Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

The traditional trappings of a witch are familiar to most of us.

Cauldrons, brooms, black cats and pointy hats are indelibly implanted in our collective consciousness as associated with witches. When we think ‘witch’, we most likely think of something quite similar. Something very Pratchett.


In preparation for Halloween this month, I would like to talk about a lesser known association with witches: I am going to talk about beer.

The history of witches is complex and fascinating. As well as historical fact, a vast number of works of fiction have influenced our modern perception of witches. Undeniably, there is a lot that could be unpicked but I am going to focus on one aspect that interests me.

Most people find beer interesting, right?

Yet most people might not know that for the majority of history, women were responsible for beer brewing.

Brewing was considered a female occupation as far back as the Ancient era. Ancient Egyptian and Sumerian women were known for engaging in it and both cultures had a female deity watching over brewing, Hathor and Ninkasi respectively.

In Chinese legend, it was a women, Yi Di, wife of Yu the Great, who actually invented the first alcohol from rice grains.

Dialling forward to Medieval England, beer brewing also fell within the female responsibilities around the home. Beer was often the safest drink available for the medieval family, including children, as water was not always sanitary. Women were responsible for the food and drink of the homestead and brewing beer became a part of that. Any surplus that female brewers made was then sold at market and women could make a fair amount of money through this.

The trappings we associate with witches had practical applications for these medieval female brewers.


BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 114v

A cauldron was used for the boiling ingredients to then be fermented, cats were common for keeping rats out of the grain store, brooms, or rather ale stakes, were put above the door of a brewer with ale for sale, and pointy hats were commonly worn to distinguish those with beer for sale at market.

So how did these become associated with witches instead?

The increase in witch accusations and witch hunting in the medieval period lead to an increased fear of women, especially independent women. It seems alewives matched this archetype. An unfortunate link between witches and these female business owners grew up.

In part this was also simply used as an excuse. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century, women were forced out of brewing. Perhaps because the trade became so lucrative and the female-domination of it was resented. Regardless of why, it is undeniable that alewives began to be depicted negatively, grotesquely and as swindlers and sinners.

The added association of them with witchcraft was a surefire way to ostracise women who continued to choose that trade.

ugly alewife

An illustration of an ugly alewife, Elinor Rumming, from a 16th century poem

But their contribution should not be forgotten.

Not only do we have women to thank for the creation of beer but they have contributed to an archetype that, be it positive or negative, has certainly influenced us.

Think about them as you sip your next pint.

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