Last Saturday night I climbed up to the attic of the university’s Main Building to explore one of the two surviving lock-ups where 19th-century students were held in solitary confinement for various misdeeds.
It happened to be European Museum Night, and the room was magically populated by two students from the past.
Jüri, the son of an Estonian peasant from a place near Viljandi, was wearing an obviously over-sized vest which he had inherited from his elder brother. The brother, in turn, had inherited the family farmstead, whereas Jüri was sent to the university to become a priest.
Poor Jüri was locked up for wearing his beard too long – luckily, just for a day. In the 19th century, growing a beard was associated with revolutionary activity and was therefore forbidden at the University of Tartu (then: Kaiserliche Universität zu Dorpat).
The second student, Karl, came from a rich family and was studying art history. He had broken the window of a bigwig’s house in Tartu and was crashing about the streets at night, so he barely escaped being thrown out of the university. Karl’s punishment was the longest available term at the lock-up: three weeks, of which he had one still to go.
Both chaps seemed to be okay and were excited to have so many visitors that night, which was normally not allowed. On other days they entertained themselves by reading books and studying in solitude. Once a day they were allowed to go out for a warm meal at their own expense.
Karl and Jüri recited other reasons for getting locked up, which included swearing, behaving indecently, riding a horse on Toome Hill, withholding a library book, leaving Tartu without permission, insulting a lady, deceiving a merchant, and many more.
By now, both students are probably gone, the attic empty, and only the rich graffiti on the walls reminds us of the good, old student times.
The student lock-up is a part of the university’s Art Museum – see how you can visit.