Historian and writer, Rachel Vette, talks to REEK about witches and bitches brew…

Beer is now considered the quintessential masculine drink, with some men even eschewing wine or cocktails for fear of their feminine connotations. So, it may come as a surprise to know that beer and brewing were once considered the sole domain of women.

Due to its low alcohol content and high concentration of nutrients (such as carbohydrates and proteins), which could be readily-absorbed in liquid form, beer was the drink of choice for centuries when clean water and nutrient-dense foods were scarce. Relished by parents and children alike, it was a staple of most meals and  since the home and everything associated with it were considered the responsibility of women—it was also their duty to brew beer for the family. As historian Marianne Hester notes, ‘women did the brewing of ale needed for immediate consumption by the household, and prior to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women also brewed ale for sale’ (Hester, 303). Women who needed additional income commonly sold any excess at local markets and the occupation of ‘brewer’ was, consequently, considered as an exclusively female one.

The formation of the guilds in Middle Ages Europe, however, saw the swift decline of female crafts and trades: removing women’s role in production and inserting men in their place. It was the dawn of a new economic system—capitalism—which created a struggle between men and women for the ability to make a living. Men were concerned with retaining dominance in the developing society, and excluding women from production was a good way of ensuring their economic dependence on men. Foremost amongst the trades taken from women was brewing, removing it from the household and placing it in the hands of male factory owners.

In order to ensure the complete transition of brewing from the hands of women to those of men, it was paramount to depict women as incapable of brewing; or worse, as doing so with malicious intent.

Enter, the witch-hunts. Witch-hunting was already well underway in Europe, and it became an easy way to denounce women who dared to subvert emerging gender roles. Soon, it was popular to depict the alewife negatively, and this theme occurs in a variety of literature, music and art of the period, showing her as a grotesque old crone of dubious virtue. These representations ‘undermined the position of the alewife by questioning her general trustworthiness, while at the same time allowing men to be seen in a much more popular light’ (Hester, 304). Fermentation had previously been thought of as a kind of magic, and now this association took on a much more sinister tone.

Interestingly, much of our current imagery concerning witches comes from these unsavoury depictions of alewives. Black cats, broomsticks, bubbling cauldrons and pointy hats: all were traditional tools of brewing that were turned against women to denounce them as witches and discredit their trade. Cats had long been used as pest-control, preventing mice and other rodents from spoiling the wheat, but now they became ‘familiars’: animals the woman could use to converse with the Devil and carry out her sadistic work. Broomsticks, used both to clean and to denote the location of an alehouse (a bundle of wheat tied around a stick on a building was a sign used since Roman Britain to display that beer was for sale inside—especially important in a society where only the aristocracy could read), now became marks of debauchery and women’s supposedly insatiable sexual urges. The image of a bubbling cauldron, used to boil the malt and hops for ale, was turned into a vessel where all manner of grotesque ingredients were combined to create potions of evil intent—notably included in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: ‘double, double toil and trouble, fire burn, and cauldron bubble’ (Act 4, Scene 1). The pointy hat, too, was co-opted. Previously used by alewives in the market as a practical way of making themselves seen in a crowd, its reputation soured, becoming something reputedly worn by women during their Satanic rituals.

Indeed, nearly every symbol we now associate with the ‘wicked old witch’ comes from this era and men’s frenzied attempt to discredit women and their economic independence. Gradually, women’s involvement in ale-making dwindled, and, by the beginning of the 19th century, brewing was almost exclusively done by men in large-scale factories for widespread consumption by a predominantly male workforce. Women’s contributions to the art of beer-making were forgotten but their image as sinful crones endured, relegating them to the pages of spooky children’s stories rather than history books, and beer drinking became synonymous with masculinity and the disavowal of all things feminine.

This modern conception, however, could not be further from the truth, and a crucial change is needed to reassert women’s their involvement in brewing to its rightful place. So, this Halloween, as you pass storefronts and houses riddled with cartoons of witches with broomsticks, cats and cauldrons, remember where they came from, and lift a pint with your sisters to commemorate the long-lost and much maligned alewives who gave us this eminent drink.

Rachel also contributes to The Fly Trap – check out their instagram feed.