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Molded, gilded, &  colored gingerbread in the form of a Tudor Rose.
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Medieval Gingerbread
By James L. Matterer

The gingerbread being discussed in this article comes from recipes originally used in the 14th & 15th centuries, and isn't anything at all like our modern cake-like variety. It is in fact more like a candy or a confection; however, it's very good and quite a treat, and I can recommend it to anyone with a bit of a sweet tooth. I've made many versions of it and and it is always well received. This type of gingerbread was among the many sweets brought to Chaucer's Sir Thopas in Canterbury Tales:

"They fette hym first the sweete wyn, and mede eek in a mazelyn, and roial spicerye of gyngebreed that was ful fyn, and lycorys, and eek comyn, with sugre that is trye."

The version I use most often comes from Two 15th c. Cookery-Books by Thomas Austin, 1888. This book is compiled from several period English manuscripts, most notably Harleian MS. 279 and Harleian MS. 4016, both circa 1425-1450:

"Gyngerbrede.--Take a quart of hony, & sethe it, & skeme it clene; take Safroun, pouder Pepir, & throw ther-on; take grayted Bred, & make it so chargeaunt that it wol be y-lechyd; then take pouder Canelle, & straw ther-on y-now; then make yt square, lyke as thou wolt leche yt; take when thou lechyst hyt, an caste Box leves a-bouyn, y-stykyd ther-on, on clowys. And if thou wolt haue it Red, coloure it with Saunderys y-now."

William Edward Mead in The English Medieval Feast, p. 65, calls this "gingerbread without the ginger!" and offers this translation:

"Take a quart of honey and seethe it and skim it clean. Take saffroun, powdered pepper, and throw thereon. Take grated bread and make it so stiff that it will be leched (cut in slices). Then take cinnamon powder and strew thereon enough. Then make it square as though thou wouldst slice it. Take, when thou slicest it, and cast box leaves above, stuck thereon in cloves. And if thou will have it red, color it with saunders (sandalwood) enough."

Curye on Inglish, a collection of period cookbooks including Forme of Cury, gives this definition: "Gyngebred; not to be confused with the cake-like variety, made from breadcrumbs boiled in honey with spices: not the modern cake but more like it than the confection." The good ladies who are the authors of Curye on Inglish (and of Pleyn Delit, a collection of period recipes transcribed for the modern cook), feel that the ginger has been mistakenly left out of this particular recipe by a forgetful scribe; however, I'm not sure I entirely agree. I have made this recipe many times without ginger, and the results were always delicious! As it is above, this is like a honey candy, and the ginger is neither needed nor missed. But here's what Pleyn Delit says: "Do not expect this gingerbread to resemble its modern spice-cake descendant. Both texture and flavor will be quite different, though equally delicious. But we must make up for the absent-mindedness of the scribe who neglected to tell us when to add ginger." Period recipes from other manuscripts such as Goud Kokery are similar to this but do contain the ginger, so there indeed were several different versions floating around during period. Certainly, don't be afraid to try the ginger-less version. It really is good.


  • 1 lb. Honey - I prefer organic, or something made with a flavored flower blossom, etc., but feel free to use your favorite. Just remember that the final product is affected by the flavor of the honey you choose.
  • Bread Crumbs - up to a pound, maybe more, maybe less. These must be UNSEASONED bread crumbs, though either white or wheat, or a combination, is fine. Be sure that they are finely ground and not soft in any way.
  • ginger (optional!) - up to 1 Tbs.
  • cinnamon - up to 1 Tbs.
  • ground white pepper - up to ½ tsp.
  • pinch saffron, if desired, but not important here
  • few drops red food coloring (optional)
Bring the honey to a boil and skim off any scum. Keeping the pan over very low heat, add the spices, adjusting the quantities to suit your taste. Add the food coloring "if you will have it red." Then begin to slowly beat in the bread crumbs. Add just enough bread to achieve a thick, stiff, well-blended mass. Remove from the heat and turn the mixture onto a lightly greased (cooking spray works fine) square or rectangular baking sheet or shallow pan, ½ to 1 inch thick. Take a rolling pin & spread the gingerbread evenly out into the pan. Turn the pan over onto wax paper or parchment paper, & tap gently until the gingerbread  falls from the pan. Turn the gingerbread over once again, then cut into small squares to serve. (A diamond shape is also very nice.) Decorate with small leaves (real or candy) attached to each piece with a clove.

So, that's medieval gingerbread! One hint: on occasions when I've been rushed, I've simply taken the mixture, when cooled slightly, and rolled it into small balls. This works nearly as well, and can be easier & faster to make. Children also love to create their own designs with this playdough-like edible, and for a school or home project, they can be put in charge of molding the gingerbread into a variety of objects. I've seen children make snakes, animals, and even a little model airplane out of this recipe! And they always enjoy eating the final product afterwards.

The period recipe call for the gingerbread to be decorated with box leaves fastened to each piece with a clove. I usually use any attractive, small, non-poisonous leaf or a candy imitation, and either place one in each piece or just garnish the platter with several of the leaves. If you're using real leaves, please advise the diners to remove them first! Beware: on hot, sticky days the gingerbread may become soft and a little gooey, but it holds up very well in cool weather, and can be refrigerated for several weeks.

  • Austin, Thomas. Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books. Harleian MS. 279...and Harl. MS. 4016. London, 1888. Early English Text Society, Oxford Series, No. 91.
  • Baugh, Albert C. Chaucer's Major Poetry. New York, 1963. Meredith Publishing Company.
  • Hieatt, Constance B. and Sharon Butler. Curye on Inglish: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth-Century (Including the Forme of Cury). London, 1985. For the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press.
  • Hieatt, Constance B. and Sharon Butler. Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks. Toronto, 1976. University of Toronto Press.
  • Mead, William Edward. The English Medieval Feast. New York, 1967. Barnes and Noble, Inc.

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© 1997-2009 James L. Matterer
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