The Student Prison of Heidelberg

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While in Heidelberg, I was sure to visit the town’s unusual student prison. Ever since its founding in the early 1300’s, Heidelberg University has held absolute legal jurisdiction over its students. Any illegal action committed by a student was thus the problem of the university and the students could not be punished by city officials. In the case of a supposed offense, the student would have to identify themselves as a member of the university, be reported to the university, receive a summons, attend a hearing, and be sentenced according to the severity of his crime. This could last any length of time from 24 hours up to 4 weeks.

Eventually, spending time in the Student Prison became less of a punishment and more of an honorary initiation into the university. The most commonly cited reasons for spending time in the jail include loud drunken singing in the streets at night time, and participation in illegal fencing duels (this is the medieval times remember…). There are also several instances of students releasing the town’s pigs and piglets from their pens in the Old Town and chasing the squealing animals through the streets. Those unwise enough to insult a uniformed officer, usually by means of mocking him or by knocking his hat off his head could expect the full 4 weeks in prison.

Until 1712, the student prison was located below the stairs of the Old University Building. In 1712, it was moved to the top floor of the Beadle’s House next door since the cold and damp location of the Old University Building threatened the students’ health. Inside the Beadle’s House, there were no cooking facilities and water had to be brought in from the well in the courtyard. Inmates received bread and water for their first two days of confinement. After that, they could have anything that was brought to them from outside.

The cells themselves were given nicknames by the students, such as Palais Royale, Solitude and Sanssouci. The King’s Throne was the name of the smallest cell available. Inside the cells were wooden beds with straw mattresses, tables and stools. Any bedding had to be brought in by the student or rented for their time there. It was allowed to attend lectures inside the university and to visit their fellow convict neighbours in their cells, but it was forbidden to leave the building. Most of the prisoners thus spent their time playing cards, or decorating the prison walls with portraits, poetry, artwork and song writing. The first graffiti within the prison was made using soot, but soon the students brought paints with them for the duration of their incarceration. Many students wrote their names, how long they stayed in the student prison and why they were there in the first place. Many are quite humorous, alongside some rather unforgiving portraits of their captors.

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