As Christmas approaches this year and we face restrictions on whom we can see, there is perhaps a heightened awareness of the significance of gifts. For nuns in medieval Germany who lived in enclosure, a lack of face-to-face contact with people outside of their own convent was entirely normal. Gift giving offered them an innovative strategy of symbolic communication, to remind those beyond the convent wall of their presence.
Across Germany at Christmas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries nuns would distribute small “monastic gifts”, such as devotional images, rosary beads or something edible. The latter proved particularly popular in the south-west German Cistercian abbey of Günterstal, near Freiburg im Breisgau, where a surviving notebook written by the nuns between 1480 and 1519 allows us to reconstruct the distribution of gingerbread or Lebkuchen. The notebook was a pragmatic form of internal convent writing which gives insight into the running of the community from the perspective of the nuns themselves.
First, the convent had to buy the requisite ingredients for baking. In 1511 the convent’s bursar, Aristoteles, bought ginger, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, galangal and saffron from the fair in Freiburg. Such spices were not cheap, and in 1495 a legal case had even been brought to the Freiburg town council alleging that the town’s spice merchants were falsifying their goods; four respected citizens were required to test them. The dubious practices of merchants were a common complaint in towns at the time.
Once spices had been procured, the nuns set about baking. In 1512 a nun recorded the visit of one Jakob Hässler who came to the convent to teach the nuns a new gingerbread recipe. The nun faithfully recorded how to mix the correct quantities of rye flour, honey and spices. But things did not always go to plan and the scribe noted how the nuns ‘heated the oven as if they wanted to bake white bread. When they had placed the Lebkuchen on trays in the oven they closed the oven door. They should not have done that’. Bakers among you may empathise.
After cooking was complete, the nuns set out making arrangements for the distribution of the baked goods. This was not a simple task, as the nuns created a hierarchy of gingerbread based on their weight, colour, shape and packaging. In 1508 men in positions of authority over the nuns, such as the chaplain, received seven pounds of gingerbread coloured with saffron, the most expensive of spices. The vibrant yellow colour and fragrant aroma made clear the object’s status as something to be prized. The next highest group, including the mayor of Freiburg, received six pounds of uncoloured gingerbread, whilst the next (five and a half pounds) included women for the first time, such as Dominican nuns in nearby convents. The smallest portions were reserved for children, including little Peter (‘Peterli’), the son of the abbey’s bursar in Freiburg, who received ‘small gingerbread’ (‘kleini leppküchli’). Status, gender and age all played a role in what sort of gingerbread you would receive.
What lay behind these gifts? First, the distribution of the gingerbread not only reflected well on the recipients, but also on the abbey itself. It made public the abbey’s ties with the outside world and was a visible sign of the way in which female monastic houses were far from isolated institutions and could hold significant economic and legal power.
Secondly, the gifts were a sign of friendship. With face-to-face meetings prevented by enclosure, gifts took on heightened importance by reminding outsiders of the continual presence of the nuns in their lives. In 1507 the nun Caritas Pirckheimer sent Michael Behaim, Nuremberg’s master-builder, New Year’s greetings and enclosed a small figurine of the Christ child and sugared goods as ‘a sign of our friendship’. Woodcuts such as these, with a ‘Happy New Year’ message and box of sweet goods in the foreground, were widely circulated.
Finally, there were the health benefits, both medicinal and spiritual, of the gingerbread. The Strasbourg preacher Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg’s 1507 sermons ‘Fragments of the Passion of our Lord’ made twenty comparisons of gingerbread baking to Christ’s passion, to serve as spiritual meaning during Lent. Adding cloves to the mixture was compared to the nails piercing Christ’s side on the cross, while the fact that dogs and cats liked to come to smell the mixture whilst it was rising had parallels to the presence of the animals in Bethlehem who stuck their noses and mouths into the manger. This was a form of late medieval devotion which evoked all the senses, including touch, taste and smell, and which gave everyday activities spiritual meaning. As Christopher Kissane has recently argued, such food symbolism could be a matter of great emotional and religious significance for people during this period.
Gingerbread was therefore an object which could be invested with economic, social and even spiritual power. It could also become radical. Carnival had particularly disruptive potential. The Frankfurt Patrician Bernhard Rohrbach recounts in his family chronicle how groups of people in February 1467 took turns to carry Johann Landecken in a wheelbarrow filled with straw and covered him in Lebkuchen. He and the others wore long bathing suits and tied handkerchiefs around their heads. They entered the Weißfrauenkloster where Landecken sat in the middle of the convent parlour in his barrow, and the others danced with the nuns, many of whom were their relatives. The Frankfurt council would be quick to try to prevent future Carnival celebrations but for a moment at least the rules had been suspended.
Little cakes could also be used as a means of subterfuge. During Carnival time in 1525, six or seven people met in the village of Baltringen, near Ulm, to discuss ‘many things about the difficult times’. If asked what they were doing when marching from one village to the next, they replied that “We are fetching carnival cakes from one another”. The St Gall monk Johannes Kessler added in his chronicle that as they ‘sat assembled together they began to reflect on their concerns and complained one to another about where the shoe pinched most’, a cryptic reference to grievances and oppression. The Baltringen Band would go on to play a significant role in the course of the Peasants’ War in Upper Swabia.
Finally, for the nuns themselves, Lebkuchen could become a way to defend their status in a confessionally-divided world. Between December 1575 and February 1592 (when it would be dissolved) the Dominican nuns of St Nicholas-in-Undis in Strasbourg recorded 6,000 gifts of objects and money which they distributed. In the 1,676 entries included in their ‘Book of Donations’, the nuns listed over one thousand people who received rosaries, reliquaries, prayer books, images, candles, apples, bags, sweets, pepper cakes and gingerbread. Through the exchange of gifts, the convent was creating a circle of support, an implicit defence of the convent way of life and of the values which had come under attack, in the case of Strasbourg directly by the town council. In a battle for its very existence, gingerbread was a visible and edible sign of the nuns’ way of life.