In the thirteenth century it was called gingerbras, a word from old French which meant “preserved ginger.” By the mid-fourteenth century it was called gingerbread. One of the earliest known recipes for it, in the early fifteenth-century cookery book Good Cookery, directs that it be made with breadcrumbs boiled in honey with ginger and other spices. An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto (Oxford University Press: Oxford) 2002 (p. 142)
For the most part, gingerbread was assumed to be a form of cookie made with honey. It’s popularity probably hinged on the fact that gingerbread was cheap, easy to make, a small batch would yield many cookies, and that gingerbread dough stood up fairly well under the vagaries of both brick-oven and cook-stove baking. It was pretty hard to ruin it. The Christmas Cook, William Woys Weaver (Harper Perennial: New York) 1990 (p. 102-104).
If you want to try a Medieval recipe for gingerbread:
Gingerbrede (Good) Curye on Inglysch p. 154 (Goud Kokery no. 18) To make gingerbrede. Take goode honey & clarifie it on + e fere, & take fayre paynemayn or wastel brede & grate it, & caste it into + e boylenge hony, & stere it well togyder faste with a sklyse + at it bren not to + e vessell. & + anne take it doun and put + erin ginger, longe pepper & saundres, & tempere it vp with + in handes; & than put hem to a flatt boyste & strawe + eron suger, & pick + erin clowes rounde aboute by + e egge and in + e mydes, yf it plece you, &c.
Gingerbread (a contemporary recipe)
1 c honey
1 c breadcrumbs
1 t ginger
1/4 t pepper
1/4 t saunders
1 T sugar
30-40 whole cloves (~ 1 t)
(or 5 t sugar, pinch powdered cloves)
Bring honey to a boil, simmer two or three minute, stir in breadcrumbs with a spatula until uniformly mixed. Remove from heat, stir in ginger, pepper, and saunders. When it is cool enough to handle, knead it to get spices thoroughly mixed. Put it in a box (I used a square corning-ware container with a lid), squish it flat and thin, sprinkle with sugar and put cloves ornamentally around the edge. Leave it to let the clove flavor sink in; do not eat the cloves.
An alternative way of doing it is to roll into small balls, roll in sugar mixed with a pinch of cloves, then flatten them a little to avoid confusion with hais. This is suitable if you are making them today and eating them tomorrow. Source: http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cariadoc/desserts.html#2
The first gingerbread man is credited to Queen Elizabeth I, (1533-1603), and the first gingerbread house to the Grimm Brothers (1785-1863). http://www.foodtimeline.org/christmasfood.html#gingerbread