The description of the litigious querulant: Heinrich von Kleist's Novella Michael Kohlhaas

Psychopathology. 2015;48(2):79-83. doi: 10.1159/000366562. Epub 2014 Oct 29.


Objective: To illustrate the use of fiction in understanding psychiatric disorders and refocus attention towards fiction as a valuable source of psychopathology, thereby contributing to the restoration of the narrative in psychiatry.

Method: A psychopathological analysis of the novella Michael Kohlhaas written by Heinrich von Kleist, one of the outstanding literary figures of the German romantic movement of the early 19th century.

Results: The protagonist of Kleist's novella, Michael Kohlhaas, a querulant horse trader, carries out an armed uprising disproportionate to the minor injustice of the unlawful seizure of his horses. Following unsuccessful attempts at legal recourse, Kohlhaas takes up arms against the authorities, and in the course of his uncompromising pursuit of justice eventually sacrifices his own and his family's lives. Kleist accurately portrays Kohlhaas' psychopathological development from a psychologically balanced, emotionally warm family man to one who causes utter destruction, mayhem and the loss of innocent lives. This literary work is a remarkably authentic, insightful and rich representation of litigious/querulant behaviour, described by classical authors as litigious paranoia, a diagnostic category currently subsumed under 'delusional disorder, persecutory type', in DSM-5 and 'persistent delusional disorder' in ICD-10.

Conclusions: Kleist's novella offers important clues to better understand the development of litigious-querulant behaviour and the inner world of its sufferers. An analysis of the novella also illustrates the contribution that fiction could make to resuscitate the narrative as a complement to criterion-based diagnostic practice prevailing in contemporary psychiatry. © 2014 S. Karger AG, Basel.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cyclothymic Disorder / history
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • Education, Medical, Graduate / standards
  • Education, Medical, Graduate / trends
  • Germany
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • Humans
  • International Classification of Diseases
  • Jurisprudence* / history
  • Literature, Modern* / history
  • Male
  • Medicine in Literature*
  • Psychiatry / education
  • Psychiatry / history
  • Psychopathology
  • Schizophrenia, Paranoid / history*
  • Schizophrenia, Paranoid / psychology
  • Social Justice* / history
  • Syndrome
  • Violence* / history

Personal name as subject

  • Heinrich von Kleist