Ursula (Narrative)

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Ursula is a short story by Gottfried Keller. It was published as part of the Zurich Novellen in 1877.


The rice runner Hansli Gyr returns from Lombardy to his home on Lake Zurich in 1523 and discovers to his horror that the sectarian nature of Anabaptism has taken hold here and has also completely changed the neighbouring girl Ursula, whom he has long wanted to marry. So Ursula offers him her love as soon as he returns, as if a proper marriage and wedding were no longer necessary. In the house of Ursula’s father, the farmer Enoch Schnurrenberger, who also adheres to the new faith, his friends meet and are introduced in their rapturous speeches about the imminent Kingdom of God on earth, in which they vehemently attack the new Zurich authorities and their head, the reformer Huldrych Zwingli. Hans Gyr draws only one conclusion from this: that he must find out what Zwingli is doing in Zurich, whom he got to know and appreciate as a field preacher at the battle of Marignano. He becomes a partisan of Zwingli, who fights the Rice Run but is prepared to defend and enforce his Reformation by force of arms. When the Anabaptists are arrested and imprisoned in Zurich, Hans Gyr helps them to escape because he feels sorry for the confused Ursula, who at last no longer recognized him but thought he was the angel Gabriel. Later he takes part in the first Müsserkrieg and tries to maintain discipline and order among the Zurich servants, which is why they lure him into an inn and get him drunk. The sight of the beautiful Freska serving him beguiles him, and he follows her inside the house – but there he discovers a ring on her finger similar to the one he once put on Ursula and which she rejected. Freska tells him she is firmly committed to a man who has lived as a bandit and is in prison as a contract killer. Remorsefully, Hans Gyr remembers Ursula: Freska is faithful to a bandit, but he wanted to forget a girl who was nothing more than religiously confused! He returns home, where there is great unrest: the Kappel War has broken out between the Reformed and the Old Believer cantons. When Ursula hears that her fiancé has returned and is recruiting men for the campaign, her confusion falls away, she equips herself with provisions, follows the army and hides herself between the roots of an old beech tree in the forest. Through this forest the main force of the Catholics breaks through and completely defeats the Zurich force. Zwingli’s death is described; Hans Gyr, striding backward in battle, has fallen into a ditch and lies stunned at its bottom. There Ursula tracks him down and rescues him with the help of two Catholic men who help get him to a monastery. Hans Gyr and Ursula Schnurrenberger become a couple, and “for about two hundred years” their “descendants dwelt on the well-tilled farm which was named the Gyrenhof.”


With Ursula, Keller has set up a monument to his hometown, which had made him its state clerk and thus remedied his constant material need, in which he clearly speaks out in favor of Zwingli’s state-supporting Zurich Reformation and portrays the Anabaptists as amiable originals, but at the same time as confused. In large parts, the narrative refers to historical facts from the Müsser War and the Second Kappeler War, mentions the iconoclasm of 1525, and in this way provides a good introduction to an era that became fundamental for today’s Zurich. The imprisonment of numerous Anabaptists in the heretic tower and their mysterious release, in popular belief by an angel, is also historical. Despite the partly didactic aim of the text, Keller’s poetic skill shines through again and again, for example in the grotesquely degenerate conversion speeches of the Anabaptists, but also in the profound introduction:

When religions turn, it is as when the mountains open up; between the great magic serpents, gold dragons, and crystal spirits of the human mind that rise to the light, all the ugly doddering worms and the army of rats and mice come forth. So it was in the northeastern parts of Switzerland at the first Reformation….

– or when he describes Zwingli’s death on the battlefield, ignoring all the ugly side effects, thus:

He had not struck, but had only stood manfully with his own in the limb to suffer what they were destined to do. He had sunk several times when the flight began, and had risen again until a blow on and through the helmet held him to and on the mother earth. The sinking sun shone upon his still firm and peaceful countenance; it seemed to testify to him that he had now, after all, done right and administered his office as a hero. Like the great golden world host of the purified supper, the star hovered for a last moment above the earth and lured the eye of the prostrate man to the heavens.


Keller drew primarily from two sources for the historical portion of the novella:

  • Melchior Schuler: Thaten und Sitten der Eidgenossen. 2. Volume, Friedrich Schulthess, Zurich 1838, in particular the chapter “The Anabaptists” p. 64 ff
  • Johann Caspar Mörikofer: Ulrich Zwingli nach den urkundlichen Quellen. S. Hirzel, Leipzig, 1867/69


  • Ursula was filmed in 1978 by Egon Günther in a co-production of GDR television and Swiss television with Matthias Habich as Zwingli. Due to its sexual permissiveness and unorthodox treatment of the church and the Reformation, the film became a scandal in both countries and ended Günther’s career in the GDR.

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