Since the evolution of gingerbread is linked inextricably to the history of ginger in Europe, let’s start there. Ginger was probably the most important spice in Medieval Europe after pepper. It was known to the Greeks, who discovered it over the course of their escapades in Persia. The Romans knew about it as well, and it’s speculated that they were the first to bring it to the British Isles at the height of their empire.
Which begs the question: what was so great about ginger? Well it tasted good, obviously. However it was ginger’s medicinal applications that first attracted the attention of Westerners. Thought to be good for everything from arthritis and the common cold to morning sickness and stomach upset, it was a hot commodity in the ancient world, and needless to say, very expensive stuff.
But all that came to an end when Rome fell. And indeed ginger all but disappears from the historical record from the fall of Rome up until the time of the Crusades, when it’s thought that Europeans began bringing it back from the Middle East. To say that it caught on is an understatement. According to some food historians ginger appears in fully 25% of all the written recipes that survive from the High Middle Ages. Medieval Europeans cooked with it, made sweets out of it, even ate pieces of it whole. One of the more interesting preparations of the day combined dried ginger with honey, nuts, bits of dried fruit and breadcrumbs. The mixture was pressed into elaborately carved wooden molds, and served at fairs and festivals. A sort of late Medieval elephant ear.
This was what gingerbread was like in the 1400’s. Over time it evolved from something that was simply mixed, pressed and eaten into something that was actually baked. Food historians are generally divided as to who created “true” gingerbread. Some say the distinction belongs to the Germans who created crispy, honey-sweetened lebkuchen. Others claim the English and the Scots, whose shortbread-like breads are equally famous. Both make pretty darn good gingerbread houses, so at least for today, I don’t have a dog in that fight.