A common attitude among students is the oppressive ‘prison’ that is school, usually accompanied by eye rolling, great tortured sighs and the whine of the persecuted when school and its requirements interfere with entertainment activities. Not that this ever happens with my teens. That I homeschool. Nooooo…. So when I discovered Heidelberg University Studentenkarzer, a “Student Prison” I had to visit! (And maybe text pictures to my teens…) Don’t think I won’t be getting some mileage out of that concept in our home!
When I was talking to one daughter about this post (she noticed the cool pics on my screen and asked) I explained the history of the prison. Her reaction? Spreading her arms and crying to the ceiling, School’s already a prison, what are you doing?!
(FYI, I may have a fascination with the school/prison connection – I wrote about a prison that became a university building, and then a library, too, in Quebec City <<HERE>>.)
Heidelberg Studentenkarzer: History
University Authority and Studentenkarzer Beginnings
From its 14th century inception, Heidelberg University had legal jurisdiction over its students. This meant that if a student broke code of conduct rules, or ran afoul of the law somehow, the punishment of students fell to the university. Most such infringements took the form of disturbing the peace (loud singing in the lanes is specifically mentioned), public drunkenness, and participation in illegal duels. But other offenses could include insulting a uniformed officer, and the ever popular releasing of the pigs and piglets penned in the Old City and driving them through the streets! Any students sited for such behaviors could spend anywhere from 24 hours to 4 weeks in Heidelberg University’s student prison.
The Studentenkarzer, or student prison, was at first a space under the stairs of the Old University building (Harry Potter reference anyone?). Because this was a dank, dark place that could possibly pose a risk to student health, the student prison was moved to its current location on Augustinergasse in 1712.
Studentenkarzer Prisoner Treatment and Activities
Once a student was brought to the Studentenkarzer, for the first 48 hours they would only be given bread and water for nourishment. However, after that, a student could have food brought in, even beer – so be good to your friends and they will keep you well fed through the incarceration. Mattressed beds were provided, but a student had to pay for the use of any bedding and pillows during the stay.
There is a door that connects the prison to the University building, so students were expected to continue attending classes and required University events, and completing assigned work. But any other time, the student must reside in the prison. Since boredom soon set in, students would carve into the woodwork, play cards… and cover every available space with graffiti. Students were given free rein inside the Studentenkarzer, and were free to mingle in the public areas and in other rooms. Because of that, graffiti and student’s carvings decorate the walls, stairs, ceilings, and furniture from the base of the stairs at the entrance, throughout the 2nd floor space the student prison occupies. At first, the students would use candle soot and anything available to lend color to their work, but with time students came prepared with their own paints upon incarceration.
Another creative outlet for the students was coming up with formal names for the rooms of the prison. The names included Solitude, Palais Royale, and Sanssouci. And you can guess which little room they called the “King’s Throne.” Some things never change.
NOTE: The translation for the above grafitti has been provided by the lovely and talented Rochelle of The Mormon Adventurista! Apparently the title here roughly translates as: “One for all and all for one.” They’re talking about why 5 of them were put in the prison together, saying that they were honest people, just trying to do what they felt was right.
Unintended Consequences and Studentenkarzer Street Cred
Staying in the student prison was clearly intended to be a deterrent, but these things sometimes don’t workout they way we hope. Instead, staying in the prison became a right of passage for many in the school, and having at least one stint in the Studentenkarzer was a point of pride. By the last years of the student prison’s existence, visitors in the prison were even allowed, student pride in incarceration went so far as the hosting of incarceration celebration and jailhouse parties where guests came prepared to decorate the walls with graffiti from their respective fraternities.
Heidelberg Studentenkarzer: Visiting Today
Sadly, or not, the student prison stopped being used at the outbreak of World War 1. The area was simple closed up and left, and life went on at the University. Because of this, the rooms were perfectly preserved. Iron bedframes, carved desks and chairs, all sitting as if the prisoners were simply in class. Except for the annoying presence of graffiti added by tourists. Because of these additions, most of the areas are roped off and we can simply peer into the rooms from the doorways. (Don’t be one of those disgraceful tourists and add to that problem.)
The prison area is small, and a visit can take as little as 10-15 minutes if you want it to. But if you come with camera in hand (which I highly recommend) you may, like me, spend about 30 minutes taking pictures and peering at the details. You can even pick up a “University of Heidelberg” t-shirt in the little gift shop where you buy your ticket. Both my girls sport theirs regularly. I’m kinda bummed it doesn’t say “prison” on it.
- Location: Augustinergasse 2
- Cost: 3.00 € (Combined Ticket for University Museum, Alte Aula and Student’s Prison); 2.50 € reduced rate
- Hours according to the Tourism Office:
- April – Oct: Daily 10:00am – 6:00pm;
- Nov. – March: Mon. – Sat. 10:00am – 4:00pm
- Time Allotted: 20-30 minutes maximum
- Take your camera, this place is incredibly instagrammable.
- Keep in mind the prison is on the second floor with little/no air conditioning
- We didn’t see any elevator, so you will have to climb one flight of stairs
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