Bubbling Brews and Broomsticks: How Alewives Became the Stereotypical Witch
Three witches in a cave ( Educational Technology Clearinghouse )
The physical appearance of witches was similarly inspired by the garb of alewives who chose to sell their products in marketplaces. Women in the early modern period often wore large conical black hats—the very same that children wear on Halloween nowadays. These hats were part of the period fashion, however, and were indicative of high-born ladies, allowing these women to be recognized for their social class from afar. Brewers adopted the habit (and some were well-off anyway) as a method by which to easily sell their product in crowded streets and public squares. Look for the black hat, and you'll find yourself an alewife with product to sell.
Witches from MacBeth by John Downman ( Public domain )
Traditional Work Becomes ‘Devil Magic’
In the present, brewing is more readily considered a task of men because beer is more readily associated with the gender. However, it is important to remember that this was one of the many practices that were dominated by women until the rise of urban guilds seeking influence within the growing Church. Thus, these accusations of witchcraft were likely unexpected and insulting when they first circulated. As guild communities grew, and urban life and cities increased, screaming "witch" at the sight of a woman brewing became easier and easier, thus turning a once profitable, innocent career into a form of devil-magic.
As the oppressed are known to do, however, women did continue to contribute to the ale-making process after the procedure was taken away from them, and in spite of rumors of brewing black magic. Women's roles were highly diminished and far less respected, even if a woman inherited the brewing business of her late spouse or reputable father—there were always accusations of witchcraft whispering through the streets. And, of course, there were those few women, usually widowed or unwed, who continued to brew on their own in secret, without regard for their reputation. The alewives, therefore, are just one of many historical examples in which women persevered in a male workforce, finding a way to continue their brewing traditions and skirting the circumstances of the times.
Top image: A Visit to the Witch by Edward Frederick Brewtnall ( public domain )
By Ryan Stone
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