Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600

Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600

Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600

Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600

Synopsis

Women brewed and sold most of the ale drunk in medieval England, but after 1350, men slowly took over the trade. By 1600, most brewers in London--as well as in many towns and villages--were male, not female. Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England investigates this transition, asking how, when, and why brewing ceased to be a women's trade and became a trade of men. Drawing on a wide variety of sources--such as literary and artistic materials, court records, accounts, and administrative orders--Judith Bennett vividly describes how brewsters (that is, female brewers) slowly left the trade. She tells a story of commercial growth, gild formation, changing technologies, innovative regulations, and finally, enduring ideas that linked brewsters with drunkenness and disorder. Examining this instance of seemingly dramatic change in women's status, Bennett argues that it included significant elements of continuity. Women might not have brewed in 1600 as often as they had in 1300, but they still worked predominantly in low-status, low-skilled, and poorly remunerated tasks. Using the experiences of brewsters to rewrite the history of women's work during the rise of capitalism, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England offers a telling story of the endurance of patriarchy in a time of dramatic economic change.

Excerpt

When Denise Marlere died in February 1401, she left behind a thriving brewing business in the town of Bridgwater. She bequeathed the bulk of her business to her servant Rose: half of a tenement, all her brewing vessels with a furnace, three sacks full of malt, a cup, a brass pot, a pan, a goblet bound with silver, a chafing dish, two silver spoons, and some other carefully specified goods. She also left brewing utensils to other heirs, giving a leaden vat each to her parish church, her parish priest, and two local monasteries, and leaving to her daughter, Isabel, two more leaden vats, a brass 3 gallon pot, a pan, a mortar and pestle, and the proceeds of one brewing. A widow, Denise Marlere enjoyed a very comfortable standard of living, thanks in large part to her commercial brewing. Although brewing utensils and supplies made up the bulk of her estate, she also bequeathed 80 pounds of white wool (suggesting that she might have supported herself by spinning as well as brewing), several chests and other household goods, coverlets and other clothing, and considerable amounts of cash. For Denise Marlere, brewing for profit seems to have been very profitable indeed.

Denise Marlere represents the apogee of commercial brewing by women in medieval England. She brewed for more than 20 years, she managed a successful business, and she invested heavily in her equipment and supplies. Yet, although Denise Marlere's work was impressive and important, it was limited in critical ways. By the late fourteenth century, some brewers were supplying markets beyond their immediate neighborhoods (sending their ale to nearby villages or even abroad), but as far as we know, Denise Marlere sold ale only in the town of Bridgwater itself. By the late fourteenth century, some brewers were working in brewhouses, but Denise Marlere seems to have pursued her trade from within her home. And by the late fourteenth century, brewing was the primary occupation of some households, but for Denise Marlere, as long as her husband . . .

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