiedel heir to Gnandstein (1780-1840). As a lord of the manor, he was the heir of the Gnandstein manor. ( Gnandstein has been a village in the Kohren-Sahlis community in the Leipzig district since 1996. ) Because of Kleist's unrequited affection for Kunze, a young woman from Dresden, she was apparently seen by her friends as a role model for the figure of Käthchen.
  7. See Heinrich von Kleist's traces of life. Documents and reports of contemporaries . New ed. by Helmut Sembdner. Munich 1996, p. 250. Cf. also recently Rüdiger Wartusch: Once again: The archetype of Käthchen von Heilbronn. In: Heilbronner Kleist-Blätter 24 (2012), pp. 157–171
  8. Cf. Christhard Schrenk : Old news about the Käthchen. Charlotte Elisabethe Zobel versus Lisette Kornacher. In: Swabia and Franconia. Local history sheets of the Heilbronn voice . Heilbronn, October 1992, pp. I-IV; Christhard Schrenk: The little girl from Heilbronn. Some reflections on Kleist's knight play. In: Jahrbuch des Historisches Verein Heilbronn , Vol. 33 (1994), pp. 5-43 (see the web link Schrenk).
    Cf. also Reinhard Breymayer : Between Princess Antonia of Württemberg and Kleist's Käthchen von Heilbronn. News on the magnetic and tension fields of Prelate Friedrich Christoph Oetinger. Heck, Dußlingen 2010, ISBN 978-3-924249-51-9 . (About the radiation of the magnetism sympathizer Oetinger, who was friends with the Zobel family, through the Heilbronn doctor Eberhard Gmelin on Kleist. A Heilbronn reference was also made by Henriette Mayer, a sister of Kleist's painter friend who lived in Heilbronn from 1797 to 1803 and from November 1808 to 1820 Ferdinand Hartmann .)
  9. Cf. Steven R. Huff: Heinrich von Kleist and Eberhard Gmelin. New considerations. In: Euphorion. Zeitschrift für Literaturgeschichte 86 (1992), pp. 221-239. (To patient H. [di Caroline Heigelin, subsequently married <von> Scheffauer].)
  10. ^ In: Abend-Zeitung , Dresden, December 15, 1819, cf. LS 268.
  11. See also: Käte Laserstein: The Griseldisstoff in world literature. An investigation into the history of material and style . Weimar: Duncker 1926. XII, 208 pp. ( Research on modern literary history . 58)
  12. Cf. Günther Emig: Griselda von Heilbronn or the obedience test. Desk monologue about a not found leaflet on "Käthchen von Heilbronn". In: Heilbronner Kleist-Blätter 24 (2012), pp. 172–180.
  13. ^ Georg Witkowski: The life of Goethe