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VISIT Universidade de Coimbra

Academic Prison

It is today the only existing medieval
prison in Portugal

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Academic Prison

Claimed by the University to the King since 1541, the existence
of the prison was finally recognized in the Statutes of 1591

The structures that remain today of what was, until 1834, the university prison  (when, as a result of the liberal revolution, the jurisdiction of the University Registrar over the teachers, students and families was extinguished), correspond to three distinct phases in the use of the place: the first, highly connected to the original structures of the Royal Palace, and the others mostly related to the University occupation.

It was necessary to create foundations capable to hold the construction of the House of the Library, known as the Baroque Library, built from 1717 onwards.

In order to overcome the difference in height of the upper courtyard, the prison would then support the noble rooms and it would be used as storeroom. It would also comprise the remains of the old medieval prison that existed in the Royal Palace, built at the end of the 14th century outside the Muslim walls.

It is the only existent medieval prison in Portugal. Of its original constitution the so-called "secrets", which consist of a spiral staircase and a straight staircase with a gothic parapet, have reached the present.

As for the academic dungeon itself, its existence results from the particular jurisdiction that protected the ancient universities as corporations, preserving faculty staff and (especially) students from living amongst common criminals. Often, punishments were mostly of disciplinary nature.

Claimed, as a consequence, by the University to the King since 1541, the existence of the prison was finally recognized in the Statutes of 1591, settled in 1593 in two ancient rooms under the existing Hall of Great Acts, where it was kept until the eighteenth century. Only in 1773, under the educational reform of Pombal and as a consequence of the works in Royal Palace building, the prison would be transferred to the lower floors of the Baroque Library, where new rooms for this particular purpose were to be built.

During the transference some adaptation works were performed (these were carried out in 1782), and the remnants of the medieval prison were added (mainly the secrets and the small adjacent hallway). A small number of common cells, a chapel, etc. were built, and issues of comfort (construction of latrines) and security were also taken into account. These remodelling works took hold of the upper floor, an area that would be occupied by the Academic Guard.

Although some of the rooms have been adapted as book storerooms and most of its content and equipment is lost, the Academic Prison is a rare testimony of an old European private prison.


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