Beer halls and duelling in Heidelberg

Beer hall: German student society c.1897.

Mark Twain on drinking and duelling clubs at Heidelberg University in A Tramp Abroad (1880).

Nine-tenths of the Heidelberg students wore no badge or uniform; the other tenth wore caps of various colors, and belonged to social organizations called ‘corps’. There were five corps, each with a color of its own; there were white caps, blue caps, and red, yellow, and green ones. The famous duel-fighting is confined to the ‘corps’ boys. The ‘Kneip’ seems to be a specialty of theirs, too. Kneips are held, now and then, to celebrate great occasions, like the election of a beer king, for instance. The solemnity is simple; the five corps assemble at night, and at a signal they all fall loading themselves with beer, out of pint-mugs, as fast as possible, and each man keeps his own count — usually by laying aside a lucifer match for each mug he empties.

The election is soon decided. When the candidates can hold no more, a count is instituted and the one who has drank the greatest number of pints is proclaimed king. I was told that the last beer king elected by the corps — or by his own capabilities — emptied his mug seventy-five times. No stomach could hold all that quantity at one time, of course — but there are ways of frequently creating a vacuum, which those who have been much at sea will understand.

[...]

There seems to be no chilly distance existing between the German students and the professor; but, on the contrary, a companionable intercourse, the opposite of chilliness and reserve. When the professor enters a beer-hall in the evening where students are gathered together, these rise up and take off their caps, and invite the old gentleman to sit with them and partake. He accepts, and the pleasant talk and the beer flow for an hour or two, and by and by the professor, properly charged and comfortable, gives a cordial good night, while the students stand bowing and uncovered; and then he moves on his happy way homeward with all his vast cargo of learning afloat in his hold. Nobody finds fault or feels outraged; no harm has been done.

Text adapted from Project Gutenberg etext edition; illustration from ‘Duelling in German Universities’, by ‘An English Student’, The Strand Magazine, Vol 13, 1897, p.149.

One thought on “Beer halls and duelling in Heidelberg”

  1. When I lived in Munich an alumnus of some Bavarian university club or other used to have an annual ‘do’ at the Festsalle of the Augustiner Biergarten. Hundreds of them, all dressed like your pic above but with massive white gauntlets and sashes. The event seemed to consist of interminable speeches, then all of them getting blind drunk, banging their masskrugs on the tables and saluting the oldest members of the club (and some of them were very old indeed). Afterwards they’d all be staggering around in Arnulfstrasse waving swords around and forcing the trams to screech to a halt. Not a policeman in sight. As far as I know, nobody got their head lopped off.

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