Historian Judith Benett has gone back to the source to investigate this mystery by re-reading the earliest literary records of the brewers, looking at the annals of the Assize Registers, annual taxes and period literature.
The “Descent into Hell” from the Chester cycle, published in the early 15th century, and “The Tunning of Elynour Rummyng”, published around 1517, are two good starting points. In the first poem, the brewer is described as an infamous creature who closely resembles the typical portrait of a witch. The second shows that the brewer occupies a special place in hell, reflecting the popular idea that commercial crimes were specially punished in Satan’s house.
Deeply misogynistic, these two literary works also highlight the exceptional nature of the brewer’s profession in the Middle Ages, as well as the peculiarities of brewing at the time. Literature from the 14th to 16th centuries already closely associates women’s brewing with meanness, excess, bewitchment and poisoning. While sin and hell were recurrent themes, the pointed figure of the witch and no mention of magic had yet appeared.
For context’s sake, the beer of the time was a flavored beer that couldn’t be preserved, as it was often low in alcohol and lacked effective preservatives such as hops. It was called ale in English and cervoise in French, from the imperial Latin cereviesa, itself a borrowing from the Gallic cereuesa. As ingredients are expensive and cannot be stored, ale turns quickly. And yet, ale is an essential commodity, a foodstuff, AND a vital source of revenue for the authorities. That’s why regulations are heavy and inescapable, as are the many tricks to get around them.
Brewing was first and foremost a domestic, feminine and occasional activity. A secondary industry, so to speak. Monks and manors brewed on a grand scale, but ordinary people bought their beer from their neighbors. One household in fifteen produces beer for immediate consumption. It’s a sideline job, as is customary, and affects almost all classes.
“Ale” degrades rapidly, so it contains a bunch of herbs to mask the taste, and is made with whatever means are available. Meadowsweet and marsh myrtle are often added to sour, preserve and mask the grain, which is often missing. Some of these herbs are even narcotic or toxic.
Another important point: everyone drinks beer, good or bad, strong or weak. Some men also brew, but more often than not, they delegate this task to their wives. As brewing is essentially a female activity, bad beer is culturally associated with bad women.
Changing times, changing stigmas
Then came the Black Death, hops and guilds. The situation becomes more difficult. Women were blamed for surviving longer than men, and even for making men sick. Then hops, which completely changed the brewing industry. Hops added steps and made beer production more complex, requiring capital that women didn’t have access to. Then came the guilds: they were created to defend brewers’ rights against undue taxes and to impose their own right of inspection. As this was now a “professional” trade, women were never considered full members, with the exception of widows who had inherited the right from their husbands. Thus, social stigma, technical progress and “boys clubs” excluded more and more women from the brew.
Yet it’s about to get worse.
The guilds have now embraced hops and are trying to protect their territory against the small brewers. The tide is turning against these women, often poor, often widowed, often husbandless, who seek to make ends meet with a brew of beer. It is said that they deliberately poison the beer, which has now replaced ale. Brewers represent the old beer, the one that rots, the one preserved with vulgar garden herbs. But the beers brewed by male brewers don’t rot! (Well, yes, but not as quickly).
A woman brewing beer is therefore an easy target for beer wholesalers looking to consolidate the market. Western Europe being resolutely Christian, and religious zeal rising with the wars of religion, it’s only a short step to witchcraft accusations for independent brewers. Especially when they’re already pretty poor to begin with. Indeed, the correlation between accusations of witchcraft and social marginalization is very strong.
To put an end to the pointy hat
Is the brewer the prototypical image of the witch? No, because the old fear of heresy and obsession with the Devil were far more important in the oppression of women by the Catholic Church. As for the crimes attributed (often falsely) to brewers in the Middle Ages, they were more related to regulatory infractions.
On the other hand, witches and brewers both suffered from the same prejudices of the time. Witches and brewers were often poor and marginalized due to their trade, yet they were indispensable to their community. They suffered from the projection of male fears onto the evils of the world, making vulnerable women responsible for the calamity of the times. Trapped in the vicious circle of incapacitating prejudice, a large number of women had no choice but to bend to the only roles they can play to survive.
- Histoire de la bière : les brasseuses au Moyen Âge – RFI https://www.rfi.fr/fr/podcasts/20210319-histoire-de-la-bi%C3%A8re-les-brasseuses-au-moyen-%C3%A2ge
- Brasseuses et sorcières : l’histoire d’une association étrange – Les femmes dans l’histoire https://www.femmes-histoire-reperes.com/brasseuses-sorcieres-histoire-association-etranges/
- Judith M. Bennett, « Alewives, Brewsters, and the Question of Women’s Work », dans Women’s Work in the World Economy: A Personal and Political History of Household Service, 1870-1930, éd. Maynard Solomon (New York, 1985), 225-42 https://www.sciencespo.fr/mass-violence-war-massacre-resistance/fr/document/alewives-brewsters-and-question-womens-work.html
- Descente aux enfers – Chester Cycle (texte original en anglais) https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/davidson-and-moffat-eds-plays-of-the-middle-ages-descent-into-hell
- The Tunning of Elynour Rummyng – texte original en anglais https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/wiggins-the-tunning-of-elynour-rummyng
- Les guildes de brasseurs en Europe – Academia https://www.academia.edu/21610335/Les_guildes_de_brasseurs_en_Europe_une_institution_m%C3%A9di%C3%A9vale_du_fait_de_boire
- Les herbes de la cervoise – Les 3 brasseurs https://www.les3brasseurs.ca/blogue/culture-brassage/herbes-cervoise
- Bière, femme et pouvoir : de la préhistoire à nos jours – Le Monde https://www.lemonde.fr/m-gastronomie/article/2016/10/12/biere-femme-et-pouvoir-de-la-prehistoire-a-nos-jours_5012679_4497540.html
- Les brasseuses, nouvelles héroïnes du brassage artisanal – Les Echos https://www.lesechos.fr/industrie-services/conso-distribution/les-brasseuses-nouvelles-heroines-du-brassage-artisanal-1268747
- Women Brewers in Early Modern Europe: Economic Disparities and Social Restrictions – Academia.edu https://www.academia.edu/31893954/Women_Brewers_in_Early_Modern_Europe_Economic_Disparities_and_Social_Restrictions.