Kassel served as the capital of Hesse-Kassel until 1866 when Prussia annexed the electorate of Kurhessen. Little is known about medieval Kassel because most documents along with the city, which had retained its late-medieval appearance, were destroyed in a massive air raid on 22 October 1943. Until the late fifteenth century, chroniclers were uninterested in either the regnant dynasty or the city of Kassel. Scholars must rely, therefore, on prewar editions of documents, references to the lost archival material in older secondary literature, and a few postwar archaeological findings. Ingrid Baumgärtner and six other academically-trained historians have summarized in eight articles what is known: Baumgärtner, the first documentary mention of Kassel; Caspar Ehlers, the function of Kassel and the surrounding royal domain in Lower Hesse; Christian Presche: the topography of Kassel and medieval city planning; Presche, the Rat; Gisela Naegle, the development of the city's legal status; Christian Philipsen, the church; Thomas Fuchs, the history of medieval Kassel in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Hessian chronicles; and Karl-Hermann Wegner, traces of medieval Kassel in the modern city. Inevitably, there are contradictions and some overlap and filler information. In spite of their efforts, the findings are fairly meager, as the format of this 153-page book attests. The book is only 21.5 cm by 20.5 cm in size, the print is large, and there are numerous illustrations.
The occasion for the publication of the book is the eleven-hundredth anniversary of the first reference to Kassel, an event that had been celebrated with considerable pomp in 1913. On 18 February 913, King Conrad I issued two charters in Chassella or Chassalla, both of which survive as originals, one for the nuns of Meschede and the other for the Benedictine monks of Hersfeld. The Franks had occupied Hesse in the early sixth century, and Kassel, on the left bank of the lower Fulda before it joined the Werra to form the Weser, had presumably served a crucial role in Charlemagne's Saxon wars. (It prospered in the later Middle Ages because it was located on the route that linked Frankfurt with Lübeck.) It is not known whether Kassel was only a royal manor or whether it was also the site of a palace, a stone structure where the king could live. Otto I stayed in Kassel in 940 and perhaps on another occasion, but there is no evidence that his Salian or Staufer successors did. Nearby Kaufungen, which Emperor Henry II gave in 1008 to his wife Kunigunde as her dower and where she established a Benedictine convent, replaced Kaufungen as a halting place on the royal itinerary.
By the mid-twelfth century, Kassel was in the possession of the Ludowings, the landgraves of Thuringia. Sometime in the 1140s Henry II Raspe (d. 1155?) and his mother Hedwig, an heiress, whose father had been the count of Gudensberg or Hesse, established a Premonstratensian nunnery on the Ahnaberg, a hill just north of the settlement at Kassel. In 1152 the archbishop of Mainz granted the parish church in the Altstadt of Kassel, St. Cyriakus, to the convent, which exercised the parochial rights through a vicar until the 1520s. Frederick Barbarossa confirmed these arrangements in 1154. It may be possible to contextualize further these proceedings. Frederick's younger sister Jutta married around 1150 Henry Raspe's older brother and successor as the count of Hesse, Landgrave Louis II (d. 1172), who was one of the emperor's stalwart supporters. Conceivably, Frederick's uncle, Conrad III, had conferred Kassel to the Ludowings as part of the marital settlement. Frederick, whose godfather Provost Otto of Cappenberg was the cofounder of the oldest Premonstratensian abbey in Germany, subsequently gave the Premonstratensians the parochial rights in his palace-city complexes of Haguenau and Kaiserslautern.
Kassel was identified for the first time as a civitas or city in 1189. Two of the authors cite a reference in 1015 to Kassel as a civitas in Thietmar of Merseburg's Chronicon (book 7, chapter 13), but it strikes me as implausible to ascribe on this basis an urban character to Kassel at this early date. Around 1180 a bridge was built across the Fulda and a separate city, Unterneustadt, had developed on the right bank of the river by 1283; it had its own parish church subject to Ahnaberg and its own Rat. The manorial court composed of the villicus or bailiff and the legal fact finders, the scabini or Schöffen, began around 1200 to assume administrative functions. When the Schöffen acted in their new capacity, they were called consules or members of the city council. The landgrave granted the city its first extant municipal charter in 1239. The council's 1225 seal still depicted the landgrave on horseback, but by 1242 he had disappeared from the seal. After 1248 the villicus, who was usually called thereafter the Schultheiss to stress his judicial functions, no longer belonged to the council and was replaced by the end of the century by one of the Rat members, who was identified as the proconsul or the magister scabinorum, that is, the mayor. The members of the council were chosen by cooption and served for life, but in the 1290s their terms were reduced to a year. Many were reelected every second year. The Thuringian-Hessian inheritance conflict (1247-1264), which ended with Hesse's separation from Thuringia, may have aided the city's emancipation from the landgrave's control.
Initially, the Hessian landgraves preferred to live in Marburg, which contained the grave of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the wife of Louis IV (d. 1227), from whom the landgraves descended via the couple's daughter, Sophie of Brabant; but by the mid-fourteenth century Kassel had become the princes' chief residence. The landgraves promoted the city's development. They assisted the Carmelites in establishing in 1292 a convent in the Altstadt, the only mendicant foundation in Kassel. The friars were required to respect the Ahnaberg's parochial rights. Ironically, St. Cyriakus was demolished in the 1520s, and the Carmelite or Brothers' Church became the new Lutheran parish church. Around 1330, a third city, with its own council, the Freiheit, so-called because its inhabitants were freed from various exactions, was founded adjoining the Altstadt. The landgraves turned its parish church, St. Martin, into a collegiate church with twelve canons. Pope Urban V freed it in 1366 from the jurisdiction of the Ahnaberg and the archbishop of Mainz, and the landgraves used the prebends to provide for their officials and chaplains. The choir of St. Martin is the only medieval structure that survived the bombing of 1943 relatively unscathed, and it serves today as the preaching church of the Lutheran bishop of Kurhessen and Waldeck.
I found Christian Presche's chapter on the topography of Kassel and city planning the most interesting in the book. He demonstrates that a foot of 29.5 cm with a rod of 12 feet was employed in laying out the three cities. The streets were curved for aesthetic reasons but also to steer visitors to the market on a preferred route. The seemingly odd diagonal placement of the parish churches on their plots was dictated by the need to orient them, as was customary, toward the east in a city whose street plan was determined by the course of the Fulda through the city from the southwest to the northeast.
The price Kassel paid for its status as a Residenzstadt was restrictions on its self-governance. When Landgrave Hermann II imposed an excise tax in October 1375, Kassel led 18 lower Hessian cities in opposing the exaction. Sometime between May 1377 and June 1378, the Altstadt, Unterneustadt, and Freiheit united into a single city, though each community retained its own mayor. In the ensuing disorder, the burghers even occupied the castle. Hermann regained control, and in 1384 imposed a new constitution on the city that severely curtailed its autonomy. For example, he asserted the right to install and to remove the council members, and he dissolved the guilds for at least three years. He permitted in 1388 the reestablishment of the leatherworkers' and tailors' guilds, but the merchants' guild, which had probably led the resistance to his rule, was reestablished only in 1402. Its membership was limited to 60 members, chosen with his approval; these restrictions were lifted only in 1421. Hermann accused 28 burghers in 1391 of treason; most fled, but three were beheaded and quartered. The guardians of his young son and successor issued on Hermann's death in 1413 a new municipal charter, an expanded version of the 1239 grant.
On the Carmelite convent, it is useful to consult now the Monasticon Carmelitanum: Die Klöster des Karmelitenordens (O. Carm.) in Deutschland von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, edited by Edeltraud Klueting, Stephan Panzer, and Andreas H. Scholten (Münster, 2012), pp. 377-385. According to it, there was a failed attempt already in 1262 to establish the friary, which is not mentioned in the Baumgärtner book; and the Carmelites' house had previously belonged to a Jewess. There must thus have been some sort of Jewish presence in Kassel, but none of the authors mention the Jews. Likewise according to the Monasticon, p. 380, there are 141 documents, dated between 1287 and 1568, pertaining to the Kassel Carmelites, in the archives in Marburg. It is not clear to me whether the authors utilized this collection and what additional information it might supply about medieval Kassel, for example, the identity of the friars and of the burghers who patronized the house. The Cologne property deeds contained in the Schreinsbücher are an invaluable source in that regard.
Jacques Le Goff observed in two articles, "Apostolat mendiant et fait urbain dans la France médiévale: l'implantation des ordres mendiants: Programme-questionnaire pour une enquête," and "Ordres mendiants et urbanisation dans la France médiévale: État de l'enquête," in the Annales 23 (1968): 335-352, and 25 (1970): 924-946, that the number of mendicant convents in a city and the date of their foundation could serve as a rough guide to the relative importance of a city. What does the presence of only a single mendicant house, founded only in the 1290s, tell us about medieval Kassel?