Pudgy and smiling, with raisin-eyes and gumdrop-buttons, gingerbread men and their sugar-coated gingerbread houses are as much a part of Christmas as visions of sugarplums and Old Saint Nick. After admiring an elaborate window display of a gingerbread village at my local bakery here in Houston, I started wondering about the history of gingerbread. 

Boy, was I surprised!  Fairy tale connections I expected; but the more I read, the more amazed I became at gingerbread’s rich and complex history.
Gingerbread by Karen Cottingham

​Following the gingerbread trail led me to such unexpected places as Queen Elizabeth’s court, medieval monasteries and guilds, Colonial American schoolrooms, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Civil War hospitals, Emily Dickinson’s kitchen, the Muppet Show, and even the city of Bryan-College Station, Texas.  There have been gingerbread John Doughs and Jim Crows and gingerbread love tokens and magic charms.  Gingerbread has even been accepted as currency and has exchanged hands far too many times as political bribes.

 Gingerbread is one of those oddly-named foods that is so familiar that we don’t even notice the absurdity of its name.  The word “gingerbread” has been applied to a variety of foods ranging from a thick ginger-honey paste to a “cake” of sorts made with stale bread crumbs or ground seeds.  Medieval English cookery books refer to a brittle “gingerbread” made mostly of ginger and sugar and used as “medicinal candy”.  There have been gingerbread cakes, cookies, biscuits, and snaps; but throughout culinary history, gingerbread has never actually been a “bread”.

 Not surprisingly, gingerbread and bread also have no etymological connection.  “Gingerbread” comes from ginger’s original Latin name, zingeber, which in turn was derived from an older Sanskrit word for “horn-shaped” or “antler-shaped”, referring to ginger’s multi-branched rhizome.  Zingeber eventually became gingembras in Old French.  At first, this simply meant “preserved ginger”, but then came to mean any food prepared with ginger.  When the word gingembras traveled to Chaucer’s Medieval England, it was corrupted to gyngebreed, which finally became the “gingerbread” that persists today.  So, convoluted though it may be, there is a sound rationale for calling gingerbread “gingerbread” - even though it isn’t bread!

Even more remarkable than not being bread, gingerbread doesn’t even have to have ginger.  Some of the gingerless gingerbread recipes I read came about as adaptations to wartime shortages, but others remain obscure.  An authentic Old Dijon gingerbread recipe described by the esteemed culinary writer MFK Fisher has no ginger at all, but calls for enough dried mustard to set your mouth on fire.  Closer to home, the traditional Mexican “ginger pigs”, my favorite pan dulce, have never, ever had even a pinch of ginger despite their name.

 And curious as it is that gingerbread is not a bread and does not require ginger, it is even more amazing that gingerbread has had many other uses besides being a food.  But let’s start at the beginning.

The earliest culinary forerunners to today’s gingerbread seem to have been the melitates of ancient Rhodes.  Foreign traders reportedly found these sweet concoctions of honey, sesame seed flour, and ginger so enticing that Rhodes prospered as a regular port of call in the Mediterranean trade circuits.

Romans prepared a much more extravagantly spiced version of gingerbread that was frequently baked in the shape of hearts and served at weddings.  These gingerbread hearts were important status symbols, as lavish use of spices signified affluence and prestige amongst wealthy Romans.  Later, when the Empire dissolved in decadence, so did all historic traces of gingerbread.

Centuries later, gingerbread re-emerged in Western culinary history when an Armenian monk named Gregory of Nicopolis escaped Persian persecution and settled in France in 992.[1]  He managed to bring with him the Byzantine recipe and ingredients for honey-sweetened ginger cakes.  These cakes made such an impression that the following words were recorded in a tenth century manuscript: “[H]is guests, on tasting the cake, believed they were experiencing all the delights of Heaven.”

Sadly, “Heaven’s delights” were limited offerings as there was no readily available source of ginger to replenish the supply once it was used up.  After the first Crusade, however, when victorious armies returned home from Jerusalem with precious jewels and spices, one of these spices was ginger.

Religious orders initially had exclusive access to the ginger that trickled into Europe.  Monks incorporated this exotic spice into a paste of old dried breadcrumbs boiled with honey that was either spread on the wheat flour wafers used as the Eucharist or dried as a sheet.  This made a nourishing food for the sick and injured under their care.  Ginger was also used medicinally for gastrointestinal ailments, but more importantly, had excellent preservative qualities.  Unlike most other foods of this era, gingerbread could be safely stored for long periods of time and was life-sustaining during the all-too-frequent times of famine.  The pepper that monks were fond of adding to their gingerbread for an extra “kick” of flavor also improved its shelf life.

In addition to saving lives with gingerbread, medieval monks channeled their intellects and imagination into inventing remarkable non-culinary applications for gingerbread.  Its clay-like texture, for example, inspired the ingenious monks to use gingerbread as a medium for religious instruction.  The paste was rolled thin and then pressed into elaborately carved clay or wooden molds that depicted saints and other religious images.[2]  After a period of drying, these imprinted gingerbreads were used in the religious education of the villagers.  It became traditional to distribute gifts of instructive gingerbreads on saints’ days and religious festivals.  For special events, rosewater was added to the gingerbread paste, and gingerbread dunked in wine was doubly appreciated.  Even those who went on pilgrimages were sustained by gingerbread sold along the routes and some returned home with a souvenir gingerbread image of the holy site. 

As ginger became more plentiful and affordable, it found its way into the kitchens of royalty, and eventually the kitchens of “the Lords and Ladies of the Manor”.  Except on very rare occasions, though, gingerbread remained an exclusive treat for the wealthy and powerful.  An unprecedented largesse of gingerbread occurred in the fifteenth century when Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III faced the medieval equivalent of sharply declining approval ratings.  The resurrection of his public image was no simple task.  Emperor Frederick and his advisors wisely exploited the powerful allure of gingerbread to regain the loyalty of his subjects.  Without regard to expense, he commissioned 4,000 gingerbreads to be made in his likeness and distributed to the inhabitants of his realm.  His subjects were sufficiently impressed and appeased that his popularity was restored.

With increasing complexity of society, a reliable and timely system of information exchange became crucial.  Paper not being widely available, slabs of gingerbread were enlisted to spread the important news of the day.  Outcomes of war, changes of rulers, and royal events such as marriages, births, and deaths were often communicated by images on gingerbread.  When noble families were joined by marriage, an “allied coat of arms” was created, incised into wooden or terra cotta molds, and stamped on gingerbread.  As time went on, even ordinary happenings of smaller principalities were broadcast by edible gingerbread “news bites”.  It was also an expedient way to preserve local history, legends, and fables.[3]

The endlessly versatile gingerbread was also used as an aid to teach reading.  Beginning in the fourteenth century, pieces of gingerbread were sometimes decorated with letters.  People believed that eating the letters would magically improve their intelligence.  Some years later, gingerbread was put to more rational use as an educational tool.  Since paper was scarce and costly, children typically were taught to read with devices called “hornbooks”.  These were flat boards made of wood, metal, leather, or ivory in the shape of a paddle.[4]  Onto the board was pasted a sheet of paper inscribed with reading lessons such as the alphabet, the Lord’s Prayer, the Benediction, and the Roman numerals.  The precious paper was then protected by a thin, translucent sheet of animal horn that preserved the writing for generations of students.  When materials for such elaborate hornbooks were not available, it became common to fashion a humble “alphabet hornbook” from gingerbread.  These were called “ABC Bread” and were in widespread use from the fifteenth century to Colonial American times.[5] [6]

Gingerbread hornbooks were very popular because when the student learned a letter, he was allowed to eat it as a reward.  Not surprisingly, this was a very effective and pleasant method of instruction, as captured later in Matthew Prior’s charming poem, Alma (Canto II), from 1718:

            To Master John the English Maid

A Horn Book gives of Ginger-Bread:
And that the Child may learn the Better,
As he can name, he eats the Letter;
Proceeding thus with Vast Delight,
He spells, and gnaws from Left to Right.


Gingerbread was so highly prized and valuable in its early years that it was even accepted as currency.  Vassals sometimes paid their dues to feudal overlords using gingerbread; and in Nuremberg, gingerbread was accepted as payment for city taxes.  Dukes and civil servants were bribed with it, and as a later commentator on early gingerbread history, George Read, observed, “Those who wished to ingratiate himself with a family often depends in no small degree, on the quality and quantity of presents which he makes in gingerbread.” (The Complete Biscuit and Gingerbread Baker’s Assistant, 1854)

The medieval cities that were situated along key trade routes to the Orient prospered as their citizens capitalized on the ready availability of spices and other luxury commodities.  Nuremberg was ideally positioned at the confluence of several trade routes, including a major old Spice Route.  Its merchants were so well known for their spices that they had the nickname of “pepper sacks”.  Nuremberg bakers had ready access to cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, anise seed, pepper, coriander, allspice, fennel, star anise, mace, and saffron, along with almonds and dried fruits - especially citrus - and used all in various combinations to produce their specialized gingerbreads.  Bakers fiercely guarded their secret recipes, and many were passed down by masters from generation to generation. 

As early as the 14th century, Nuremberg became famous for the quality of its gingerbread, which was admired as much as an elaborate art form as it was a culinary delicacy.  Exquisite gingerbreads were made as gifts for royalty and heads-of-state.  The finest craftsmen, including sculptors, painters, woodcarvers, and goldsmiths, flocked to Nuremberg from all over Europe to create elaborate gingerbread masterpieces.  Talented woodcarvers cut intricate patterns into wooden molds to form complex gingerbreads with finely detailed surfaces.[7]  Some gingerbreads were actually as large as a small child.  Artists then embellished these surfaces with sugar icing, variously colored pigments, or, more opulently, with gold.  The same gold leaf or gold dust that was used to embellish medieval manuscripts and religious images was applied, or “gilded”, to many other surfaces, sometimes even to the food of nobility.  Gingerbread figurines, with their intricate surfaces, were absolutely glorious when embellished with gold.[8]  Hot from the oven, they were quickly coated with egg white, which in its role as an adhesive for gold, had its own glittery name of “glair”.  Goldsmiths then meticulously applied finely hammered flakes of gold until the entire figure was encased.  Fortunately for those able to afford it, gold is harmless when eaten in small quantities, and nothing is more impressive.[9]

Another common decorative theme was to nail box leaves to gingerbread surfaces using gilt cloves as nails.  Sometimes, the gilt cloves formed a fleur de lis of golden stars.  This lovely visual imagery made a reappearance several centuries later in a 1934 novel by P.L. Travers in which the beloved character, Mary Poppins, takes Jane and Michael into Mrs. Corry’s shop to gaze upon “rows and rows of dark, dry gingerbread, each slab so studded with gilt stars that the shop itself seemed to be faintly lit by them.”

Medieval artisans involved in the production of a commodity as valuable as gingerbread required the protection and regulation of government-sanctioned guilds.  These guilds established strict criteria for membership.  In Nuremberg, for example, attaining the level of master gingerbread baker required demonstration of exceptional artistic ability, including proficiency in carving molds.  In return, great privilege and wealth were accorded to master gingerbread bakers.  They enjoyed greater esteem than other pastry bakers, and gingerbread apprentices were given more comfortable sleeping quarters away from the lowly bakers of ordinary bread.  Their prosperity was protected from competition, as, by law, gingerbread could only be baked by bonafide gingerbread bakers.  Exceptions were granted at Christmas and Easter, the only days when gingerbread could be made in private homes. 

Artists and artisans associated with gingerbread baking had their own guilds as well.  These included the beekeepers who provided the necessary honey, the master carvers of the gingerbread molds, the goldbeaters who hammered gold into delicate leaf, and the goldsmiths who applied  the precious gold to the intricately imprinted gingerbread.  In England, gingerbread was traditionally colored with powdered sandalwood known as red sanders.  This created such a demand for pulverized sandalwood that there was actually a Guild of Sanders Beaters whose job it was to grind this very hard, brick-red wood into a fine dust.

As spices became less expensive, common people began to buy and eat gingerbread as a treat on special occasions.  Gingerbread became such a staple at medieval fairs in England, France, Holland, and Germany that the festivals came to be known as Gingerbread Fairs, and the gingerbreads served there as “Fairings”.  Some Gingerbread Fairs persisted for centuries; for example, a Gingerbread Fair was held at one Parisian abbey from the eleventh to the nineteenth century.  The monks at this abbey sold gingerbread in the shape of pigs. 

The historical trends in gingerbread shapes and its imprinted images offer a unique window through which to understand daily life and culture throughout the centuries.  As daily life changed with the seasons, so did the designs on gingerbread: flowers during the springtime Easter fairs; animals and birds in the fall.  If a fair honored a town’s patron saint, that saint’s image might be stamped on the gingerbread along with other religious symbols.  Christmas motifs included the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi.  Some culinary historians believe that other images, such as stars, the sun, and the moon, are vestiges of forgotten pagan celebrations.[10]

Women frequently gifted favored knights with gingerbread talismans for good luck in tournaments or battle.  These chivalric motifs included images of riders on horseback, castles, trumpets, and swords.  Gingerbread hearts tied with ribbons were especially popular, and when exchanged, became tokens of love.  For the lustier lovers, a selection of gingerbread sporting bawdy and ribald images was also available.[11]

In these superstitious times, belief in magic was widespread in all classes of society.  Supernatural powers were ascribed to many things, including gingerbread, and specific designs were believed to bring about specific desired effects.  Consuming the correct type of picture cookie was thought to enhance romance, fertility, and sexual prowess.  For example, gingerbread in the shape of men were called “husbands”, and if eaten by maidens, were thought to attract a real-life husband before long.  Eating a dog-shaped gingerbread ensured fidelity; a pig, luck; a hare, fertility; a swaddled baby, a child; and a lion-man (a mythical lion-headed human creature), virility.[12]  Eating a heart-shaped gingerbread would naturally guarantee love - but would also ward off evil - and eating letters of the alphabet would dispel ignorance.  According to a Swedish tradition, you can even make a wish with gingerbread.  First put the gingerbread in the  palm of your hand and make a wish.  Next, break the gingerbread with the index finger or thumb of your other hand.  If the gingerbread breaks into three parts, your wish will come true.

Even as gingerbread became available to the general populace, a costlier, more elaborate version flourished in the royal courts.  Monarchs loved to have gingerbread “selfies” molded in their own images for political self-promotion.  Queen Elizabeth’s fondness for gingerbread was legendary, and she even employed her own gingerbread baker.[13]  The unique conjunction of Queen Elizabeth’s sweet tooth, her uncanny political instincts, and her master baker’s technical skill resulted in absolutely splendid gingerbread men which were employed in high level political gamesmanship.  To flatter one of her most ardent admirers, the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, she instructed her baker and confectioners to make gingerbread in his likeness.  Dudley was known for his sartorial excellence,[14] and the most minute details of his elaborate costumes were captured in these incredible ginger cookies.  Playing upon the jealousy of her other courtiers, she then gave or withheld personalized gingerbread to confer status or withdraw favor in her inner circle.  Receiving one’s own likeness in gingerbread from Queen Elizabeth signified a royal “stamp of approval” for both visiting dignitaries and the revolving group of handsome admirers vying for her attention.  On the other hand, I can only imagine how an out-of-favor courtier might have felt watching Queen Elizabeth bite off the head of his own gingerbread likeness!

Queen Elizabeth’s weakness for sweets eventually caused her teeth to turn black with decay.  The ladies of her court, no less politically astute, quietly blackened their own teeth to match their queen.  Soon black teeth became an enviable sign of aristocratic status.  As only the wealthy could afford sugar, their blackened teeth identified them as members of the elite.

While still immensely popular in Elizabethan times, a sinister thread in gingerbread’s history also began to emerge.  Superstition and deeply-held belief in magic and witchcraft dominated life in the royal courts as well as in the villages and countryside of sixteenth century Europe.  Gingerbread, particularly in the shape of a man, was believed to possess dangerous magical powers.  Witches were generally believed to bake gingerbread effigies of their enemies, and, by eating them, cause death and destruction.

In 1603, King James I came from Scotland to the English throne.  Deeply superstitious and convinced that Scottish witches were plotting against him, he enacted a harsh Witch Law in an attempt to protect himself from their spells.  A fear that gingerbread men could be the agents of the devil also spread throughout Europe.  In 1607, the superstitious magistrates of Delft in the Netherlands made it illegal to either bake or eat any of these molded and spiced cookies.

This was also a time of religious upheaval.  Particularly in England and Germany, stringent laws were introduced which prohibited saints’ feasts and other Roman Catholic commemorations that had traditionally been associated with gingerbread.  In the austere cultural and religious climate of Calvinism and Puritanism, consuming gingerbread figures - with their definite associations with Catholicism and possible connections to the occult - would have been very dangerous indeed. 

 Ben Jonson depicted gingerbread’s fall from grace in his popular play, Bartholomew Fair (1614).[15]  The irreverent character Joan Trash, the brazen gingerbread vendor, is berated by the virtuous character Puritan Busy, who takes umbrage at Trash’s gingerbread men:

Busy:  And this Idolatrous Gove of Images, this flasket of Idols! [overthrows the gingerbread] which I will pull down -

Trash:O my ware, my ware, God blesse it.

 Busy: In my zeale, and glory to be thus exercised.

Although still popular in France, Eastern Europe, and Russia, these “idolatrous” gingerbreads and their “sinful” sellers all but disappeared from farmers’ markets, fairs, and festivals in countries embracing austere Protestantism. 

Rapid changes in the common vernacular and popular culture reflected the dramatically changing attitudes during these turbulent years.  In Queen Elizabeth’s time, “gingerbread” was a term used to describe something “fancy and elegant”, and the expression “cake and gingerbread” meant “pleasant”.  A few short years later, however, the word “gingerbread” was being used pejoratively, as a term of disparagement.  In The History of the Tryall of Cheualry (Author Unknown, 1605), the clown character hurled this humiliating insult at his adversary: “Thou lyest: and thou wert a knight of gingerbread…” implying that he was ineffectual, cowardly, and possibly even effeminate.

“Gingerbread” also came to mean a disguise, deceit, or embellishment.  The Elder Brother, a play by Fletcher and Massinger (1637), contains this memorable bit of mockery: “He is an asse, a peece of ginger-bread, Gilt over to please foolish girles and puppets.”  Like gilt gingerbread, even the most superficially attractive man could all too often be rather simple and unremarkable, or even treacherous, under the glorious casing of gold.  The expression “to take the gilt off gingerbread” perfectly captures this sad truth: not all that is decorated on the outside has real substance within.

Stripped of its gold coat and lofty image, linked with witchcraft and the occult, and disparaged for its association with Roman Catholicism, gingerbread reached the absolute low point of its long history.  This will be a good place to pause.  In the next installment of “What I Didn’t Know About Gingerbread”, Part 2, I invite you to discover with me how gingerbread’s reputation was revived, restored, and sweetened.

[1] For a short video and further information about St. Gregory, see “Public Radio of Armenia - How an Armenian monk brought Gingerbread to the West” (http://www.armradio.am/en/2014/12/25/how-an-armenian-monk-brought-gingerbread-to-the-west/)

[2] For images of bakers’ molds with religious motifs, see “Bakers Molds in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance” (http://www.larsdatter.com/bakers-molds.htm).  In particular, see “Mary in an enclosed garden with a unicorn, 1445-1455” and “The prodigal son with swine, 16th century”

[3] I can’t resist referring you to “The Biddenden Maids - Famous Siamese Twins from Medieval Times” (http://petergeekie.hubpages.com/hub/The-Biddenden-Maids-Siamese-Twins-from-Medievel-times).  After their deaths in 1134, the conjoined twins, Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst, were immortalized in the carved baker’s molds pictured on this website.  The wealthy young ladies left adequate funds to provide bread and cheese to the poor.  The bread (although not necessarily gingerbread), was stamped with their conjoined image.  The traditional ceremony of distributing bread in their memory is still carried out on Easter in Biddenden, Kent, England.

[4] See  “A hornbook arrives in the collection” from the National Library of New Zealand (https://natlib.govt.nz/blog/posts/a-hornbook-arrives-in-the-collection) for a general description and photographs of hornbooks.

[5] See “Hornbooks: Most Popular iPad App of the 15th Century” (http://blogs.ubc.ca/etec540sept12/2012/10/28/hornbooks-most-popular-ipad-app-of-the-15th-century/) for hornbooks made of a variety of materials, including a wooden mold for a gingerbread hornbook.

[6] See “Item 197" "Columbia University" (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/eresources/exhibitions/treasures/html/197.html): “Jewels in Her Crown: Treasures of Columbia University Libraries Special Collections” for an 18th century English wooden mold for a gingerbread hornbook.

[7] See “Hanns Buel (1520) BBC (https://cookiemolds.wordpress.com/molds/gingerbread-molds/hanns-buel-1520-bbc-12/) for a depiction of a Medieval baker removing molded gingerbread from an oven.

[8] See “Lady Barbara Fleming’s Gingerbreads 1673” (http://www.historicfood.com/Gingerbread%20Recipe.htm) for photographs of elaborate gingerbread molds from the early 17th century and a pair of gilt gingerbread figures.

[9] Compare footnote 8’s gilt gingerbread figurines made from early Stuart era (1603-1714) molds with contemporary gilt gingerbread men as offered by Fiona Cairns, Royal wedding cake maker for Prince William and Kate Middleton.  See “Christmas Treats: Gilded (or not) gingerbread men decorations (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/food/article-2518866/Christmas-treats-Gilded-gingerbread-men-decorations.html).

[10] For an image of a bakers’ mold with a celestial motif, see “Bakers Molds in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance” (http://www.larsdatter.com/bakers-molds.htm).  In particular, see “The two crescent moons with stars”.

[11] For an image of a bakers’ mold with an erotic motif, see “Bakers Molds in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance” (http://www.larsdatter.com/bakers-molds.htm).  In particular, see “Lovers c. 1475-1500”.

[12] See “History of Wooden Molds” (http://www.cookiemold.com/CookieMolds-History.html), which presents an image of an Austrian “Lionman” mold.  The “Lionman” symbolizes fertility and virility.  Note that he holds an apple in his hand to tempt the “gentler sex”.

[13] For a portrait of Queen Elizabeth in her finery, see “The Tudors - Elizabeth - Portrait of a Queen” (http://www.historyonthenet.com/Tudors/elizabeth_portrait_of_a_queen.htm)

[14] See “Me, me, me… the Elizabethan earl who kept portrait painters busy for 30 years” (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/22/robert-dudley-elizabethan-england-selfie-king) to appreciate the sartorial details of the First Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, that might have been captured in Queen Elizabeth’s gingerbread molds.

[15] For more information about the history of the Bartholomew Fair, see “A World Elsewhere: Bartholomew Fair” (http://aworldelsewhere-finn.blogspot.com/2012/05/bartholomew-fair.html).