Gillian and the Brewsters of Exeter

In medieval England, while the brewing trade was dominated largely by women, especially in rural areas, those who maintained and enforced regulations were male. In particular the position of aletaster, that is a person who evaluated women’s brews and made sure they were keeping to regulations, was wholly male dominated – I have not found an instance of a single women in this position (if you have one please send it on). This should not be entirely surprising given the later phenomenon of misogyny directed at these women brewers and the overarching fears of them cheating their customers, among other things.

But not all women accepted these regulations. And some fought back.

Enter Gillian. Referred to in the sources as the wife of Richard Pykard, as women were often only referenced in relation to their husbands or male kin, Gillian was having none of this. Indeed, in 1275 when these aletasters came to her household in Wakefield manor, she refused to comply and insisted she was going to brew her ale as she liked and that ‘she cared not at all about the orders of the bailiffs or even the earl’.[1]

Further, we have the case of the brewsters of Exeter, who in 1317 collectively protested against what they felt were unfair prices and regulations by refusing to sell their ale entirely.[2]

While these instances were few and far between, particularly in a time of such limited power for women, I think it’s pretty amazing that women were organizing against what they felt were unjust regulations; much like we saw with Nell McCafferty and her group of protesters in 20th century Ireland.




[1] Judith Bennett, Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women’s work in a changing world 1300–1600, (New York, 1996), p. 98.

[2] Bennett, Ale, p. 98.