Bubbling Brews and Broomsticks: How Alewives Became the Stereotypical Witch
"Brewing", "herbs," "broomsticks," "woman." When one hears these words together, most often the assumption is that the person in question is a witch. Yet brewing has a very human meaning as well, one that revolves around the avarice of alcohol and its never-ending demand by consumers. It was from this alcoholic context that the trade of alewives arose, women in the Middle Ages through the early modern period who brewed and sold alcohol as a means of income. Due to the alewives' skills in the kitchen, fashion sense, and the eventual rise of urban guilds, however, the alewife soon became a term synonymous with "witch." It is likely from these practices that much of the modern views of the stereotypical witch began.
Brewing Was for Women
Brewing belonged to women from the medieval to early modern periods for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is the simple fact that women were tasked with proper kitchen chores, and brewing required many of them. Women kept the kitchen in order, made dough and baked bread; they planted and grew herbs, ground grains and boiled ingredients in a large black cauldron over a sweltering fire for stews. The practice, therefore, was rather economic for women to undertake.
They already possessed the skills and tools needed to begin make ale and beer. Further, as there was no shortage in the need for alcoholic beverages (as it was the primary drink in a period when water was unclean), the process was beneficial to the family of the brewer as well.
Mother Louse, alewife. (CC BY SA 4.0)
It was not uncommon for women to utilize their children in their brewing endeavors. If she had a husband who had a position elsewhere, or was a widowed mother, it was a very sensible idea to incorporate her children. The alewife would be able to monitor her children (rather than sending them to school or hiring help, especially if neither could be afforded), teach them household tasks, and ensure her children stayed out of trouble, all the while working toward a productive financial outcome. Including the family in the production of alcohol also led to an increased supply, particularly if the children learned to work independently. The alewife suddenly had twice as much (or more) to sell for profit.
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In addition to selling ale in public spaces, the households of these alewives were known to take on secondary roles as alehouses, where the women brewed and sold their product in a space akin to bars or taverns. Once again, having children who knew the procedure of brewing would have allowed the woman more freedom to run a proper alehouse if she chose to do so. Though her children would not necessarily stay with their mother forever in this role, it is likely the woman could gain a significant income and reputation before her children left to then be able to continue on without them, or even invest in help.
Brewing beer at Jamestown. (National Women’s History Museum)
Bubbling Brews and Broomsticks
Now, briefly consider the aforementioned points outside the economic benefits: women, single or widowed in a time when being husbandless was considered taboo, working over a hot, black cauldron while young children gathered and collected her ingredients. The woman toiled over her bubbling brew, a thick mixture of natural ingredients that, after fermentation, would eventually create a drink that could cause any man to lose total control if he overindulged. Such a creation sounds more than a little bit like a magical potion, does it not?
Added to the fact that women who chose to run alehouses put themselves in a public space, exposing their brewing process to all who came through their doors. Suddenly, there appears to be visual evidence of some sort of magical workshops—at least, that was what the Church and male-run guilds claimed by the early modern period.
Despite that, brewing was long a sensible career choice for women since the tasks aligned with household jobs like cooking, cleaning, etc., it is also believed that the modern perception of "witches" was influenced by the actions and tools of the alewives. One should keep in mind that the Salem witch trials were contemporary with early modern Europe (1400-1800), and so many of the reasons the women in Salem were accused of magic (outside of the extraordinary accusations of devil-dancing, and so on) found their beginnings in rumors started surrounding these alewives.
The typical broomstick associated witchcraft was also equally associated with these alewives. A broom hung over the front door of a home indicated that the house was a seller of beer and ale, or an alehouse with alcohol available.
Depiction of an alewife from the Smithfield Decretals, c. 1300. (Public Domain)
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.
Elinour Rummin, a famous alewife in England; facsimile copy of title-page to Skelton's 'Elinour Rummin' (London: 1624). (The Trustees of the British Museum /CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
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.
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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. Source: public domain
By Ryan Stone
Updated on July 15, 2021.
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