In medieval and Elizabethan times they were usually quite small...
Cake is a Viking contribution to the English language; it was borrowed from Old Norse kaka, which is related to a range of Germanic words, including modern English cook." ---An A to Z of Food and Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press: Oxford] 2002 (p. English borrowed gateau from French in the mid-nineteenth century, and at first used it fairly indiscriminately for any sort of cake, pudding, or cake-like pie...
When tortes are multilayerd and fancifully decorated they are closer to gateaux EXCEPT for the fact they can last quite nicely for several days.
Cake & gateau: definitions & examples "Cakes and gateaux.
This is due to primarily to advances in technology (more reliable ovens, manufacture/availability of food molds) and ingredient availability (refined sugar). When removed the icing cooled quickly to form a hard, glossy [ice-like] covering.
The word gateau is the modern French descendant of Old French guastel, 'fine bread'; which is probably of Germanic origin.
Casse-museau is a hard dry pastry still made today'...petits choux and gateaux feuilletes are mentioned in a charter by Robert, Bishop of Amiens in 1311." ---Larousse Gastronomique, completely revised and updated [Clarkson Potter: New York] 2001 (p. The original dividing line between cake and bread was fairly thin: Roman times eggs and butter were often added to basic bread dough to give a consistency we would recognize as cakelike, and this was frequently sweetened with honey.
Terminologically, too, the earliest English cakes were virtually bread, their main distinguishing characteristics being their shape--round and flat--and the fact that they were hard on both sides from being turned over during baking..England the shape and contents of cakes were graudally converging toward our present understanding of the term.
Most were probably rather sickly, made from cheap sponge filled with 'buttercream'..coated with fondant icing. French gateau are richer than the products of British bakers. These products naturally relaxed into rounded shapes.
They involve thin layers of sponge, usually genoise, or meringue; some are based on choux pastry. The later are rarely dairy cream; instead creme patissiere (confectioner's custard--milk, sugar, egg yolks, and a little flour) or creme au buerre (a rich concoction of egg yolks creamed with sugar syrup and softened butter) are used. By the 17th century, cake hoops (fashioned from metal or wood) were placed on flat pans to effect the shape.
The first gateau were simply flat round cakes made with flour and water, but over the centuries these were enriched with honey, eggs, spices, butter, cream and milk.