Christian Heinrich Heineken, the child prodigy who impressed Europe at just four years old

It is surprising that centuries ago, in times when access to education was practically restricted to the elites and pedagogy lacked the qualitative specialization currently developed, child prodigies arose with some frequency. In that sense, the 18th century, that of the illustration, gave birth to some very famous ones, Mozart being the archetype of all of them. There was another, however, who could have snatched the indisputable protagonism from him and if he didn’t, it was simply because he didn’t have time, dying in early childhood. His name was Christian Heinrich Heineken and he entered history with a life span of only four years and four months.

It is difficult to establish how much is strictly true in his case and how much is exaggeration, even if it were partial. The fact is that the nickname of Child prodigy from Lübeck What Christian won is not free and the reason is fairly well documented, so if its merits may have been hyped by chroniclers, it is also true that they had a basis in fact. And furthermore, we must bear in mind that one of the testimonies that have come down to us of the boy’s virtues is signed by none other than Immanuel Kant, the famous philosopher, who wrote an essay about him calling him «ingenium praecox«, which does not need to be translated.

As is easy to deduce, he was born in Lübeck, a city in the current German state of Schleswig-Holstein, at that time in decline after the dissolution of the Hanseatic League in 1669, but in 1721, the year of Christian’s birth, it was still a port of some importance. The boy did not come out brilliant by chance. His father, Paul, was an artist, a trade that then brought together various modalities and he specifically focused on architecture and painting, having had Mengs as a disciple. But it is that her mother did not give the profile of a traditional woman of her time either: Catharina Elisabeth, she was called, daughter of the painter Franz Oesterreich and, when she was orphaned, adopted by another, Karl Krieg.

With such parents it seemed inevitable that their offspring would rise above the norm, and in fact Christian had a brother fourteen years older, Carl Heinrich, who studied literature and law at the universities of Leipzig and Halle, working as a private tutor to the poet Johann Ulrich König first and Count Alexander von Sulkowsky later, then becoming secretary to another Count, Von Brühl, before being appointed by the King of Poland, Augustus III, director of the royal collection of prints and drawings, and publishing several books on art in several languages. He would have a long life (he died in 1791), in contrast to his little brother.

His curriculum began very early, at ten months, the age at which he learned to speak. German, obviously, a language in which they say that he was already able to read the Pentateuch two months later, in an incredible display of speed in understanding letters, syllables and syntax in general. Apparently he possessed an extraordinary ability that extended to Latin and French by the time he was two years old, thanks to a prodigious memory that enabled him to learn entire passages of the Bible. Bible to the letter and recite them without making mistakes, just as he did with fragments of texts from scientific disciplines such as mathematics, geography, history, philosophy…

To the undoubted educational influence of his parents – Paul was not only an architect but also an accomplished chemist who manufactured his own paints and enamels while his mother, in addition to painting and making flower arrangements, was a student of alchemy – was joined by that of his teacher, Christian von Schönaich, who was from a noble family and decided to present the boy’s skills in society. This was how Christian had the opportunity to recite before Frederick IV, King of Denmark, who had heard of him and wanted to meet him in person, a text in his own handwriting composed for the occasion under the title The old, wise and new Danish story. Later she gave other performances before enthusiastic spectators from various European countries. All this in a year that no one suspected would be the last.

Because the story of Child prodigy from Lübeck It ended tragically on July 27, 1725. Upon returning from Copenhagen he began to feel bad and in the following months it worsened, to the point that he himself became aware of its seriousness and anticipated his fate, they say with enough aplomb. Nobody found a way to make it better because it was a disease that would not be fully identified until two and a quarter centuries later, when the Dutch pediatrician Willem Karel Dicke realized that the wheat shortage caused by World War II caused it to be drastically reduce the deaths of children with a certain intestinal condition and that at the end of the conflict the rates rose again. We are talking about celiac disease, caused by an intolerance to gluten contained in wheat, oats and rye along with their derivatives.

Christian, according to the custom of his time, did not stop nursing when he grew up. At least not exactly, because Sophie Hildebrandt, his nursemaid, prepared porridge for him with the milk that was expressed. And it turns out that Sophie was on a grain-rich diet; she loaded with gluten therefore. That unfortunate child prodigy received a posthumous homage from his teacher, the aforementioned von Schönaich, who published a biography of him entitled Leben, Thaten, Reisen und Tod eines sehr klugen und artigen 4jährigen Kindes Christian Henrich Heineken aus Lübeck (Life, facts, travels and death of the child Christian Henrich Heineken from Lübeck). Light that shines twice as bright lasts half as long.


Il bambino prodigio di Lubecca. The extraordinary life of Cristiano Enrico Heinecken (Guido Guerzoni)/A history of american gifted education (Jennifer L. Holly)/mental prodigies (Fred Barlow)/Wikipedia.

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