Alewives, Brewsters, and the Birth of the Witch

Hildegard of Bingen

(Insert cartoonish witch cackle here.)

October wouldn’t be complete without a blog post relating to the spooooookiest day of the year—Halloween of course! I love Halloween: the gothy decor, the candy, the costumes. Back in my trick-or-treating days, I dressed up as a witch a lot, I’ve always loved The Wizard of Oz and Wicked and movies like Practical Magic and Hocus Pocus. Previously, I did a blog post about the Salem Witch Trials.

If a time traveler were to travel back to western Europe during the 16th or 17th century and visit on market day, they might be surprised at the sight of the women selling beer. To modern eyes, a 16th-century beer brewer would bear a lot of similarities to what we think of as a witch today.

Brewing beer had traditionally been a women’s job, dating back at least 6000 years ago. Men started becoming involved in the process a bit more around the time of the Roman Empire but it generally continued being women’s work wherever beer was being brewed.

It was even a German nun, Hildegard of Bingen, who first recorded the use of hops in brewing and is unofficially considered the patron saint of beer.

Western European alewife, circa 1300

In western Europe, beer brewing and consumption was originally reserved for at-home activities. However, once women moved outside of the home and started making a healthy income from selling beer, men were not happy and decided to end it. Because of course they did.

During the 1500s and 1600s, women were gradually forced out of the business. In a political move that is still used today, men painted the ambitious women as incapable of doing the job and created a propaganda campaign against them—one that has lasted for hundreds of years. They were painted as scary, nasty, and untrustworthy women.

Mother Louise, an alewife in 1600s Oxford

An independent woman was a dangerous woman.

To stand out in a crowd on market day, these women wore tall, pointed, black hats. It was a clever, old-timey marketing ploy. There, they stood at their cauldrons and sold their goods. While in their shops, brewsters signaled their shop as open by hanging a broomstick outside above the door. In addition, cats were regularly employed by brewsters and alewives to keep rodents out of the storehouses.

Sound familiar?

This propaganda campaign against brew-HERS (I’m so sorry, I couldn’t help it) even turned customers away by persuading the locals—particularly men—that these women were using charms or spells to trick people into buying their beer and drinking too much.

Ye olde “she made me do it because she was so charming” line. My favorite.

It’s no coincidence that the term “beer witch” entered into use around this time.

When witchcraft trials became the fun and hip afternoon event across Europe, traits were borrowed from the alewives and used to make other innocent women appear guilty of casting evil spells on their neighbors.

Although women are slowly getting back into the brewing industry, it’s mostly still a boy’s club. According to two separate studies related to beer and gender, a quarter of craft beer drinkers are women and less than a third of people working in the beer industry are women.


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jillianne hamilton headshotJillianne Hamilton is an author, history enthusiast, book lover and graphic designer. Her debut novel, Molly Miranda: Thief for Hire, was shortlisted for the 2016 Prince Edward Island Book Award. Her debut non-fiction book, The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII is now available. She lives in Charlottetown on Canada's beautiful east coast.
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