The Gingerbread House

Especially around Christmas time we encounter a special form of pastry - the gingerbread house. It is common in many cultures. But what kind of ideas are behind a sweet edible house and how far can they be traced back?

Much to our archaeologists’ delight, we have found model houses from the material remains of different cultures. They help us to piece together a better picture of the architecture of that time, since the remains of settlements from different periods that can be examined during excavations provide only small insights. Built of wood and clay, only the floor areas of most houses are preserved and the clay models of houses allow us to get a better idea of architectural styles. Model houses from Pharaonic Egypt (about 3900 years ago), Bronze Age Greece (about 3700 years ago) or Iron Age Central Europe (about 2600 years ago) have been found. But even if their shape is reminiscent of gingerbread houses, these clay models naturally have nothing to do with today’s Christmas tradition.

There are also finds of honey biscuits in the form of plants, animals and people that were used as sacrificial cakes and grave goods in ancient Egypt. This use continues through antiquity and according to legend “Psyche” even managed to bribe “Kerberos” with honey cake when entering and leaving the underworld. The German name “Lebkuchen” might be derived from the Latin name “libum” for the sacrificial breads, which were offered in sacrificial rituals to the Roman house gods at the Lararium. The exotic spices that were necessary for the production of ginger bread became increasingly available in Central Europe during the time of the crusades and so the pastry experienced a new high point of popularity. Gingerbread was very much in demand as a long-lasting “power food” for on the road and also popular as festive pastries. Due to the laborious procurement of the ingredients, however, it was considered a luxury.

This brings us closer to the origin of the gingerbread house, because in times of famine (as in Europe at the beginning of the 14th century) the idea of the land of milk and honey, the land of abundance, developed. Pieter Bruegel the Elder referred to it in two works, “Flemish Proverbs” (1559) and “The Land of Cockaigne” (1567). In the first one, one of the proverbs depicted in a scene of 80, refers to the saying: “There the roof is covered with flat cakes (there is abundance)". The idea that a “…little house was made of bread […] and covered with cake…” found expression in fairy tales and stories and was written down by the Brothers Grimm in their Children’s and Household Tales as the story of Hansel and Gretel in 1812. The main focus here is the poverty in the parental home and the decision to abandon the children. In contrast, the lavish gingerbread house of the anthropophagous witch serves as a symbol of abundance.

The great popularity of the fairy tale led to the spread of gingerbread houses in many German-speaking, Eastern European, Scandinavian and English-speaking countries, even though the historical background of the ideas is usually no longer appreciated.

About the author

As an archaeologist Martin Fera has researched pharaonic graves in Sudan, bronze age saltmines in Hallstatt or viking burials in Norway. Currently, his research is focused on using data from landscape scans to better understand early iron age cultures in Europe.

As an architect Ralf Bliem has a special interest in generative planing processes and modular design. He studied architecture at the UT Vienna and TU Berlin, also he worked at renowned architecture offices in Berlin and Vienna. Ralf is a co-founder of Biotop and at the moment he works with Biotop on the modular design of labs and some more interesting tasks.

Further Reading

“Die weinnachtlichen sömelen und der lebküchel.” A virtual exhibition of the UniversitätsbibliothekRegensburg

Ingrid Mössinger, Jürgen Müller (Hrsgg.): Pieter Bruegel d. Ä. und das Theater der Welt. Katalog der Ausstellung “Pieter Bruegel d. Ä. und das Theater der Welt”, Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz 13. April bis 6. Juli 2014. Berlin, München, 2014, 14-23

And topical on the Bruegel exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna: The Viennese images as macro photographs, macro infrared photographs, infrared reflectographies and x-rays

Enzyklopädie des Märchens Online. Handwörterbuch zur historischen und vergleichenden Erzählforschung. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2016, 34-37

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