FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Heidelberg’s student prison

Posted in Germany, Heidelberg by folkestonejack on May 30, 2014

Our trip brought us to Heidelberg today, with an opportunity to wander around the city and appreciate the charms of the old town. There is no denying that Heidelberg is an extraordinary tourist magnet, as any glance around the streets would confirm, but we were more than a little surprised to find that the highlight of our visit – the student prison – was relatively quiet.

The student prison is a real oddity, born out of a medieval world in which universities sat outside of the boundaries of civil and state law. Heidelberg University was founded in 1386 and exercised its power in criminal and disciplinary matters overs its student from the very beginning. However, it was not until 1545 that the university established the first prison exclusively for the use of its undergraduates.

Cell in Heidelberg Student Prison

Cell in Heidelberg Student Prison

In 1784 the prison was re-established in a residential property that backed onto the old university, but it was not until the 1820s that a satisfactory arrangement was agreed. At this time a new top storey was fitted out with four cells, supplemented by a fifth in 1886. This layout survived until the end of the prison’s life in 1914 and is the space that can be seen today.

The walls of the prison are covered from top to toe with the most astonishing graffitti – the unexpected legacy of students incarcerated for all manner of minor misdemeanours until its closure. It became something of a tourist attraction long before it closed. Mark Twain was one of the most well known visitors, in 1878, and he has left us with a vivid description of his experience in The College Prison, an appendix to his book ‘A Tramp Abroad’ (1880):

The cell was not a roomy one; still it was a little larger than an ordinary prison cell. It had a window of good size, iron-grated; a small stove; two wooden chairs; two oaken tables, very old and most elaborately carved with names, mottoes, faces, armorial bearings, etc.–the work of several generations of imprisoned students; and a narrow wooden bedstead with a villainous straw mattress, but no sheets, pillows, blankets, or coverlets–for these the student must furnish at his own cost if he wants them. There was no carpet, of course.

The ceiling was completely covered with names, dates, and monograms, done with candle-smoke. The walls were thickly covered with pictures and portraits (in profile), some done with ink, some with soot, some with a pencil, and some with red, blue, and green chalks; and whenever an inch or two of space had remained between the pictures, the captives had written plaintive verses, or names and dates. I do not think I was ever in a more elaborately frescoed apartment.

It sounds as though incarceration here was not exactly the hardship that you might have expected – prisoners were permitted to leave their cells for lectures, could commision local restaurants to supply their meals and were allowed two bottles of beer a day (or the equivalent amount in wine). One piece of grafitti from a prisoner shows that it was far from perfect – wine had to be drunk warm as there were no ice buckets!

Along with admission to the student prison the tickets we bought included entry to an exhibition about the history of the university and to the Alte Aula (Old hall) which is well worth seeing in its own right.

Heidelberg from the Philosophers’ Way

Heidelberg from the Philosophers’ Way

An improvement in the weather persuaded us that a walk up the schlangenweg (snake path) would be a good way to round off the day. The steep pathway twists and turns relentlessly, tiring out the most energetic of souls, but the vantage point offered by the Philosophers’ Way makes it all worthwhile. The panoramic view of the old bridge, castle and funicular railway at sunset was simply stunning. Needless to say, the walk back down was considerably slower and more relaxed!