An old woman with a pointy hat, cauldron, broom, cat, and smelly brew? Why, she must be a witch! This tableau has titillated and thrilled and terrified Europeans and Americans for centuries. But this woman is not communing with the devil or cursing her neighbors. She’s not even making herbal remedies to heal the ailments of her village, as did so many women accused of witchcraft from the 14th to the 17th centuries. She’s just one of thousands of medieval/early modern brewsters — women who brewed ale to sell — trying to cobble together a living.

Transcript for Witches Brew: How the Patriarchy Ruins Everything for Women, Even Beer

Researched and written by Averill Earls, PhD

Produced by Averill Earls, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik

Elizabeth: Gather round, my pretties, for a tale so frightening, you’ll want to call your Senator.

Averill: In a little English village, there’s a small cottage, not quite in shambles but also not the marker of wealth, outside of which stands a woman who is hanging a heavy iron cauldron over a fire. Though it’s not a market day, she’s wearing her tall felt hat, because it catches the sweat of her brow better than her bonnet alone. This woman, we’ll call her Evelynn, back bent prematurely from a life of work and malnourishment rather than age, tips a pail of well water into the cauldron. It’s an unseasonably warm autumn day, and too hot to be brewing inside. She’s paid a boy from the village to haul water from the village well while she built the fire, and when she pours the first pail there is a satisfying hiss as the cold water hits the hot metal wall. She spent the morning grinding malted barley with mortar and pestle and making mash. Now she opens the vat containing the mixture and appraises the mash. It is thick and ready.  “Simmer, simmer, boil and bubble,” she sings softly to herself, willing the water to roil. When it does, she ladles the boiling water over the mash. She closes it up, tidies up her instruments while she waits, before adding the rest of the water to the mixture. Then she strains the liquid from the mash and pours it into the cauldron. Once she’s squeezed every last bit of wort from the mixture, she takes up her mortar and pestle again to grind bog-myrtle into a greenish brown paste, and adds this to the cauldron as well. She stirs it all together, letting the sweet resinous flavor steep in the wort. Once it has boiled for a while and thickens, filling her nose with the sharp scent of the wort and myrtle, she carefully tips the cauldron to pour off the mixture into her fermenting vat. She seals it up and hauls it into the house. She nearly trips over her cat, who yowls angrily at her before darting behind the sacks of barley and oats stacked along the back wall. Tomorrow she’ll add hot water steeped in oak chips to the mixture, and then let it sit for another day before putting her broom in the doorway to let the village know her brew was ready for sale.

Elizabeth: Not afraid yet? No, of course not. Who would be afraid of a middle-aged woman brewing ale in the middle of the day? No one, obviously. And yet, the tableau itself has titillated and thrilled and terrified Europeans and Americans for centuries: an old woman with a pointy hat, cauldron, broom, cat, and smelly brew? Why, she must be a witch!

Averill: Oh no, my darlings. This woman is not communing with the devil or cursing her neighbors. She’s not even making herbal remedies to heal the ailments of her village, as did so many women accused of witchcraft from the 14th to the 17th centuries. She’s just one of thousands of medieval/early modern brewsters — women who brewed ale to sell — trying to cobble together a living. The hat she wore because, as a fashionable look among noble women in the 17th century, it was both a marker of wealth and a way to be visible in a crowd on market day; the cauldron was essential equipment for the brewing of ale; the broom was a broom, but when hung on her door was a signal to passersby that the ale was ready; the cat kept the mice out of the grains she used for brewing; and the brew itself was a nutritious, weak alcoholic drink consumed by all medieval Europeans at all times of the day. These are not things that are frightening, no matter the time period you’re living in. Rather, it is the conflation of economically independent or powerful women with punishable-by-death witchcraft that should strike fear in our hearts; for the conflation of these things was facilitated by something far more insidious and horrifying: patriarchy. Dun dun dunnnnnn [scream noise]

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Elizabeth Garner-Masarik

And we’re your historians for this spooooooky episode of Dig.

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Elizabeth: The premise of this episode shouldn’t be all that surprising. If you’ve read just about any of the recent historical scholarship on witch hunts in early modern Europe, you already know that the patriarchy is the big burning pile of dogshit in the middle of the whole thing. Women who challenged male authority and power, who dared to be economically independent or speak out against social restrictions, or who were just outsiders because of their marital status, their skin color, their religion, or whatever, were all susceptible to accusations of witchcraft. Women were categorized as dangerous because who they were or what they did was an affront or challenge to the patriarchy. Patriarchy is, as Marina Watanabe succinctly puts it, “a sociopolitical and cultural system that values masculinity over femininity.” Sometimes the evidence of a patriarchal society is obvious. Marissa’s episode on coverture, in which a woman’s legal personhood was tied to her husband, is a great example of this. In patriarchal societies, women and femininity are constantly (though not necessarily consistently) being subjugated and subsumed by men and masculinity.

Averill: Before we dive all the way in — fellas, if you’re listening, this both is and isn’t about you. I know that you don’t intentionally perpetuate the patriarchy. Also, there are plenty of women who do their part to prop it up. I, in fact, just did it myself, by binarizing the gender system to just men and women. This is not an episode about how we hate men. It’s not even an episode about how I think there is a secret cabal of men sitting in a dungeon somewhere thinking up ways to minoritize and minimize women. It is an episode about how powerful the patriarchal system is, how it has shaped human experience from the 14th century to today, and how it ruined beer — or, at least, brewing beer — for women.

Elizabeth: The patriarchy is so powerful that something that was for hundreds of years “women’s work” was redefined as “men’s work” the moment that work gave too much influence to women. It’s so powerful that people burned the women and men in their towns and villages just because they challenged or tried to live outside the rules and regulations of the patriarchal society. There are, I hope, a thousand different ways that you can think of in which the patriarchy has prioritized men and masculinity, has silenced all those who don’t fit within those rigid definitions, and suffocated women, literally and figuratively.   

Averill: Patriarchy is hierarchical. That hierarchy can be seen in top-down histories, in which male kings and politicians and business executives massively outnumber females. It can be seen in the economic marginalization of women in Europe and the Americas. Historian Judith Bennett notes that medieval women made about 1d./day while men made 1 ½ or 2d./day when doing similar work, like brewing, as men. 700 years later, women still make just 80 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men.

Elizabeth: Europe and European-America have been mired in a constant patriarchal system for many, many centuries. We’re just reaching back to the year 1300 — but it definitely stretches further back. It can be harder to see now, because women are “allowed” to go to college, can keep their jobs even if they get married, can file rape charges against their husbands. Two hundred years ago, women were barred from higher education in Europe and the US; 50 years ago, Irish women had to give up their civil service jobs if they got married; until 1993, there were still states in the US where “marital rape” wasn’t considered possible, because a wife was obligated by the bonds of marriage to have sex with her husband even when she didn’t want to. It can be easy to ignore or not see where the patriarchy continues to dominate our lives today, because some of those more overt elements have been dismantled. That’s the nature of something as insidious as the patriarchy; it’s there, shaping the world around us. And we can talk more about the current patriarchy later, but for now, let’s focus on the patriarchy as it shaped our story of brewsters and witches.

Averill: So originally I didn’t think this episode was about the patriarchy. We have a friend, Jason (not to be confused with Elizabeth’s Jason) who is into home brewing and craft beers. One day we were talking about how awesome this podcast is, and I was like, I know, and he was like, I read this article about witches and beer, and you should do an episode about that! And I said what about witches and beer? And he said that the article claimed that the modern image of a witch was derived from female brewers in the middle ages. And I was like, send me that article, I am intrigued. So he sent me the article, it was from a site called Brew Hoppin, and indeed, they were claiming that the major components of the modern witch as we know her — the hat, broom, cat, cauldron, Bubble Bubble Toil and Trouble — were associated with brewsters in medieval Europe, women who made and sold ale. What the article failed to do, however, was to explain how the brewster look became the witch look. And that, to me, was the more interesting question. I followed all the linked citations, and of course almost none of this rando brewing website’s sources were connected to verifiable secondary or primary sources. Finally, one article that I landed on quoted liberally from this book, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England by Judith Bennett.

Elizabeth: That’s the historian who noted that medieval women made ⅔ of what men made all the way back in 1350.

An engraving featuring a woman with trademark witch chin, nose, and hat carrying tankards of ale

English alewife Mother Louse, C. Johnson, London, 1793 | George Glazer Gallery

Averill: Right. So I started with Bennett’s book, because this article had quoted her effectively to prove the point that the brewster look was associated with witchcraft. Long story short, her book doesn’t make the explicit connection between the brewster look and the modern witch. But it did help me make the connection between brewsters, witchcraft, and the patriarchy. So that’s why this episode is Witches Brew: How the Patriarchy Ruins Everything for Women, Even Beer.

Elizabeth: So let’s go back to our brewster, turning her malt, oats, water and yeast into ale. In the 14th century, before the Black Plague, just about everybody in Europe was brewing their own ale. It was a basic food group, providing much-needed calories in a world where the milk was being turned into butter and cheese, because those kept better, the water was likely to give you the runs, and wine was pretty expensive and being imported from wine-producing places like France and Italy. It goes without saying that people weren’t drinking tea at the rate that they will once Europe starts exploiting China; ditto for coffee and the Americas. Ale–which was a fermented grain-based beverage without hops–was basically the only beverage people were drinking in this time period. King Edward I provided his soldiers with 1 gallon of ale per day! Most people drank a little over a quart per day.

Averill: Significantly, from the 13th century through the 16th century, women were the primary brewers in England. We know this because ale and then beer brewing was one of the most highly regulated and taxed industries in medieval England. There is evidence that conditions were similar in Germany, France, and elsewhere, but Bennett’s study is specifically about England, so that’s where we will focus our discussion today.

Elizabeth: The process of brewing ale is basically what Ave described at the top of this episode – crushed malt and some other grain added to boiling water until its a porridgy mash, then strained, fermented, watered down, and fermented again. Yeast was available, but most people relied on yeasts in the air or yeasts cultivated by not washing their fermentation pot. Yum. Medieval ale only lasted a few days before souring. The introduction of hops in the 16th century lengthened the shelf life of brewed fermented beverages, and by decree of the king, brews that had hops were “beer,” distinct from “ale.”

Averill: All kinds of women brewed, and frequently. According to Bennett, “[In the Ballad of the Tyrannical Husband, said Husband’s wife] brewed at least once a fortnight; [the Anglican priest] William Harrison’s wife brewed once a month in the late sixteenth century; and even in the early seventeenth century, Gervase Markham offered extensive advice on domestic brewing in [the marriage instruction book] The English Housewife.” 1  Single, married, widowed; young, middle-aged, old; poor, middling, wealthy; with young children, older children, no children. We can make generalizations — generally married women with children old enough to help with other chores dominated the brewster profession — but there are lots of exceptions to the generalization, and if you are interested, you should 100% read Bennett’s book. There are some really interesting case-studies in there.  

Elizabeth: Before the Black Death, most women brewed just for their families, and occasionally made a surplus intentionally to sell at market. Between 1348 and 1350, about 1 in every 15 households in the towns, one-third of all village women, and about about half of all country households brewed for profit. 2  Most households profited from brewing; it was a “making enough for your family, and selling the extra” kind of business. To scale the business up required at least a little capital to buy the  equipment and ingredients, even if you were cutting the barley with cheap oats and other things, and you had to have the ability to dedicate time and energy to the brewing process. Women who had the means and ability to brew on a larger scale sold their potions either at the market, or directly to aristocratic households. For example, Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury, purchased about 125-150 gallons of ale every week from Alice Shepherd, a brewster from Potterne. 3 

Averill: As I said, because most medieval European women were married, most brewsters were married women, from moderately well-off families, in the later part of their childbearing years. Their brewing income supplemented their husbands’ income, rather than providing the entirety of a households’ income. There were, of course, single or widowed women for whom brewing was their sole income, but in the 14th century, that didn’t mean much, because it wasn’t particularly profitable — there were tons of regulations and fees that brewsters had to pay. Prices were set by a regulatory board, including the “aletaster” who would come and sample your brew, then decide how much it was worth. If you upcharged your product and got caught, you’d be fined. Most brewsters were fined — so it’s likely that they factored the overhead charge of a fine now and then into their profit margins.

Elizabeth: In the early 14th century, commercial brewing was widespread and unspecialized; it was possible to turn decent profits, but it was not profitable enough to attract men. Before the Black Death, which peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351, brewing was almost exclusively female work. Many towns and villages had exclusively feminine words to describe brewers, and only women appear in the local regulators’ records. 4  It was still subject to male control, of course. Husbands could decide when and how much wives could brew, and to whom wives could sell; and husbands could take the profits and do as they pleased with them. Further, the male agents of the courts and regulation boards decided the quality of their brew and what prices they could sell for. Brewing continued to be women’s work for about a century after the Black Death. It was low-skilled, low-status, and poorly compensated. They brewed in their homes or taverns, schlepped the ale to their customers on their backs, or carried their surplus to the market to sell. As long as it was only marginally profitable, it remained women’s work — which in turn meant that it was considered low-skilled and low-status.

Averill: But then the profitability of brewing shifted. The Black Death killed between 75 and 200 million people in Eurasia; historians estimate that England lost about half of its population in the 1348-51 wave of the plague, and another 20% of its population when the Black Death returned in 1361. Alehouses grew in popularity after the Black Death, and ale consumption increased, along with meat consumption, while bread and wine consumption decreased. By 1500 casual brewers declined; there were fewer brewers overall than before the Black Death, but serving the same number of people. That smaller number of brewers was thus serving much larger markets than previously. 5  Those who brewed, brewed consistently — no more selling once in one year, five times in the next; brewsters brewed and sold consistently. It became, in effect, an industry, rather than the piecemeal by-industry it had been. Finally, men were attracted to it. According to Bennett, by the 16th century brewing had established guilds in London, Oxford, and Southhampton. Brewer guilds, like all other guilds, excluded women de facto. By the mid-16th century, the profitability of brewing was solidified; brewers were serving regularly in urban public offices throughout England.  6 When it was men’s work, it was a profoundly profitable industry. Women continued to brew after 1500 — but not on the scale of men, unless they were helping their husbands, or brewing and selling in secret.

Elizabeth: Not-married brewsters, including single women living in their father’s household and widows, were the first to go entirely. Living on a brewster income alone was effectively poverty prior to the 16th century. Not-married brewsters disappeared (or were pushed out of the industry) by the mid-15th century. 7  Because of the consolidation and profitability of the industry after the Black Death, brewing shifted from a by-industrial trade of wives, where they brewed and sold to supplement the household income, to a professional trade of husbands. For the most part this was done quietly, phasing women out of the business through the exclusionary practices of guilds and property and licensing laws granted to husbands. But at other times, the envoys of the patriarchy just straight up told women they weren’t allowed to brew anymore. In Chester, the town council banned women between the ages of 14 and 40 — childbearing ages — from working in alehouses in the year 1540. Presumably the men of the town were concerned that exposure to the ribaldry of the tavern would compromise the respectability and trustworthiness of women’s childbearing years.

Averill: Long before they were shunted aside by the patriarchal professionalization of brewing, however, the social status of brewsters — of women who brewed — was constantly under fire in the public discourse. Medieval people, particularly men, loved to hate brewsters. The earliest depictions of brewsters in ballads and pamphlets accuse these women of lying and cheating to get better prices out of their weak and adulterated ales. And to be fair, many, many of them did just that! And so did the few men who entered the business early — and all the men who joined it once it was professionalized. Cutting your “strong ale” with the weak, watered down stuff to fetch a better price was almost expected of brewers. But when that common practice was discussed in popular culture, the emphasis was always that this was a female practice, that only brewsters were this way, and that only brewsters should not be trusted. Male brewers were almost never the target of these diatribes.

Elizabeth: As brewing began to professionalize, the charges against brewsters turned quite nasty. Women were accused of tainting the ale with all kinds of gross things — we’ll give you an example in a second — including their own bodies. They were characterized not just as liars and cheaters, but as temptresses, whores, and, of course, as witches. As historian Marrianne Hester notes, “laboring women, widowed and possibly older, and poor women were vulnerable to charges of witchcraft; women who were in competition with men in areas such as brewing were also vulnerable.” 8  Once brewing was man’s domain, women who dared to linger there did so at great personal risk.

Averill: The slanderous and, presumably comical, popular and high-culture depictions of brewsters abound. In the 15th century, the famed English poet and tutor of Henry VIII, John Skelton,  wrote “The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng.” He promises: “And to you shall be tolde
Howe hyr ale is solde To Mawte and to Molde.” Conveying the moral decrepitude of a brewster, who tempted men to drink themselves stupid, Skelton writes that the ale Elynour brewed would be sold to “To travellars, to tynkers, To sweters, to swynkers, And all good ale drynkers, That wyll nothynge spare, But drynke tyll they stare, And brynge themselfe bare.” In this poem, Skelton writes that Elynour let her hens roost above the mash. When they took a shit, they did so straight into the pot. She would shoo the hens away, and then skim the dung onto a tray with the yeast. Then she’d mix the dung and the ale together. In the introduction of Pasquil’s Jests, a seventeenth-century book of humorous stories, the collection’s narrator, Mother Bunch, is described as “an excellent companion, and sociable, she was very pleasant and witty, and would tell a tale, let a fart, drink her draught, scratch her arse, pay her groat, as well as any Chemist of ale whatsoever. From this noble Mother Bunch proceeded all our great greasy Tapsters, and fat swelling Alewives, whose faces are blown as big as the froth of their Bottle-ale, and their complexion imitating the outside of a Cook’s greasy dripping pan.” Well beyond cutting strong ale with weak ale, these kinds of characterization of the alewife or brewster were widespread. Such women were said to spit into the ale as it brewed, stir it with dirty hands, allow their snot and sweat to drip into the pot. They were disgusting, ugly old crones, taking up space that didn’t belong to them.

Elizabeth: While we can’t take these sorts of fictional stories as actual public opinion, because they were, after all, made in jest, they certainly reflect an undercurrent of misogyny. Such women were characterized thusly because they sought economic independence; and by the 16th century, because they competed with men in the brewing industry. Significantly, there weren’t these kinds of disgusting stories circulating about male brewers. While people who sold food and drinks were generally regarded warily, none were depicted so viciously in popular culture as brewsters. A brewster before brewing was a man’s domain was depicted as untrustworthy and conniving, characterization consistent with the broader misogyny of medieval Europe. A brewster after the Black Death, women who persisted in the business after men had claimed it for themselves, were far worse: alewives were seen as sexually uncontrolled, driven by “beastly lust” and “foul delight;” they were gross, tainted, cavorting with devils. 9  As Bennett notes, “In ballads, tracts, popular prints, pamphlets, and other media, ordinary people expressed a fearful dislike of alewives.” 10  They were just the sort of women you’d expect to be strapped to a stake and burned for witchcraft.

A chiarascuro woodcut featuring several naked women riding goats and sitting around a brewing pot

Hans Baldung Grein, The Witches, 1510 | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Averill: That said, I haven’t found any evidence to suggest that brewsters were more likely to be accused of or killed for witchcraft than other women. Bennett certainly doesn’t make that claim. So the link between the brewster getup and the modern witch was not one established alongside the Elynour Rummyngs of the 15th century or the Mother Bunches of the 17th. During the witch craze itself, witches tended to be depicted in art in the nude or wearing the basic garb of the time period. Hans Baldung Grien’s 1510 The Witches, for example, which we will put in the transcript, is an image of four women, all completely nude, hanging out in the woods. One, the youngest of the four, is riding a flying goat. Another, the oldest and wrinkliest of the group, is standing in the middle of a tree, maybe growing out of the tree?, and holding up a plate of roasted bird and fruit. There’s some like, creepy man creature standing just over her shoulder. And the other two are just lounging on the forest floor. There is a cat nearby, and one of the women has a spoon and a narrow pot or vessel, but probably not brewing equipment. Similarly Albrecht Dürer “Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat” has the offending woman nude, with shriveled old breasts, and weird cherub babies strewn about on the ground below. No cat, no hat, not even a cauldron. Though Renaissance scholar Margaret Sullivan argues that Baldung and Durer’s woodcuts are too early to be reflective of the witch craze, both are dated several decades after the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, the “Hammer of Witches,” which was the key witchhunting text written by the Dominican priests Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger with the blessing of the pope. If Baldung and Durer was expressing the humanist forms of Renaissance art, as Sullivan suggests, he was also capturing the suspicions about witches — all the witches in these images are women, of course — as laid out in the Inquisition’s key witch hunting text.

An etching of a windy landscape with three witches and scotsmen talking in the foreground

William Woollett
Macbeth and the Witches, 1770 | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elizabeth: Even if Baldung’s works weren’t created at the height of the witch craze, Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth were. It’s hard to imagine that Shakespeare wasn’t at least aware of the intense witch hunt that Scottish king James IV led in 1597, trying and killing over 200 women. James led another two major witchhunts in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Perhaps Shakespeare thought of brewsters when he had the women gather around a cauldron to see the future, but artistic renderings of these women rarely cross beyond the cauldron itself into the realm of brewster-as-inspiration in terms of costume. Still, what Macbeth’s witches lack in physical resemblance to the typical brewster, they make up for in other ways. Like the reviled brewster, Macbeth’s witches are temptresses; they get him drunk on the lust for power and ruin his life; and they occupy space outside the control of men. In one 1770 woodcut, like the 16th century engravings from Baldung and Durer, Macbeth’s witches aren’t hideous, or holding brooms, but their sexuality and “foul delight” is on display. They’re bare breasted, drawing their male quarry in to stray from a better, more Godly path. In that way, at least, they are like brewsters. But that could be said about women more broadly. Women who did not conform to the quiet, subservient madonna so popular in Judeo-Christian ideology would be susceptible to accusations of witchcraft. Undoubtedly there are depictions of prostitutes and adultresses that share the forms and function of the 18th century Macbeth scene and Baldung’s The Witches.

Averill: The shift, the moment when the brewster-witch connection begins to take shape, starts in the 17th

An etching of a wizened, naked old woman riding a goat backwards surrounded by fat cherubs

Albrecht Duhrer, “Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat,” 1868 | The British Museum

century. There was, of course, a difference between the elaborate images created by artists like Baldung and Durer and those printed en masse to accompany witch trial pamphlets and broadsheets. Because they were quite costly to produce, woodcuts tended to be reused over and over — a fact that will be significant once the brewster costume is adopted by this medium in depictions of witches. But until the 18th century, the mass-produced images of witches were pretty simple. They had clues drawn from works like Malleus Maleficarum and Daemonology for identifying witches, like animal familiars and devils with whom to commune, and were generally ugly older women with hooked noses. Similarly a sketch from Dutch artist Jacques de Gheyn II from 1600 starts to look the way brewsters like Ellynour Rummyngs and Mother Bunch were described: hooked noses, hideous old crones, gathered around a cauldron that could very easily be a brewing kettle, with a black cat perched nearby. But still, these images could be any old woman pushed to the fringes of society.

Elizabeth: One of the first woodcuts of an alewife was an illustration printed to accompany the verses about Ellynour Rummyngs. In this particularly unflattering portrait, a pock- and hook- nosed Ellynour stands splayed with a tankard of ale in each hand. She is intentionally asymmetrical, wearing a tall pointed hat, her hair lanky and wild, and body wide and asymmetrical. Similarly In 1650 a popular woodcut of a brewster nicknamed Mother Louse was printed that most any audience today would likely assume is a portrait of a witch. She wears a tall black hat with a wide brim, her face is drawn in a sharp profile, with a pointed chin and nose. She wears a ruffled collar and apron, and in the upper righthand corner is her “crest,” a shield with three lice.

Averill: In the background is her alehouse, with the name “Louse Hall” written on it. At the bottom of the image is a verse that reads: “ You laugh now Goodman two shoes, but at what? My Grove, my Mansion House, or my dun Hat; Is it for that my loving Chin & Snout Are met, because my Teeth are fallen out; Is it at me, or at my RUFF you titter; Your Grandmother you Rouge nerewore a fitter; Is it at Forebead’s Wrinkle, or Cheek’s Furrow, Or at my Mouth, so like a Coney-Borrough, Or at those Orient Eyes that nere shed tear, But when the Excisemen come, that’s twice a year. Kiss Me & tell me true, & when they fail, Thou shalt have larger Potts & stronger Ale.”

Elizabeth: This image of Mother Louse plays on all the old stereotypes of brewsters: in her hand she holds two cups, with which she will cheat customers out of their ale pours. As the poem suggests, when the aletaster comes twice a year to check on the quality of her ale, she is forced to sell her product at the regulation board’s rate, which is the only time she cries. Her tavern is called “Louse Hall” for its reputation for filth and poverty; it was originally an asylum for the poor when it was built in the 16th century, but she took it over as alewife selling her brew. She is old, ugly, unfashionable — indicated by her ruffle, which was well out of style by 1627 — and precisely the sort of woman whose 1627 establishment, if she didn’t have a husband running the business, would attract the ire of the “legitimate” brewers of Oxford, where Louse Hall was located.

A woodcut of a witchy looking woman holding two tankards of ale

Elinour Rummin, a notorious English ale-wife, 1624 | Wellcome Collection

Averill: By crafting this narrative of disorderliness, ugliness, and unsavoriness, men made beer and ale and its associated businesses — from brewing the product to selling it in markets, direct-to-customer, or in taverns, to the alehouses themselves — unwelcome spaces for women. Women who spent time in alehouses were morally suspect. According to the lore, if they were tavern owners’ wives, there was a good chance the tavern owner was being cuckolded; if they were merely hanging around, they were prostitutes. Women could not sustain the madonna ideal if they were tied to the brewing industry. With the exception of wives working in the background, and widows taking over the business when their husbands died, women were elbowed out of brewing by the end of the 17th century. As if to solidify their unwelcomeness and reputation, the woodcuts of women like Elynnor Rummyngs and Mother Louse made perfect models for the mass-produced witch woodcuts of the 18th century.

Elizabeth: In addition to the old markers of witchiness like animal familiars and devils, in the 18th, witches started flying on broomsticks, wearing tall black hats over bonnets, and toiling over cauldrons. Long after the women who were killed as witches were dead, their stories were retold and reprinted in works like the 1720 The History of Witches and Wizards and John Ashton’s Chap-book of the Eighteenth Century, a collection of supernatural stories and their accompanying woodcuts from the 18th century. The tendency of printers to use the same woodcuts to illustrate different texts continued, and those pointy-hatted, broomstick riding brewsters became the face of witchcraft from the 18th century, surviving, quite obviously, to today. Notably, in images from texts like The History of Witches and Wizards, only the witches — the females — wore those pointed hats. Wizards wore hats, but short and, presumably, stylish. Witches alone were shown in those tall pointy hats, which hadn’t been in fashion since the 17th century. Even if the brewster link is a coincidence, clearly this was a jab at women who might be stepping outside their socially-accepted roles and expectations. She’d wear that hat because of what she thought it represented, even if it was above her true station in life and a century out of style.  

Averill: Those patriarchy-fueled connotations about brewsters as evil hags, as witch-like as one could get,

A woodcut depicting a male and female witch riding brooms with a black demon

The History of Witches and Wizards, 1720 | Wellcome Collection

were not merely relegated to Halloween costumes and Hollywood technicolor productions. In the final chapter of her book, Judith Bennett discusses a US Supreme Court decision that upheld four-hundred years of the patriarchal assumptions and regulations of women who wanted to work in ale houses. In 1948 Justice Felix Frankfurtuer was deliberating on a law that prevented women from working in taverns or alehouses unless their husbands or fathers were the owners. Bennett quoted very briefly from the Majority decision, which upheld this stupid law, even though it discriminated based on both sex and marital status.

Elizabeth:  We are, to be sure, dealing with a historic calling. We meet the alewife, sprightly and ribald, in Shakespeare, but centuries before him she played a role in the social life of England. The Fourteenth Amendment did not tear history up by the roots, and the regulation of the liquor traffic is one of the oldest and most untrammeled of legislative powers. Michigan could, beyond question, forbid all women from working behind a bar. This is so despite the vast changes  in the social and legal position of women. The fact that women may now have achieved the virtues that men have long claimed as their prerogatives and now indulge in vices that men have long practiced, does not preclude the States from drawing a sharp line between the sexes, certainly, in such matters as the regulation of the liquor traffic….Since bartending by women may… give rise to moral and social problems …[and] Michigan evidently believes that the oversight assured through ownership of a bar by a barmaid’s husband or father minimizes hazards that may confront a barmaid … This Court is certainly not in a position to gainsay such belief by the Michigan legislature. If it is entertainable, as we think it is, Michigan has not violated its duty to afford equal protection of its laws.

Averill: Thanks, Judge Frankfurter. And also, fuck youuuuu. The brewster, in the end, was exactly the sort of woman that a patriarchy-fueled witch hunt would search out to destroy. And the cultural memory of the freedom and independence brewsters had, and the disgust the patriarchies of Europe and the Americas had toward those kinds of women, continues today! One need only consider how men treat female bartenders and waitstaff. Their proximity to alcohol seems, to some patrons, to advertise sexual availability. So the legacy of these women, these brewsters, as hijacked by the patriarchy is: sexualization and assault of female employees of bars; the Wicked Witch of the West; and to bring it all back together, the sexy witch costume of your choice at your local Party City.

Elizabeth: Happy fucking Halloween.

Averill: To summarize, sure, there are some solid connections between the costume of the Brewster and the modern witch. That image was solidified by repeated use of the same woodcuts in the 18th century, long after the real witches themselves were dead. But more importantly, I think, the patriarchy ruins everything for women. And now we can add beer to that very long list.

Elizabeth: Register to vote.

Averill: The end/beginning. I hope you enjoyed this episode; be sure to check out all the images we’ve been describing on the transcript of this episode at You’ll also find a long list of my sources for this episode, including a bunch of awesome digitized primary sources — if you’re a teacher and you have the witch craze on your syllabus, or you’re like me and you’re designing a witchcraft class now because of this episode, it’s literally a TREASURE TROVE out there on the interwebs. There are so many more that I didn’t have time to read before I wrote this… enjoy.

Elizabeth: Talk to us! We love to hear from you. You can always email us at, or chat with us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest – find us at dig_history.

Goodbye! Fight the patriarchy!


There are so many digitized primary sources for studying witchcraft. If you’re planning on teaching about the witch craze or even designing an entire class on it (like I am!!) then here are some sources to get you started:

A Rehearsal both Strange and True (1579)

News from Scotland (1591)

Digitized WOODCUTS OF WITCHES, mostly from The History of Witches and Wizards

John Ford, A True Declaration of the Manner of Proceeding Against Elizabeth Sawyer, Late of Edmonton, Spinster, and the Evidence of Her Conviction (1895)

Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Malleus Mallificarum, translated by Rev. Montague Summers

Thomas Potts, Pott’s Discovery of witches in the county of Lancaster (1745)

Edward Stephens, A collection of [Chapbooks of] modern relations of matter of fact, concerning witches & witchcraft upon the persons of people. (London Chatto and Windus, 1882).

William White, Notes and Queries: A Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, Etc, Volume 19 (Bell, 1859) 275-276.

Secondary Sources

Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, and Gareth Roberts, Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Annie Bender, “Halloween witches resemble medieval beermakers, says Waterloo historian,” CBC Kitchener-Waterloo (27 Oct 2015)

Judith M. Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England : Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 (Oxford University Press, 1996).

John Crabb, “Woodcuts and Witches,” Public Domain Review (4 May 2017)

Elaine Crane, Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores : Common Law and Common Folk in Early America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).

Kat Eschner, “How New Printing Technology Gave Witches Their Familiar Silhouette,” Smithsonian Magazine (30 Oct 2017)

Susan Frye and Karen Robertson, Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 1996).

Gary F. Jensen, The Path of the Devil: Early Modern Witch Hunts (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).

Brian P. Levack, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Routledge, 2006).

Brian P. Levack, The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Robert Poole, The Lancashire Witches : Histories and Stories (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002).

Margaret Sullivan, “The Witches of Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien,” Renaissance Quarterly
Vol. 53, No. 2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 333-401

I also read these articles, but they aren’t great — not a ton of good source materials used in the writing of them:

Kharla Graham, “The Truth of Women and Beer: Witches, “ Brew Hoppin (30 Oct 2015)

Scotty Hendricks, “The dark history of women, witches, and beer,” Big Think (Mar 2018)

Helen Thompson, “How Witches’ Brews Helped Bring Modern Drugs to Market,” Smithsonian Magazine (31 Oct 2014).

Riley Winters, “Bubbling Brews and Broomsticks: How Alewives Became the Stereotypical Witch,” Ancient (1 Aug 2017).

How the Patriarchy Ruins Everything for Women, Even Beer

  1. Judith M. Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England : Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 (Oxford University Press, 1996) 18.
  2. Bennett, 19.
  3. Bennett, 34.
  4. Bennett, Chapter 2.
  5. Bennett, 46-47.
  6. Bennett, 50.
  7. Bennett, 38.
  8. Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, and Gareth Roberts, Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief (Cambridge University Press, 1998) 305.
  9. Bennett, 133.
  10. Bennett, 128.


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