A a student of philosophy attending a concert in the heart of Germany in the spring of 1797 could hardly believe the testimony of his eyes. Seated in a row were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the greatest writer of the age; Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the philosopher of the moment, whose lectures have attracted students from all over Europe; Alexander von Humboldt, embarking on a career that will transform our understanding of the natural world; and August Wilhelm Schlegel, who was then making a name for himself as a writer, critic and translator. It seemed extraordinary to see so many famous men lined up together.

Except it wasn’t, not then in Jena, a quiet university town in the heart of Germany of just 800 houses and less than 5,000 people. For a brief period, as the 18th century gave way to the 19th, Jena claimed to be the intellectual capital of Europe. The best minds of the nation were gathered there.

It very occasionally happens that exceptionally talented people gather in the same place for a time, to encourage and stimulate each other. Jena in the late 1790s and early 1800s was such a city. In this uplifting book, Andrea Wulf tells the story of what she calls “the Jena ensemble”, a group of mostly young writers and poets who came together in “this lovely, crazy little corner of the world”, as Goethe described it.

At the heart of the Jena ensemble were the Schlegels, August Wilhelm and his wife, Caroline, who worked together translating Shakespeare’s plays into German verse; Friedrich, August Wilhelm’s younger and more quarrelsome brother, also a writer and critic, who for a time was in love with Caroline; the poet Friedrich von Hardenberg (“Novalis”), almost the personification of Goethe’s young Werther in his melodramatic posture and his adoration of a sickly, pubescent girl; and the earnest young philosopher Friedrich Schelling, whose naturphilosophy saw the self as one with all living things, and saw art as the expression of this union.

This group considered themselves with some justification to be smarter, wittier and more poetic than anyone else. In their own eyes, they were “the chosen ones”. Like other young people of their generation across Europe, they were inspired by the upheavals of the French Revolution, a challenge to authority and established ideas everywhere. Their irreverence inevitably led to feuds, first between the upstart Schlegels and the venerable poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller, then between Schelling and Fichte. Caroline’s refusal to comply with convention earned her widespread disapproval, especially from other women. Eventually, she would divorce August Wilhelm and marry Schelling, 12 years her junior. Despite this, the three remained on good terms.

One of the reasons why Jena became such a magnet for independent thinkers was the university’s unusual constitution, which allowed its professors relative freedom. Chief among them was Fichte, who said that “the source of all reality is the Ich” – a word with no exact equivalent in English. Fichte du Ich’s concept placed the self at the center of everything, an idea that always appealed to young people who cared about themselves.

Goethe had been drawn to Jena from his home in Weimar by Schiller’s presence. While Goethe was staying in Jena, he and Schiller met daily, as they lived only a few minutes walk from each other. They were an odd couple as they strolled through the city together, the cadaverous playwright towering over the older, now portly poet. Like the young English poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, Goethe and Schiller collaborated closely, editing each other’s work and suggesting improvements and changes. After Schiller’s death, Goethe will strive in vain to complete his unfinished work.

Goethe and Schiller were father figures to the group of young writers and thinkers who gravitated around Jena. Schiller’s letters On the aesthetic education of man will become a founding document for this new generation of thinkers, who call themselves romantic.

French troops arrived in Jena in 1806, when they “looted the city, burning buildings”. Illustration: Bovinet

Goethe was a true Renaissance man, as interested in science as in literature. For him, another attraction of Jena was the company of the young scientist Alexander von Humboldt. The two formed “our little academy”, performing dissections and experiments together, including electrical experiments on animals – “galvanism”. For the romantics, electricity seemed to be the fuel of life. It is no coincidence that Frankenstein’s monster comes to life thanks to a massive electric charge. Electricity also provided a cool, almost irresistible metaphor. In its incessant and passionate debate, the plateau of Jena was “electrified by our intellectual frictions”; while aside, one lamented the lack of “the electricity I feel with them”.

It is indeed an electrifying book, in its illuminated portraits, its dynamic narration and its sparkling ideas. Wulf writes clear, flowing prose that is a pleasure to read. It is informed by scholarship without being bogged down by jargon. Her book begins with an autobiographical prologue, explaining how, as an impulsive child of progressive parents, she chose to leave school early, rather than go to college, and became a single mother to a young age, thus learning to balance freedom. passion and responsibility. This introduction is fitting, as her experience mirrors that of the woman at the heart of the story, Caroline Schlegel.

The Jena ensemble broke up in 1803, scattering across Germany and beyond in a general exodus. beautiful rebels ends with a dramatic chapter where French troops arrive in Jena in 1806, looting the city and burning buildings, before the battle ends in a devastating defeat for the Prussian army. The victorious emperor slept that night in Goethe’s bed. For the plateau of Jena, Napoleon was not an enemy but a hero. They admired him as a force of nature. Ominously, Fichte began to speak of the “Ich” of a nation.

In his epilogue, Wulf traces the influence of the thinkers of Jena on the following generations: through the English romantic poets, in particular Coleridge, and through him the American transcendentalists (Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman), to the thoughts of Sigmund Freud and James Joyce, and in the present. We have “internalized the Ich” so much, says the author, that we no longer recognize it. What was revolutionary is now standard: we’re all romantics now. And it all started in a small town in Germany over 200 years ago.

Adam Sisman is the author of The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge (Harper Perennial)

Magnificent Rebels: Early Romantics and Self-Invention by Andrea Wulf is published by John Murray (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply