Please note: some works of art may not be suitable for some children.
Each year as Halloween approaches, a handful of journalists, bloggers and podcasters play a well-meaning but questionable trick on their audiences. They write or repost stories – mostly unedited and unverified – that use unconditional language to unequivocally connect the objects we associate with witchcraft with the tools of the medieval and Renaissance European brewer. Most of the brewers at the time were women and a large number of women were brewers; many of them sold the surplus of the low-alcohol beer that they brewed to feed their families for the fewest parts and the minimum of autonomy.
Brooms, cats, cauldrons and pointy hats all had their place. But did they spell the ruin of these “brewers” and “living?” “
Media articles correctly explain that the forces of politics, economics and religion often “conspired” to suppress classes of people, including women, and that brewers, with their relative independence, threatened the social order. Enter the campaign to smear Brewers as witches to literally kill them.
While the script makes sense, it is most likely a fairy tale or at best “based on a true story”. Ireland-based beer historian Dr Christina Wade, who has done excruciating research into the intersection of gender and beer in medieval northern Europe, convincingly argues that a sufficient number of dates and places do not match so that it goes perfectly.
âThese arguments are not historically correct. At all, âshe writes on her blog, Braciatrix. âHello, my name is Christina, Crusher of Myths, and today I’m here to refute the idea that modern pop culture’s depictions of witches are rooted in the dress and culture of medieval or 16th century alewives. . “
To provide a little more context, here is an edited excerpt from my book, A woman’s place is in the brewery: a forgotten story of perennials, brewers, witches and CEOs. The chapter is “Strange Brew: Did Renaissance Brewers Practice Fermentation?” . . Or witchcraft? “
The History Channel estimates that European authorities hanged or burned alive as many as eighty thousand accused witches between 1500 and 1660 (some sources add up to two hundred thousand for approximately the same period), with Germany slaughtering the largest number per capita and Ireland killing them the least. He was part of a campaign of mass control and terror by the Roman Inquisition, the Catholic Counter-Reformation against Protestant reforms, and the nascent professional class of male doctors and lawyers waged against a once feudal population and newly liberal as they sought to consolidate their power and redefine the social structure. Twentieth and twenty-first century scholars attribute the rise of capitalism to their efforts.
“Is it a coincidence that the image of medieval brewers resembles the popular image of a witch so closely, or is it a criminal act committed by people who wanted to slander female brewers at a time when the witch hunt was commonplace? Jane Peyton, alcohol historian and British Sommelier of the Year 2014, writes on her website, School of Booze.
The social structure increasingly opposed brewers and alewives in the early modern era, with literature describing them as witches and the church preaching against the evils of alcohol and female purveyors who attracted men in sin. “If taverns were ‘the devil’s school’,” writes Judith Bennett in Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600. “So women were the devil’s school teachers.”
Let’s take a look at the evidence that suggests brewers form a basis for our conception of witches.
Cats: Considered a familiar that accompanies a witch, cats have made up valuable staple foods in the brewer’s house by devouring mice and rats that ate on sacks of stored grain.
The Pointed Hat: Alewives in some areas wore it when making trips to the market so potential customers could spot them above the crowds.
The Broomstick: In some areas, regulations required that alewife post a beer stake, a long stick stuck to twigs, which could have served as a broom, above its door to signal customers and government regulators when ‘she had beer to sell.
The Cauldron: This is where the magic happened, literally. A huge cauldron of wort bubbles as it boils over a flame foams with rage as it ferments.
For thousands of years, a predominantly illiterate European population has attributed fermentation to magic.
It wasn’t just brewers, saints and goddesses practicing the magic of fermentation. Until and throughout the Renaissance, Europeans of all stripes used herbs and incantations for natural healing and other purposes – that was all they had. As the formalization of schooling progressed, the girls, whose household chores prevented them from attending, were unable to access this training. As young men obtained degrees in the medical arts, more and more Christian societies avoided the natural healing arts and the women who practiced them.
â’Wise women’, herbalists and old women have been viewed with suspicion in many cultures over the millennia, so brewers joined this group where superstitious and uneducated people viewed these people as ‘the other’ , Peyton explains in an email.
There is little to no historical evidence directly linking the real brewers to the witch trials. A project to identify and map women on trial as witches in Scotland, the site of an intense witch-hunt between the late 16th and early 18th centuries, revealed no direct correlation, and according to Christina Wade, a A study of assize files in Essex, England, between 1560 and 1680, found only one woman with a recorded connection to a professional brewer: her husband.