According to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, the commercial production of pain d'épices was a specialty of Reims, made to a recipe of a pastry cook from Bourges, and given éclat by the taste for it of Charles VII, "King of Bourges" and his mistress Agnes Sorel. The honey used was the dark buckwheat honey of Brittany. In 1571, the Corporation of Spice Bread Makers of Reims were chartered separately from the pastry cooks; in 1596 the Parisian makers of pain d'épices were given their charter, too. The Reims pain d'épices industry was decimated by World War I. The pain d'épices of Dijon outpaced its older competitors in the Napoleonic era, and the bread is now considered one of the specialties of the town.
Pain d'épices was originally a sourdough bread without added leavening; it was left in a wooden trough to rest in a cool place for months, during which the honeyed rye flour experienced fermentation. When ready the dough was cooked in loaf moulds. The modern product usually rises with baking soda, or with baking powder, developed in the nineteenth century.
Because traditional pain d'épices is sweetened entirely with honey, honey merchants in France often stock loaves of it for sale. La Collective des Biscuits et Gâteaux de France reserves the name pain d'épices pur miel ("pure honey spice bread") for pain d'épices sweetened only with honey.