The first gingerbread is thought to have been made by Catholic monks in Europe for special holidays and festivals. England, France, and especially Germany were known to eat and celebrate with these treats. Ginger was called "zingebar" in Latin, "gingerbras" in Old French, and "gingerbread" in Medieval England. "Lebkuchen" is the German word.
Until the 15th century, "gingerbread" referred only to preserved ginger itself. Ginger was found to have preservative qualities, and around this time, it began to be used in cakes and cookies. Crusaders returning to Europe from the Middle East brought back spices such as ginger and Catholic monks formed it into cakes and pressed it into molds. Gingerbread also became a popular treat at European fairs and was added to meat to preserve it and help cover up the strong odor of aging meat.
Gingerbread was not baked in homes in the 15th century, but rather was made by government-recognized guilds. Nuremberg, Germany was the location of the best known guild. The German guild was famous for elaborately detailing the lebkuchen with gold paint or with icing. The guild was called the Lebkuchner and was formed in 1643 as a means of quality-control reasons as well as a way to limit competition in making the gingerbread.
The quality of the Nuremberg guild's lebkuchen was so high that it was even used as currency for paying city taxes. It was also considered a gift worthy of heads of state and royalty. Lebkuchen gingerbread is still sold in Nuremberg today.
Gingerbread cut into shapes, especially hearts, and tied with ribbon became a popular treat sold in fairs throughout Europe. Human and animal figures were also popular. The Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, inspired the German "hexenhaeusle," or witch's house. "Lebkuchenhaeusle," the gingerbread house, was made with large slabs of lebkuchen and decorated with sweets.
The first gingerbread in the United States is thought to have been brought by Swiss Catholic monks who founded the St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana in 1854. Monks gave gingerbread to the sick and baked it for holiday celebrations. Baking cookies and houses to celebrate the Christmas holiday became a tradition in the United States that is still popular today.
American bakers often sweeten gingerbread with molasses, while British bakers may use syrup and brown sugar. Germans usually sweeten lebkuchen with honey, which is the traditional sweetener used by the guild in Nuremberg, an area with many forests containing beehives. Aside from ginger, cinnamon is the next most common spice used in gingerbread. Cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, and sometimes anise are other spices commonly found in many recipes.