Gingerbread in its many forms brings a touch of history to the holidays.

“An I had but one penny in the world, Thou shouldst have it for gingerbread.” William Shakespeare from Love’s Labour’s Lost, Costard in Act V Scene I.

The Origins of Gingerbread

Gingerbread has evolved over the years. The ancient Greeks created the very first gingerbread by taking a piece of bread and wrapping it around a piece of ginger. This was eaten after meals to improve digestion. The baked gingerbread dates to the Middle Ages. According to Laura Jarrett et al, author of Making and Baking Gingerbread Houses, the English began making ginger candy taken for medicinal purposes. Within a hundred years people started adding bread crumbs to the recipe. This was formed into fancy shapes depicting aristocratic life. The bakers studded this with cloves dipped in gold leaf. In some cases, these creations weighed over a hundred pounds.

Sharon Tyler Herbst, the author of The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion, says the ladies presented these special pastries to the knights before tournaments. This was shaped into various decorative figures. Sometimes, it was decorated with gold leaf. The gingerbread was supposed to bring good luck to the knights.

Gingerbread Recipes Evolved

The original recipe from the Middle Ages generally contained dried bread crumbs, ginger, and other spices. Tanya Gulevich, the author of Encyclopedia of Christmas, reports that red wine was sometimes added. This pastry differed greatly from the modern luscious tender version. Herbst describes it as a “rather hard honey-spice bread.”

Jarrett et al say the recipes began to change in the 16th and 17th centuries. First, the English and French started replacing the bread crumbs with flour, which resulted in a lighter pastry. Honey and molasses were also added. In England, treacle served as the sweetener. Honey is still preferred in France, according to Gulevich. Later, butter and eggs were among the ingredients.

In addition to the standard gingerbread pastry, there was also a white version made from marzipan. Flavored with ginger, this was molded into assorted shapes. This became common in the 17th century, according to Gulevich.

Australian Homespun #18 Vol. 4.4 features an authentic gingerbread recipe from the 15th century. The honey or other sweetener is heated. Next, bread crumbs and spices are added. This is rolled out with a rolling pin and cut into shapes. The dough can be boiled or baked. According to Australian Homespun, some of the gingerbread recipes contained no ginger.

Historical Highlights from Gingerbread History

In Europe and England, especially Germany, there were guilds of gingerbread bakers. In England, only the guild members could make gingerbread. The only exceptions were for Easter and Christmas. Later, this pastry became intimately associated with the Christmas season. The German word for gingerbread is lebkuchen.

The Australian Homespun article says gingerbread was sold year-round at markets and fairs, especially in medieval times. This was particularly true in northern European countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands, France, and England, according to Gulevich. The fairs were sometimes called gingerbread fairs. The pastry was so popular in England that people began calling it ‘fairings’.

Many factors helped to make gingerbread a favorite. Its popularity was greatly aided by the fact that Queen Elizabeth routinely presented gingerbread to guests. Eventually, the English custom of giving gingerbread as Christmas gifts was adopted.

The gingerbread cookies were molded into different shapes depending on the time of year. Alan Davidson, author of the Oxford Companion to Foods, writes about the regional preferences in England for certain shapes of ginger biscuits and gingerbread. In Victorian England, the biscuits assumed various shapes, including pigs, oxen, and stars, according to Gulevich. In Scandinavia, the pig-shaped ones were common. The gingerbread figures were very popular for Bonfire Night, celebrated on November 5th. In the Netherlands and Belgium, these were enjoyed on St. Nicholas Day.

According to Jarrett et al, gingerbread later became something for the general population. This occurred largely in the 18th century when the pastry assumed additional shapes, such as peasant themes, animals, and toys. As the centuries passed, gingerbread picked up other themes. It began expressing affection and greetings, often in the shape of hearts. Eventually, gingerbread was by and large commercialized, especially in Europe.

Dutch and German immigrants brought gingerbread cookies and gingerbread to America says Gulevich. Jarrett et al indicate gingerbread were common during Colonial times in New England. It was enjoyed as a traditional part of Muster Day celebrations in the region. This event involved competition by militias. However, over the centuries fire-fighting teams replaced the militias. According to Davidson, the American gingerbread is dark, moist, and rather cake-like. It contains molasses and spices.