Recently, I wrote about the history of Gingerbread. As it was not the main subject of the article, I just evoked the part played by Queen Elizabeth I in the popularisation of Gingerbread in Europe. This story deserved a bit more, especially as it led to the invention of the Gingerbread Man!
Valued by the Romans for its medicinal and culinary uses, ginger vanished from Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t until the 13th century, when Marco Polo brought ginger back from China, that it regained popularity. Over time, ginger became more accessible and affordable, transitioning from a rare spice to a common ingredient.
In the past, people enjoyed ginger-flavored treats in various forms like cookies and cakes. However, the first recorded appearance of the gingerbread man was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. So, the story of the Gingerbread Man is not only a beloved fairytale but one that brought us back to the kitchen of the royal court of England.
The Royal Invention of Gingerbread Man
Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, loved throwing lavish royal dinners that included things like marzipan shaped like fruit, castles and birds. Her court included a skilled gingerbread maker who satisfied her sweet tooth.
Gifts played a significant role in the Elizabethan Court. It was used to show respect and gain favor, assert social status, or climb the social ladder — a way for Elizabeth I and her subjects to consolidate their allegiances and hierarchical order. And Gifts ranged from jewelry and silk stockings to fruit, confectionery, and books. In return, Queen Elizabeth often gave gifts she had received but did not interest her or goods of lesser value than what she had been given.
Among her gifts were gingerbread men. She instructed her gingerbread maker to shape them like her suitors, foreign dignitaries, and people in her court. These edibles were decorated with features and outfits, and then served to the very guests who could consume their own likenesses!
Queen Elizabeth also used gingerbread men as a way to assert power within her inner circle. By selectively distributing personalized gingerbread treats, she could confer status or withdraw favor. Receiving a gingerbread likeness from the queen was seen as a royal “stamp of approval” for both esteemed guests and suitors competing for her attention.
These edible works of art became cherished tokens, valued by those fortunate enough to receive them. However, falling out of favor with the queen had its consequences. Courtiers who lost her favor might have felt disheartened as they watched Queen Elizabeth biting off the head of their gingerbread likeness.
The Gingerbread Man Goes Beyond the Royal Court
The tradition of gingerbread men extended beyond the royal court, becoming popular tokens of affection exchanged at fairs in hopes of attracting potential partners. Legend has it that if a young woman could entice the man of her affection to consume one of these biscuits, it would spark love and possibly lead to marriage. Certain gingerbread shapes were believed to hold special meanings, with heart-shaped pieces bringing good fortune in love, and gingerbread rabbits associated with fertility.
However, not all associations with gingerbread men were positive. Superstitions arose, linking these figures with dark powers. Some believed that gingerbread men, especially in human form, possessed dangerous magical properties. Stories circulated about witches crafting gingerbread effigies resembling their enemies, causing death and destruction when eaten.
In Queen Elizabeth’s time, “gingerbread” described something fancy and elegant. But over time, the term took on a negative connotation and became a disparaging term. Gingerbread’s reputation suffered in the centuries after Queen Elizabeth I. Dutch authorities even banned the baking and consumption of molded gingerbread cookies due to fears of witchcraft and malicious intent.
The Fairytail Comeback of the Gingerbread Man
Fortunately, gingerbread enjoyed a revival thanks to the tales of the Brothers Grimm. The tradition of decorating gingerbread houses with colorful candies resurfaced, and gingerbread men became cherished symbols of the festive holiday season.
In England around 1848, Queen Victoria and her German-born husband, Prince Albert, played a significant role in popularizing gingerbread cookies. They introduced these delightful treats as part of the German Christmas traditions they adopted, along with decorating Christmas trees and enjoying the Yule log. Since then, gingerbread cookies have become closely associated with the joyous celebrations of Christmas.