Gingerbread – Part 1

Gingerbread by spaceamoeba  Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Gingerbread by spaceamoeba Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It’s been quite a while since my last post, so I am very happy to be back blogging again. I’m also happy to finally have some free time to do it in – this term I have been busy with many PhD related things including entering the world of teaching and marking for the first time. It’s been a lot of fun, despite being rather time consuming. Anyway, I have been keeping the blog in mind and have been gathering thoughts together for this post, and I’ve decided to write about something I’ve been considering for a while: gingerbread. I almost didn’t write this post as Stephen Schmidt over at the Recipes Project wrote a wonderful post on it’s history, so I worried this would be a little redundant. I also stumbled on quite a few “history of gingerbread” type blog posts and articles, such as this one, while I was Googling around, and I don’t think the internet needs another one from me! But then I came across a few mentions of gingerbread in some plays I’ve been looking at, and thought since I’m going to be making the stuff (as you will see in the follow up post) it might be fun to do a background post on it anyway, focusing on the literary rather than the historical (though where you place the divide between those things – if at all – is a discussion for another day!). So, gingerbread – let’s take a look…

Firstly, I think it’s worth pointing out that there are two types of gingerbread – the cakey kind, and the little man kind. From what I have seen so far while prodding around the recipe books, what I’ll be making in the follow-up post will be more like the latter kind. But, for now I will start by taking a look at some appearances of gingerbread in the popular fiction of the early modern period.

What prompted me to revisit this idea that had been lurking for a while was a very brief mention of gingerbread in Fletcher and Massinger’s The Elder Brother (1637). The play concerns an inheritance dispute of sorts between two brothers – Eustace, a charming courtier, and his elder brother, the bookish scholar Charles. Their father ask Charles to agree to being disinherited in order to arrange a marriage between Eustace and Angelina, the daughter of a neighbouring nobleman. Charles looks set to agree, happy to spend his life undisturbed with his books, that is until he meets Angelina, then things get a little more complicated. It’s an entertaining little play, I’d recommend reading it. My current interest in it is about the portrayal of Charles’ library rather than any food angle. Anyway, the elder brother is supported by his uncle, Miramount, who has this to say about Eustace:

He is an asse, a peece of ginger-bread

Gilt over to please foolish girles and puppets.

Gingerbread definitely has some negative connotations here, similar to the way comfits are often described in the period. Eustace is silly, empty and “gilt over” – decorated on the outside but with little real substance, unlike the learned Charles. “Gilt” refers to gold leaf which was used (and still is sometimes) to decorate particularly lavish treats. After finding this little reference to gingerbread, I thought I would go looking for more, intrepid EEBO explorer that I am.

I’ve noticed two general trends in the appearances of gingerbread in early modern drama. One is demonstrated above – gingerbread (particularly iced or gilt gingerbread) as a metaphor for a decorated and fancifully dressed person, generally with negative connotations. In Heywood’s The Golden Age (1611), the first of his mythology based “Age” plays, Jupiter disguises himself as a female nymph in order to infiltrate Diana’s entourage, his eventual target being the nymph Caliope. He describes his own deceit as such:

There I strid too wide. That step was too large for one that professeth the straight order: what a pittifull coyle shall I haue to counterfeit this woman, to lispe (forsooth) to simper and set my face like a sweet Gentlewomans made out of ginger-bread?

Interestingly, Jupiter seems to be implying that the nymph he is imitating has a face like a “sweet Gentlewomans made out of gingerbread”. In adopting – and then complaining about – her disguise he criticises her. However, the gingerbread reference is obviously applicable to him as well, he is a man in the form of something else, just as gingerbread is a food in the shape of a women. Again we see gingerbread takes on a meaning of disguise, deceit, embellishment. Like comfits and the “candied tongue”, the face of the predatory Jupiter is covered and “sweetened”, rendering him not harmless, but indeed more harmful.

The other trend I’ve noticed also puts gingerbread to a fairly negative use – it is used to connote class. For an example we can look to the mildly villainous Quicksilver from Chapman, Jonson and Marston’s Eastward Hoe! (1605) displaying a rather prejudiced attitude to gingerbread makers:

Sfoot man I am a Gentleman, and may sweare by my pedegree, Gods my life. Sirrah Goulding, wiit be ruled by a foole? turne good fellow, turne swaggering gallant, and let the Welkin roare, and Erebus also: Looke not Westward to the fall of Don Phoebus, but to the East; Eastward Hoe,

“Where radiant beames of lusty Sol appeare,
“And bright Eous makes the welkin cleare.

We are both Gentlemen, and therefore should be no coxcombes: lets be no longer fooles to this flat-cap Touchstone. Eastward Bully: this Sattin belly, & Canuas backt Touchstone; Slife man his father was a Malt-man, and his mother sould Ginger-bread in Christ-church.

Ben Jonson in particular seems to have been particularly keen on gingerbread – while in Eastward Hoe! it is afforded a passing mention, it plays a larger role in both Bartholomew Fayre and The Alchemist (1612). The latter features gingerbread used in a particularly unexpected way, as a gag to silence and hide Dapper, a troublesome “client” of the tricksters Subtle and Face:

Subtle: He must nor see, nor speake
To any body, till then.
Face: For that, we’ll put Sir,
A stay in ‘is mouth.
Subtle: Of what?
Face: Of Ginger-bread.
Make you it fit. He that hath pleas’d her Grace,
Thus farre, shall not now crinckle, for a little.
Gape Sir, and let him fit you.

The use of gingerbread to silence Dapper seems to refer to both of these trends – Dapper is a legal clerk with aspirations of raising his social status. Gingerbread reflects his desire to “gild” himself, but also he is ultimately inhibited it, perhaps also alluding to his inability to successfully move up the social scale due to his humble roots.

Perhaps the most famous example of gingerbread in 17th century literature comes in Jonson’s Bartholemew Fayre(1631), where the character of Joan Trash, a seller of gingerbread, appears throughout the play attempting to sell her wares. I’ve always particularly liked the moment where zealous Puritan Busy takes umbridge with her gingerbread men:

Busy. And this Idolatrous Groue of Images, this flasket of Idols!

Ouerthrows the ginger-bread.

which I will pull downe—

Trash. O my ware, my ware, God blesse it.)

Bus. In my zeale, and glory to be thus exercis’d.

There seems to be a particularly interesting link between gingerbread and the body – one can rather easily look like the other, and in The Alchemist the former can be used to inhibit the latter. In this light, Busy’s extreme reaction strikes me as rather amusing and well observed, playing on this perhaps rather overdone trope.

Next time, I shall be making some gingerbread of my own!

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