“Thrill” and Intimidation by Means of Light and Darkness in the Pre-Modern Era – The Alter Einlass (Old Entrance) in Augsburg

— Vera Henkelmann

The city was a space that could be experienced and distinguished through the senses: tactile, olfactory, acoustic and also visual; it was recognised as an urban space with all the senses as soon as one approached it, but above all when one entered it.[1]

Access to the city at night was limited as the gates were closed at nightfall, imposing a curfew. If access was granted at night, it was to protect the city, which was particularly vulnerable at that time. As we shall see, in addition to the other senses, sight – or rather the inability to see – was used to even greater effect by further restricting light, which was already reduced at night, and deliberately exposing the visitor to darkness. In this way, the visitor, who was a potential danger, could be massively intimidated. Not only because their orientation and ability to act were limited in the dark, but even more so because in the Middle Ages the night and darkness were seen as a sign of diabolical danger par excellence.[2]

The so-called Old Entrance (German: Alter Einlass) in Augsburg is an exceptional example of this strategy of denying light to people entering the city at night. Although such night gates seem to have existed in many cities,[3] the Augsburg example is certainly the best known and best documented.

In addition to more than one hundred slender towers, the medieval city wall of Augsburg had eleven gates, and after the year 1450 a total of fourteen, designed as gate towers.[4] Among these, the Old Entrance stood out as a night gate, allowing access to the city when all other gates of the Augsburg city wall were closed.

Augsburg in the Schedelsche Weltchronik (Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff; Text: Hartmann Schedel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Augsburg´s account books of the master builder (German: Baumeisterbücher) document the construction of the Old Entrance in 1513-14 as the successor to an older night gate on the same site.[5] The plans were drawn up by Baltus Ul, a Tyrolean who later became the city’s master carpenter. The total cost of the Old Entrance, with its elaborate mechanism, was 2,000 guilders. As early as April 1514, an oath of service was recorded for the city servants or guards working at the entrance. However, the gate was not used until 13 April 1515.[6]

While the entrance was commissioned by the city council, who were also the employers of the guards at the entrance,[7] this new building project may have been initiated by Emperor Maximilian. It is unclear if the sole purpose was to allow the emperor to return to the city after his nightly hunting expeditions.[8] The project corresponded to Maximilian’s interest in engineering and fortifications in general,[9] serving to protect the city of Augsburg, which he favoured. In this respect, the city secured the emperor’s favour by carrying out this ambitious project.[10] The fact is – and this is crucial for the present study – that the gate was by no means used exclusively by the emperor or his court as a night-time entrance to the city, which in principle posed no security risk. The oath taken by the gatekeepers in 1514 already distinguished between the imperial family, who could pass through free of charge, and everyone else, who had to pay.[11]

After a bastion was built in 1542 to counter the Turkish threat, the dry moat having been widened in 1542 and again in 1548, a new covered wooden bridge over the moat was then later built for the Old Entrance in 1548.[12] It is unclear whether the original bridge of the Old Entrance was also covered.

The Old Entrance, auctioned off for demolition in 1867 in connection with the removal of the defences on the western edge of the Old Town, was finally demolished in 1869,[13] though it remains relatively well documented by written and pictorial sources. The first person to record and describe the mechanism was the Swedish court architect Nicodemus Tessin the Younger.[14] After Augsburg fell to the Kingdom of Bavaria in 1805, the Bavarian engineer Captain Gustav von Kern-Kernried inspected the city’s defences in 1818 and documented the Old Entrance and its mechanics in a detailed description and several drawings.[15]

For the exhibition Maximilian I. (1459-1519). Kaiser. Ritter. Bürger zu Augsburg in 2019, the Old Entrance was digitally reconstructed as it was in 1700 and made virtually accessible.[16]

Let us take a closer look at the atmosphere, the impressions that awaited those who passed through the Old Entrance to enter Augsburg at night, and what senses were appealed to, what means were used and, above all, what role light or darkness played in this process.

Once travellers reached the bridgehead of the Old Entrance, the travellers pulled a handle attached to a rope to make themselves known; this rope led to a bell in the main building on the other side of the moat, where the guards were stationed.[17] Beyond the bridgehead was a covered wooden bridge leading over the moat to the main Old Entrance building with its three passage rooms.

Exterior view of the Old Entrance with bridge and bridgehead (Visualisation by LIQUID Agentur für Gestaltung, Augsburg 2019, www.liquid.ag)
Exterior view of the Old Entrance with bridge and bridgehead (Visualisation by LIQUID Agentur für Gestaltung, Augsburg 2019, www.liquid.ag)

The bridge was about 40 metres long, but only 2.30 metres wide, so by 1548 at the latest it was narrow, low and covered by a steep roof. Moonlight could only have come in through a few windows, and the sound of people and animals, likely horses, treading on the wooden bridge would have created an impressive soundscape.[18] This had an even greater impact on travellers, who had to pass through on foot or on horseback, as carriages could not pass through the Old Entrance.[19] At the end of the bridge, the travellers stepped onto a kind of pylon that rose nine metres out of the city moat.[20] Only when a four-metre drawbridge in the entrance building was lowered by hidden chains could the rest of the moat be crossed. Immediately afterwards, the drawbridge was raised again.[21] Although the drawbridge mechanism operated smoothly and quickly, its chains and levers must have made a very audible noise, this being all the more confusing to travellers because the mechanism was concealed, the operator being concealed as well – the city of Augsburg kept the mechanism of the Old Entrance a closely guarded secret.[22] An iron-bound door opened into the main building. This door, like all the doors at the Old Entrance, was about 3.40 metres high. It closed immediately after entry and opened only a shoulder-width gap so that, like a river lock system, only one person could pass through at a time. This ensured that the guards could detain anyone who looked suspicious between two rooms.[23] The rooms opened upwards into enclosed galleries about 1.20 metres high, allowing the guards to keep an eye on the travellers from above without having to show themselves or put themselves in danger.[24] The light from the guards, who were certainly equipped with lamps or torches, is unlikely to have illuminated the rooms below, which had no windows. In the last room, on the other hand, an event of light awaited visitors: a bowl with a light was lowered from above, into which travellers had to put the fee for the passage. Those who did not pay or did not pay enough were locked in the room until the next day. They also had to identify themselves, with the light shining on their faces for identification, state their destination in the city and, if they were foreigners, name a citizen as guarantor. Once all the formalities had been completed, the travellers were finally allowed to enter the city and stood at the end of the Leihhausgasse.[25]

The Old Entrance was indeed a masterpiece of its time, not only architecturally and technically outstanding, but also having a decidedly psychological effect on those passing through. This was achieved by using the senses, such as sound. The soundscape was created by the moving travellers, the horses they might be carrying, or the mechanics with their chains and levers. Blainville, describing his passage through the old entrance in 1705, said that the mechanism mit großer Gewalt und starkem Gerassele geschiehet[26] (worked with great force and with a great rattle).

This mechanism was not only an acoustic challenge for those entering, but also a visual one. Its chains and levers were so skilfully concealed that the doors, gates and drawbridge seemed to open and close automatically. To be exposed to a mechanism that you could neither see nor influence was extraordinary for people in the Middle Ages, a non-technological age. So it seemed to them that the doors, gates and drawbridge opened by magic or by the hand of a ghost.[27] As late as 1767, Eichler emphasised in his history of the city of Augsburg: “Einem der wenig oder nichts von der Beweg-Kunst versteht, kommt sie freylich wunderbar vor”[28] (To someone who knows little or nothing about the art of movement, it certainly seems marvellous). Uncertainty was heightened by the fact that although the intricate mechanism was a marvel, much admired and mentioned in numerous travelogues,[29] its construction and design were kept strictly secret. In fact, the secret itself was probably intended to intimidate passers-by from near and far.

Interior room of Old Entrance (Visualisation by LIQUID Agentur für Gestaltung, Augsburg 2019,www.liquid.ag)

In addition, the entire system of the Old Entrance was designed to control the nightly travellers with a minimum of personnel, so that the mechanism could be operated by the two guards alone from the upper floor of the main building. Travellers were kept in the dark about the number of guards, however, as they spoke to the guards to identify themselves, though were not able to see the guards. In this respect, the travellers were exposed not only to unpredictable mechanics, but also to unpredictable surveillance, as they did not know exactly when, by whom and, above all, by how many guards they were being watched.[30] This is also likely to have contributed massively to the intimidation. Salomon Frenzel describes this in his poem of 1585 as follows: “Von selbst geht alles auf und zu / Und kannst nicht wissen wer es thu, / Du kommpst hindurch und siehst bei Dir Doch niemand, daß Dichs wundert schier. […] Thust keinen Menschen irgend spüren”[31] (Everything opens and closes of its own accord / And you cannot know who is doing it, / You pass through and see no one with you, but you are so surprised. […] You cannot feel anyone).

In 1595, the chronicler, patrician and mayor Marx Welser the Younger emphasised that it was possible to pass “durch wunderbarliche Irrgänge und gleichsam Fallen zu nachts umb ein benannt Gelt”[32] (through marvellous passageways and, as it were, traps at night for a certain fee). The travellers were thus deprived of orientation in the various rooms, which were almost or completely windowless. On top of this, they were repeatedly locked in the rooms, i.e. they could neither go forward nor backward and had to wait for another door to open, as Blainville also reports: “Also ist man beständig zwischen zweyen Thoren eingeschlossen, wenn man durchpassiret, und wird einige Minuten lang aufgehalten, ohne daß man hinter sich oder vor sich kommen kann”[33] (So you are constantly trapped between two gates when you pass through, and are held up for several minutes without being able to get behind you or in front of you).

The concealment of the gate’s mechanisms and guards, combined with a disorienting sequence of rooms and, most importantly, the deprivation of light, all served to intimidate visitors. As explained, the system, functioning much like a river lock, was only passed through at night. The corridor of the wooden bridge leading to the Old Entrance had few windows such that only little moonlight could enter. The adjoining rooms in the main building had no windows at all and the small amount of light used by the guards in the galleries – probably torches or lanterns – would have shed very little light on the ground floor. So travellers had to carry their own light, be it a lantern or a torch. However, for reasons of fire safety and cost, it can be assumed that each passer-by carried no more than one light. A large procession with many torchbearers, apart from the emperor and his entourage, was certainly not allowed to pass through the complex. The first member of the group in particular found himself alone in a dark room, apart from his own light, after the door to the first passageway had closed behind him. Even the event of light at the end of the passageway did not significantly change this experience. For one thing, it was only a single light that was lowered with the bowl, and for another, it mainly illuminated the faces of the travellers.

The power of the council and the city of Augsburg was thus demonstrated here by the ability to restrict sight, especially light, and thus to physically intimidate those entering, even to expose them to the demonic nature of darkness and gloom. This may have satisfied the city’s desire for maximum security, as well as the individual traveller’s desire for the famous “thrill” of the Old Entrance.

Vera Henkelmann is an art historian holding a M.A. from the University of Bonn and a PhD from the University of Dortmund for her awarded thesis Spätgotische Marienleuchter: Formen, Funktionen, Bedeutungen. Her special field of interest is light, the use of light, and lighting devices of the Middle Ages. Since 2020 she is an Associate Fellow at the Max Weber Centre with a project on the use of light in Jewish and Christian ritual. She was a Fellow of the Religion and Urbanity group in the summer of 2023, working on the use of light in the Medieval city.

We would like to thank Andrew Beachy for his editorial support.


[1] Cf. for instance Carlin 2016; Reyerson 2016.

[2] Cf. Koslofsky 2011, 12–14, 19–27; Youngs/Harris 2003; Verdon 2002, 6–68.

[3] Cf. Fleps 2019, S. 25; Ruckdeschel 1984, 53.

[4] Cf. Biller 2019, II-78f.; Häußler 2002, 18.

[5] Cf. Fleps 2019, 25; Ruckdeschel ZHVS 1977, 131.

[6] Cf. Hauptmann Kat. 61 2019, 278f; Ruckdeschel 1977, S. 131f., 139; Koob 1900, 1f., 14.

[7] Cf. Hauptmann Kat. 61 2019, 278.

[8] For the discussion cf. Hauptmann Kat. 61 2019, 279; Lange-Krach 2019, 60; Guffler 2016, 247; Koob 1900, 1f.; Kern-Kernried 1854, 53.

[9] Cf. Schröter 2019, 40.

[10] Cf. Lange-Krach 2019, 61.

[11] Cf. Hauptmann Kat. 61 2019, 278.

[12] Cf. Lange-Krach 2019, 69.

[13] Cf. Häußler 2002, 50; Kießling 1987, 57; Koob 1900, 13f.

[14] Cf. Lange-Krach 2019, 74. I would like to thank Dorothea Diemer, Gilching, for providing me with a manuscript on a construction drawing by Nicodemus Tessin the Younger and related material.

[15] Cf. Hauptmann Kat. 62 2019, 280f.; Kern-Kernried 1854, 52–56; Kern-Kernried 1823, 34f., 156–162.

[16] Cf. Lange-Krach 2019, vor allem 61–81.

[17] Cf. Lange-Krach 2019, 71.

[18] On the bridge, cf. Lange-Krach 2019, 71f.; Häußler 2002, 48; Ruckdeschel, ZHVS 1977, 140.

[19] Cf. Häußler 2002, 44; Ruckdeschel, ZHVS 1977, 140.

[20] Cf. Lange-Krach 2019, 70f.

[21] On the drawbridge, cf. Hauptmann 2019, 69f.; Häußler 2002, 50; Ruckdeschel 1984, 54; Koob 10-11, 13; Kern-Kernried 1823, 161f.

[22] On secrecy, cf. Häußler 2002, 44, 48; Ruckdeschel, ZHVS 1977, 141.

[23] For the doors cf. Hauptmann Kat. 62 2019, 281; Lange-Krach 2019, 61, 73f.; Ruckdeschel 1984, 56; Ruckdeschel 1977, 138.

[24] For the galleries cf. Lange-Krach 2019, 73, 76; Hauptmann Kat. 61, 279.

[25] Cf. Hauptmann Kat. 61 2019, 278; Lange-Krach 2019, 77; Ruckdeschel, ZHVS 1977, 138.

[26] Blainville 1765, 284.

[27] On the effect on the medieval traveller cf. Lange-Krach 2019, 61; Ruckdeschel 1989; Ruckdeschel 1984, 54; Ruckdeschel, ZHVS 1977, 139.

[28] Quoted from Koob 1900, 7.

[29] Cf. for example the reports in Dussler 1968.

[30] Cf. Lange-Krach 2019, 77; Kießling 1987, 110; Ruckdeschel, ZHVS 1977, 136, 140.

[31] Quoted from Kern-Kernried 1854, 54.

[32] Quoted from Koob 1900, 1.

[33] Blainville 1765, 284.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Vera Henkelmann (May 21, 2024). “Thrill” and Intimidation by Means of Light and Darkness in the Pre-Modern Era – The Alter Einlass (Old Entrance) in Augsburg. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/11p1u


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