Ale and The Apocalypse

This is the first in a series of posts detailing the ways in which female brewers came to be pushed out of brewing and how contemporary attitudes of women in this industry shaped and aided this process. This post is to form an introduction and overview which the following series of posts will investigate in further depth. The next installment is entitled ‘Bagpipes’ and details the depictions of alewives in art.


It all began with a ship. Well, twelve Genoese merchant ships to be exact that slunk into the port of Messina in Sicily in 1347. People gathered to greet them, as they often did, waiting for the crew to disembark with perhaps palpable excitement. Expecting fine luxuries from far flung locales carried by healthy men, instead what they found was far more sinister. In the words of Michael of Piazza, a Franciscan friar writing some ten years later, the crew of the ship bore a horrible malady in their very bones:

‘…so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death’.

As it ravaged the town, authorities forced the crew back onto ships and drove them from them into the sea under hail of arrow and pain of death.

But it was too late. The apocalypse had come to Europe.

Moving quickly from town to town, no one, not commoner nor king was safe from its destruction. Entire families decimated, with not a single heir left alive. According to Marchione Di Coppo Stefani, a Florentine statesman writing in the late 1370s and early 1380s, ‘Child abandoned the father, the husband the wife, wife the husband, one brother the other, one sister the other’. Towns and cities were annihilated leaving only the remnants of still burning fires and corpses rotting in their beds. Di Coppo Stefani stated that there was nothing else to do in Florence but to bury the dead: ‘And then more bodies were put on top of them, with a little more dirt over those; they put layer on layer just like one puts layers of cheese in a lasagne’.

The very fabric of society had come undone and in the end Europe would never be the same.

The plague of Florence in 1348, as described in Boccaccio's Wellcome L0004057

The plague of Florence in 1348, as described in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Etching by L. Sabatelli after himself. CC BY 4.0: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

In the wake of the destruction, came a people forever changed by what they had seen, by what they had survived. Conditions vastly improved for those that remained, a standard of living up until now not obtainable for most people. They moved to cities and as a result of this increased urbanization the demand for pubs rose. Generally, women’s conditions and situations improved as many members of their families had died leaving only them to inherit. All except one area: brewing. And particularly in England.

While in areas like Germany and the Low Countries brewing had long been a high status and male dominated pursuit, after the bubonic plague it gradually became more and more commercialized in England. What was once a cottage industry of women brewing small batches of ale to satisfy their own households or to sell to their neighbours especially in rural areas, became increasingly professionalized and industrialized according to scholars like Judith Bennett, Theresa Vaughan and Michelle M. Sauer.

Guilds formed and as a result, women were increasingly pushed out of their traditional roles as brewing became a higher status, more desirable, and better paid position. While this process occurred gradually and differed in temporal and geographical contexts, by 1700, women were by and large pushed out of brewing.

Another significant factor in this was the introduction of hops and beer. In the early and high medieval periods brewers were primarily producing ale in England. While it took a while to catch on, and there were many attempts to circumvent or stop its production, beer gradually came to dominate the industry. It was cheaper to make and could keep longer. This aided in this increasing commercialization because beer could also be brewed in larger batches to sell in taverns and to various establishments, including the military and aristocratic households.

In response to this, or perhaps parallel to this process, female brewers, braciatrices, became vilified. Not only were they depicted as purveyors of the mortal sins of gluttony and lust, they were also believed to be wholly incapable of brewing. They were, as a group, cheaters, liars, and completely untrustworthy – selling beer in illegal measures and doctoring their ale with various nefarious ingredients. They were portrayed in art and literature as prostitutes, procuresses, and sexual deviants. And somewhere, somewhere at the crossroads of greed and misogyny, these charges became even more sinister, and perhaps even deadly. Alewives could be associated with witches.

Why this negative portrayal of alewives came to pass is a multilayered and complex issue which this series of posts will attempt to illuminate. It will trace the phenomenon in its many forms: art, literature, legal codes and church doctrine, from the medieval period well into the early modern era. It will also examine its legacy in more recent times. Watch this space!

Sources Consulted:

Judith Bennett, ‘Misogyny, popular culture and women’s work’ in History Workshop 31 pp. 166-188

Judith Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World 1300–1600 (New York, 1996).

Barbara, Hanawalt, “Of Good and Ill Repute”: Gender and social control in medieval England (New York, 1998)

Barbara Hanawalt, The Ties that Bound: Peasant families in medieval England, (New York, 1989).

Ruth Mazo Karras, Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in medieval England, (New York, 1996).

Theresa A. Vaughan, ‘The Alewife: Changing images and bad brews’ in AVISTA Forum Journal Vol. 21 Number ½ (2012), pp. 34-41