“Brewing”, “herbs,” “broomsticks,” “woman.” When one hears these words together, most often the assumption is that the person in question is a witch. Yet brewing has a very human meaning as well, one that revolves around the avarice of alcohol and its never-ending demand by consumers. It was from this alcoholic context that the trade of alewives arose, women in the Middle Ages through the early modern period who brewed and sold alcohol as a means of income. Due to the alewives’ skills in the kitchen, fashion sense, and the eventual rise of urban guilds, however, the alewife soon became a term synonymous with “witch.” It is likely from these practices that much of the modern views of the stereotypical witch began.
Brewing Was for Women
Brewing belonged to women from the medieval to early modern periods for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is the simple fact that women were tasked with proper kitchen chores, and brewing required many of them. Women kept the kitchen in order, made dough and baked bread; they planted and grew herbs, ground grains and boiled ingredients in a large black cauldron over a sweltering fire for stews. The practice, therefore, was rather economic for women to undertake.
It was not uncommon for women to utilize their children in their brewing endeavors. If she had a husband who had a position elsewhere, or was a widowed mother, it was a very sensible idea to incorporate her children. The alewife would be able to monitor her children (rather than sending them to school or hiring help, especially if neither could be afforded), teach them household tasks, and ensure her children stayed out of trouble, all the while working toward a productive financial outcome. Including the family in the production of alcohol also led to an increased supply, particularly if the children learned to work independently. The alewife suddenly had twice as much (or more) to sell for profit.
In addition to selling ale in public spaces, the households of these alewives were known to take on secondary roles as alehouses, where the women brewed and sold their product in a space akin to bars or taverns. Once again, having children who knew the procedure of brewing would have allowed the woman more freedom to run a proper alehouse if she chose to do so. Though her children would not necessarily stay with their mother forever in this role, it is likely the woman could gain a significant income and reputation before her children left to then be able to continue on without them, or even invest in help.
The physical appearance of witches was similarly inspired by the garb of alewives who chose to sell their products in marketplaces. Women in the early modern period often wore large conical black hats —the very same that children wear on Halloween nowadays. These hats were part of the period fashion, however, and were indicative of high-born ladies, allowing these women to be recognized for their social class from afar. Brewers adopted the habit (and some were well-off anyway) as a method by which to easily sell their product in crowded streets and public squares. Look for the black hat, and you’ll find yourself an alewife with product to sell.
Source: public domain