DDBspotlight: Lebkuchen – about Festivities, Honey Harvesting and Trade Routes

By Theresa Rodewald (Online Editorial Department)

The pre-Christmas period is the time for Lebkuchen (a German type of gingerbread, sweetened with honey). Together with Räuchermännchen (incense smokers), Christmas pyramids from the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains), advent wreaths and mulled wine, it is an integral part of the pre-Christmas feeling of warmth, friendliness and good cheer in Germany. In our Christmas DDBspotlight, we are therefore going to look into this traditional cake, re-discover medieval professions (keyword: honey harvesting), take a closer look at the spice trade and find out why some Lebkuchen are baked with treacle. We have put together some historical recipes from the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German Digital Library) for you at the end of this article.

„“Schröppel's Lebkuchen. Chocoladen und Zuckerwaren“ („Schroppel’s Lebkuchen. Chocolate and Confectionery”) (Beginning of 20th century), Museum Europäischer Kulturen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Museum of European Cultures, National Museums in Berlin) (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany)

Bread seasoned with honey and spices could already be found in the diet of the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans as well as in that of some Germanic tribes. But this was in no way an everyday type of baked goods; there often seemed to be a religious significance as a sacrificial offering or burial gift; sometimes it was formed into plants, animals or humans. Honey cake also appeared among the Romans, but in a secular context, for example as a birthday gift or a luxury article. Lebkuchen was also eaten on different occasions or given as a present in the Middle Ages.

It can be assumed that honey cake, respectively Lebkuchen and the rites and customs associated with it showed a continuous development from Ancient Egypt through the Middle Ages and up into the modern period. Lebkuchen were in no way invented by monks in the Middle Ages, but have been eaten since then, with the taste being adapted to the times and developed further. It is also indicative for this continuity that the name Lebkuchen possibly dates back to the Latin “libum”. This is a word that corresponds to our “flat cake” (German: Fladen) in its basic meaning, but which was also significantly used for a (birthday) cake in Ancient Rome.

The name “panis piperatus”, that is “pepper bread” (German: Pfefferkuchen), appeared for the first time in Ulm in 1296. Just like the pepper cakes we know today, “pepper” here meant spices in general – from aniseed to cinnamon. Cities like Nuremberg, Pulsnitz, Ulm and Aachen became veritable important centres for Lebkuchen production in the Late Middle Ages and the early modern period since, thanks to their favourable geographic location on important trade routes, they had access to the coveted ingredients for Lebkuchen. Cane sugar had been known in Europe since the crusades but was, however, extremely expensive: 50g of cane sugar cost the equivalent of between 500 and 700 euros. Instead of this, honey was used for sweetening as a rule – as was the case with the Egyptians and the Romans.

“Bienenzucht” (“Bee keeping”) (1578-1580), Jan van der Straet (inventor), Philips Galle (engraver and publisher), SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (Attribution - ShareAlike 3.0 Germany)

In the Middle Ages, honey was collected, above all, from wild and half-wild bee colonies. The so-called “Zeidler” (“harvesters”), who carried out this form of bee-keeping, hollowed out old trees so that bee colonies could settle here. Coniferous areas like the Nuremberg Reichswald were especially suitable for this. Thus, Nuremberg therefore had a double advantage for the production of Lebkuchen – with regard to the logistics as well as to the available raw materials.

The spices, which gave their name to the pepper cake ingredients, were likewise a luxury article and it was not for nothing that these were as valuable as gold.

Excursus: The spice trade

Spices like aniseed, ginger, cloves, pepper and cinnamon mainly grew in Southeast Asia and were imported into Europe. A flourishing trade in spices in the Southeast Asian area and in Indonesia has even been documented for the Neolithic period. This route, which led to Europe via North Africa, was long, but was already travelled in ancient times. Around 500 BC, the land route was controlled by south and west Arabian tribes: the sea route was controlled in part by Indian rulers.

“Peregrinatio in terram sanctam 1490, Bl. III: partial view of Venice” (1490), photograph by Waltraut Rabich (1971), SLUB/Deutsche Fotothek (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International)

Spices which came to Europe via the Red Sea arrived in Italy first. For the Maritime Republic of Venice had a monopoly on the European trade to begin with and acquired immense wealth thanks to the spice trade. Other city states and maritime republics like Genoa and Pisa entered the spice trade to break the power of Venice. It was, however, particularly the “Silk Road”, which ran through the Byzantine Empire, which advanced into an important trade route.

After the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453, the situation for importing spices into Europe changed. The Ottoman Empire increased the taxes on spices and soon controlled large parts of the trade routes. European rulers therefore searched for alternative trade routes. It was above all the Portuguese and Spanish Crowns which focused on “voyages of discovery: Christopher Columbus landed in America in 1492; a Portuguese expedition led by Bartolomeu Dias was successful in rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and in 1497, Vasco da Gama established a trade route to India.

“Seeatlas (Alte Welt und Terra Nova) – BSB Cod.icon. 136” (“Marine atlas (Old World and Terra Nova) – BSB Cod.icon. 136”) (Venice, 1541 – 1542), Agnese, Battista (1514-1564), Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library) (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Internationall)

Now there existed a new trade route to India, but the willingness of the local spice traders and rulers to do business was, however, minimal. They saw no reason to give up tried and trusted relationships, since the established trade network was efficient and trade proceeded peacefully. Moreover, the Portuguese were not able to produce any goods which were of interest to the merchants. And so the Portuguese chose violent confrontation since, in contrast to the fleets of the local rulers and merchants which mainly consisted of trading ships, the Europeans had a modern and powerful war fleet at their command.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese took control of Indian trading posts and routes and, from this time on, they had a monopoly on the spice trade to Europe. They set the prices for spices, paid the farmers less than fair value, forced them to accept worthless trade goods – but then sold the spices in Europe themselves, naturally at significantly higher prices. In addition to the threat of armed force, the Portuguese administration also functioned as a control instrument. It was only possible to conduct trade with official authorisation in the service of the Portuguese Crown. Thus, for example, many Arabian merchants were forced out of the spice trade, whereby trading via the land route and via the Ottoman Empire still continued to take place.

“Pfeffer, Muskat, Zimt, Nelken” (“Pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves”) (1830) SLUB/ Deutsche Fotothek, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) (Project: History of Technology in the 16th/17th Centuries) (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Of course, all of the other European powers also wanted a share of the (spice)cake. At the end of the 16th century, the Netherlands attacked Portuguese trading posts and took control of the Moluccas, also known as the spice islands. In the meantime, the influence of the British Crown grew in the Near East. From the 17th century onwards, the major European powers realigned their foreign policy: in the following decades, they no longer sought to merely establish trading posts, but rather to subjugate countries and peoples in their entirety. The British and the Dutch East Indian Companies were the main driving force behind colonisation in the 17th and 18th centuries. The spice trade was therefore a central starting point for the imperialism of the 19th century.

Medicinal remedy and a festive cake

As already mentioned, the consumption of spices was a very expensive pleasure for a long time – possession of these was considered to be a status symbol, which was why they were presented in richly decorated bowls in wealthy households. Spices were burned to cover up bad odours and were also used as medicines. Cinnamon, cloves and ginger had already been considered to promote digestions, stop cramps or inhibit inflammation as early as the Middle Ages. Lebkuchen is therefore still called “Magenbrot” (English: stomach bread) in many regions to this very day. Spices were also supposed to alleviate colds and feverish chills.

“Gewürzschale mit Muscheln, Verzierungen und zwei Affen, die Früchte verspeisen” (“Spice bowl with shells, decorations and two monkeys eating fruit”) (1551), Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel (Attribution - ShareAlike 3.0 Germany)

As early as the 13th century, the first Lebkuchen bakers, known as “Lebküchner” or “Lebzelter” (from the Old High German “zelto”: “flat cake” (“Fladen”) or “bread”), began to organise themselves in their own guilds and in this way distance themselves from the confectioners and chemists who produced Magenbrot. The first Lebküchner guild was founded in Silesia in 1293, while the Lebküchner in Nuremberg were not recognised as a guild until 1643. Lebküchner not only baked Lebkuchen, but also processed beeswax or produced mead. Since both the dough and the finished Lebkuchen could be stored well, Lebkuchen were popular trading and market goods.

“Der Lebküchner” (“The Lebküchner”), SLUB/ Deutsche Fotothek, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Project: History of Technology in the 16th/17th Centuries) (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Lebkuchen has been pressed into forms or cut since the 15th century at the latest. Religious motifs were popular at first, but there have also been Lebkuchen-men and -women for a long time. Whereas nowadays cutters are used above all, carved wooden forms were used for a long time, with the help of which motifs could be pressed into the dough.

”Pfefferkuchenform mit Bacchusdarstellung” (“Pepper cake form with a Bacchus image”) (1890-1910) photo: Jakob Adolphi, Kulturstiftung Sachsen-Anhalt – Museum Schloss Neuenburg (Cultural Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt – Schloss Neuenburg Museum) (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareALike 4.0 International)

From the 19th century onwards, spices imported from the colonies could be acquired at affordable prices in Europe. Furthermore, sugar could now be manufactured from beet, which was why sugar was soon no longer a luxury item. There are also Lebkuchen recipes from this time which used sugar beet syrup instead of honey. Parallel to this development, Christmas festivities also became more bourgeois, that is they were increasingly celebrated in the private sphere. Lebkuchen now became an integral part of the pre-Christmas period. Industrialisation led to machine and mass production, so that from this time on, Lebkuchen was now not only presented on a plate of sweets, but was also a decoration on Christmas trees.

“Hiddenseer Bügelbaum (Rekonstruktion)” (“Hiddensee Bügelbaum (Bracket Tree) (reconstruction)”) (1925 – 1950), photo: Ute Franz-Scarciglia, Museum Europäischer Kulturen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany)

The history of Lebkuchen and its ingredients was not therefore continuously inspired by the spirit of Christmas. It is a history of festivity and luxury as well as claims to power and injustice. It thereby makes it clear that long-established traditions and customs, which seem to be region-specific at first, also often show global-historical cross-connections.

You can find historical recipes for baking Lebkuchen here, here or here. We have baked some of them as part of the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek’s Christmas mailing, which you can read here.



Wikipedia: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebkuchen und https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spice_trade