She breweth nappy ale,
And maketh thereof pot-sale
To travellers, to tinkers,
To sweaters, to swinkers,
And all good ale-drinkers,
Sometime around 1517 John Skelton sat down and wrote one of the most well-known poems of the Early Modern era. A poet and priest, Skelton was accustomed to running in elite circles, from the royal courts to aristocratic households, to the vaulted halls of Oxford and Cambridge, and so had produced a myriad of poetry read by many prestigious members of society. Due to these lofty associations, his writings also enjoyed a place of prominence within the literary circles of the day, a position that would continue into modern scholarship. His poems were light, with a sharp, biting satire. But this particular work would serve to illuminate a seismic shift in the lives and economic circumstances of women. The poem was The Tunning of Elynour Rummyng, and this work embodied the death knell for alewives. You can find full text of the poem in Middle English here.
Rummyng is crucial for our purposes because she ‘breweth nappy ale’, that is to say, she was an alewife. Skelton took great pains to illustrate what he declared to be the hideousness of her visage: after long depictions of the ravages of time, he finished by declaring ‘her youth is far past’. This ugliness is described in minute detail. Rummyng was a woman of grotesque proportions, having a crooked back, loose skin, and a hooked ever-dripping nose, to name but a few of the epitaphs hurled in her direction. While ugliness is perhaps not the best ways to be illustrated in a poem, it in and of itself does not necessarily lend credence to a significant drop in the station of alewives, and indeed, might not seem entirely awful. Rummyng was ugly, but perhaps she still brews a wonderful pint. While thus far the faults against her seem somewhat innocuous, as the poet continues to weave his tale they become increasingly horrible, and perhaps most importantly, these accusations become dangerous- both to her business and social standing, but also to her life. Elynour Rummyng was but one single example, an archetype, of the hatred aimed at alewives during the later medieval and Early Modern periods.
And it was not just Rummyng that bore the brunt of the vitriol. Skelton described her clientele as all haggardly females, drunken, clothing in tatters, with bare legs and ‘unbraced and unlaced’. All and all these are ‘such a rude sort’. Indeed, he stated that some come,
With their naked pappes
That flippes and flappes
That wigges and wagges
Like tawny saffron bagges.
Pappes is the Middle English word for breasts, and so Skelton suggested that these women come with their breasts hanging out for all to see, so determined are they in their quest for Rummyng’s ale, so focused on drunkenness that they have become completely divorced from morals and reason to their contemporaries. And Rummyng was insulted by proxy of having these sorts of clients. The idea is that if she encouraged this behaviour and served these types of customers, than she is guilty for enabling and facilitating.
Rummyng is also depicted an unscrupulous businesswomen, cheating her patrons and filling their cups with disgusting ales and coaxing them to give up all manner of belongings in their quest to drink her beer. For example, Skelton declared that she would mix her ale with her scabbed fists, and that she allowed her hens to roost over the ale vats. In fact, she sometimes blended the hens droppings with the ale on purpose to create a tonic:
When I began to Brew
And I have found it to be true
Drink now while it is new
An ye may it brook
It shall make you look
Younger than ye be
two yeares or three
for ye may prove it by me.
Rummyng seemed to be talking about blending a specific potion that makes the drinker appear younger. This works so well she declared that she makes her husband foolish when they ‘kiss and play/ in lust and liking’. After their intercourse she states that ‘then sweetly we lie/ As two pigs in a sty’. Once again Skelton reiterated both her lewdness for discussing such a topic and making allusions to his disgust of her with the pig sty reference.
As the author continued to enumerate her shortcomings things take a perhaps more sinister turn. Of most critical import is the suggestion by Skelton, that ‘the devil and she be sib’. Meaning that she might be kin to the devil himself, especially when paired with the other depictions of witchcraft and heretical activities, as seen in the creation of potions. He also referred to her accepting payment from a woman who seemed to be a witch, specifically, one said she could make a charm with a good ale yeast. Rummyng also accepted all manner of immoral payments including wedding rings and rosary beads!
While Skelton does not come out and directly declare the Rummyng is a witch, he is certainly very close to doing so: she is depicted as accepting payment from one, mixing potions, and she is even apparently kin to the devil himself. Furthermore, she is portrayed as engaging in unscrupulous business practices by serving illegal measures and adulterating her ale with all manner of disgusting things. Skelton also takes pleasure in associating her with lust and prostitution; throughout the poem she kept the company of lewd women and encouraged this behaviour. She also discussed her relations with her husband in what would have been viewed a very crude manner. In the late medieval and Early Modern during which these tales were written down, women, and indeed female witches, were portrayed as insatiable beings of carnal lust, as evidenced in texts such as the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, The Hammer of the Witches, which declared, ‘To conclude. All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in all women insatiable’.
If The Tunning of Elynour Rummyng has been written in a vacuum, a singular instance of such a portrayal, it might be one thing. Instead, it is one of many narrative sources that depict alewives in this manner. From William Langland’s Beton the Brewster in Piers Plowman to the John Lydgate’s Ballad on an Ale-seller, they are represented as selling befouled and adulterated ales in illegal measures and generally lying and seducing their way through the literary world of late medieval and early modern society, particularly in England.
It is important to note that it is not only alewives who bore the brunt of the accusations of cheating and lying. James Davis explored the late medieval and early modern distrust of victullars, brewers, bakers, and millers, as whole. This, he argued, was evident in texts like John Lydgate’s poem ‘Put Thieving Millers and Bakers in the Pillory’ where Lydgate stated that,
Let mellerys and bakerys / gadre hem a gilde, And alle of1 Assent / make a fraternite ; Vndir the pillory / a litil Chapelt bylde.
Here, Lydgate was declaring that the millers and bakers should build their guild chapel under the pillory as so many of the members will end up there at some point anyway and he went on to state that, ‘Vpon that bastile / to make an ende’ meaning they should be hanged if they continue their cheating behaviour. You can read the poem in full here.
However, while this poem illuminates the commonly held anxieties that medieval and early modern people had about being swindled by those who made, produced or served them food and beverages, these literary accusations are largely focused on illegal measures or cheating. They did not, as the depictions of alewives, accuse them of being sexually deviant, or cross the line into charges similar to those given in tandem to witchcraft.
But perhaps more importantly, did these portrayals reflect a lived reality? Were medieval alewives cheating their customers? Moreover, were female brewers actually being accused of witchcraft? This vitriolic ideology might not be limited to the written word. Elynour Rummyng herself might be based on the very real alewife Alianora Romyng.
Watch out for the next post where we explore the lived reality of alewives in late medieval and early modern England!
Judith Bennett, Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England:Women’s work in a changing world 1300–1600, (New York, 1996).
James Davis, Medieval Market Morality: Life, Law and Ethics in the English Marketplace 1200-1500 (New York, 2012).
Katherine L. French, The Good Woman of the Parish: Gender and Religion After the Black Death, (Philadelphia, 2008).
Barbara Hanawalt, ‘Of Good and Ill Repute’: Gender and Social Control in Medieval England, (New York, 1998).
Ralph Hanna, ‘Brewing Trouble: On Literature and History- and alewives’ in Barbara Hanawalt and David Wallace (eds.) Bodies and Disciplines: Intersections of Literature and History in the 15th Century, (Minneapolis, 1996), pp. 1-18.
Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, (trans. and intro.) Montague Spencer (New York, 1984), p. 47.
John Lydgate, ‘Put Thieving Millers and Bakers in the Pillory’, (c. 1460-1470) (originally found flarf. MS. 2255, ;«a/ 137 and last) published in Frederick J. Furniville (ed) Political, Religious, and Love Poems (London, 1866), p.56.
Michelle M. Sauer, Gender in Medieval Culture (London, 2015).
John Skelton, ‘The Tunning of Elynour Rummyng’, in Marie Loughlin, Sandra Bell, and Patricia Brace (ed.) The Broadview Anthology of Sixteenth-Century Poetry and Prose, pp. 1-8.
Theresa Vaughan, ‘The Alewife: Changing Images and Bad Brews’ in AVISTA Forum Journal Vol. 21 No. 1/2 (2012), pp. 34-41.