This small street near St. Mary’s Church, the Pfarrgasse, was well-known in the Middle Ages as the narrowest point on the trade route between Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig, a distance of 133 leagues (or 400 km as we would say today).
For this reason, the width of this street was officially declared to be the maximum allowable width for all horse-drawn wagons traveling along this route.
Of course, we twenty-first-century know-it-alls immediately ask ourselves why they didn’t simply build a wider street down by the river somewhere, but in the Middle Ages this was evidently not an option. Unlike the people in Gelnhausen today, who are thankful that most of the through traffic bypasses their city on the railway or the A-66 motorway, the inhabitants in the Middle Ages (at least those who were merchants, hotel keepers or wheelwrights) wanted all that traffic to go right through town so they could do business with those who were passing through.
As in other towns along this route, such as Steinau an der Straße, the roads in Gelnhausen were not very smooth, so fixing broken wheels and axles was a mainstay of the local economy.
For the first century or so after the founding of Gelnhausen there was even a law, decreed by the Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa himself, that all merchants passing through Gelnhausen had to stop there and offer their merchandise for sale for three days, before continuing on.
Of course the hotel keepers were eternally grateful to Barbarossa for this law.
This “Lower Market Square” at the top end of Schmidtgasse has been nicely renovated in recent years. The square now has an attractive new cobblestone surface. The half-timbered houses are freshly painted and in good repair. The white stone house on the right is the Romanisches Haus (Romanesque House), which is said to be one of the oldest remaining government buildings in Germany. It was built around 1180, during the reign of the Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa.
So now they have a really attractive little square here, and what do they do with it? Use it as a parking lot for cars, that’s what. So the square is convenient for a few car-owners but not much use to the rest of us.
Untermarkt: 50°12’7.11″ North; 9°11’32.13″ East
The Gelnhausen Town Hall was first built in 1333 as a market hall, but has been used as the Town Hall since the 16th century. To this day the mayor and city administration have their offices here. In front of the Town Hall there is a life-size statue of a lantern lighter, recalling the days when the gas lanterns had to be lit individually at nightfall.
During the Nazi dictatorship the Town Hall was the scene of one of the very few acts of civil courage in which a Gelnhausen resident tried to protect a Jewish person from the Nazis.
Rudolf Kraushaar, the janitor of the Town Hall, lived with his wife in a three-room apartment on the top floor. There in the spring of 1943 they gave refuge to a 67-year-old Jewish woman, Feodora Kissing, who had somehow escaped from a Nazi prison in Lübeck.
Unfortunately, someone denounced them. In April 1943 the Nazis found the woman in the Kraushaars’ apartment and took her back into custody. Within a few weeks she was sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.
Rudolf Kraushaar was also arrested and was kept in custody until the end of the war. He died soon afterwards of tuberculosis, which he probably contracted during his imprisonment.
(This information is from an article by Claudia Raab in the now-defunct local newspaper Gelnhäuser Tageblatt of August 7, 2010. This local newspaper was founded in 1833 and was published for 184 years. Its last issue appeared on March 31, 2017.)
This plaque on the restaurant Zum Löwen says it is “one of the oldest restaurants in Germany, first mentioned in 1506 (by Dr. Johannes Faustus). Owned by the same family since 1639.”
Zum Löwen means “at the lion” (because there is a golden statue of a lion on the front of the building). Dr. Johannes Faustus was a German alchemist, magician and author who lived from about 1480 to about 1540. Not much is known about his life, but there is evidence that he was in Gelnhausen in 1506 as a performer of magic tricks and a purveyor of horoscopes. After his death he became the protagonist of numerous folk tales, puppet shows and finally serious works of literature such as Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
And of course there have been several operas based on the Faust legend or on Goethe’s Faust, including the marvelous “dramatic legend” called The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869).
My photos in this post are from 2010. I revised the text in 2018.
See more posts on the town of Gelnhausen, Germany.