Over a barrel

Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England
February 13, 1998

The historical study of drinking and brewing in England has come a long way in recent years. Back in 1973, for example, Alan Everitt could complain that apart from a few exceptions, the historical literature on the English inn constituted for the most part "a wretched farrago of romantic legends, facetious humour and irritating errors". Everitt's article on urban inns between 1560 and 1760 has been one of a larger body of works, including Keith Wrightson's study of alehouses in 17th-century rural England and Peter Clark's book on The English Alehouse 1200-1830, which has since helped to illuminate the fascinating history of these venerable institutions.

By focusing upon the ways in which women were involved in the production of ale and beer between 1300 and 1600, Judith Bennett is able to make an original contribution to this history of drinking and brewing in England. Furthermore, in arguing that the social position of women in the brewing trade remained essentially constant in spite of the major changes which took place in its organisation, Bennett outlines the factors which conspired to limit women's work opportunities over these centuries.

Bennett's study begins with a discussion of how ale was brewed from water, grain and yeast in medieval England; it is only in the 15th century that there is evidence for native brewers adding hops to create the bitter-tasting drink that we call beer today. Although our forebears appear to have consumed prodigious amounts of ale by modern standards, with the ration for monks and sailors, for example, being eight pints daily, it must be remembered that ale was also consumed as a foodstuff, and that it was apparently safer to drink than other liquids such as water.

In 14th-century England most of the brewing of ale was done by women, the brewsters of the book's title, as part of their domestic work, and surpluses of ale or particular batches might be sold to provide a source of income for the household. The sale of ale was regulated by the assize, which set down fair prices and measures, and these standards were enforced by ale tasters, whose enviable task it was to sample all of the brews on offer locally.

All these details are of course well known to historians of brewing, but Bennett's original contribution to the field is the study that she has made of the surviving records for breaches of the assize of ale. While we might expect that only a proportion of brewers would be fined for serving poor-quality ale or using short measures, in practice it appears that the assize acted as a licensing system in medieval England, with most brewers noted as being fined irrespective of whether or not they had actually broken the assize. Drawing upon these assize records from both rural manors and urban areas, Bennett is thus able to build up a picture of how the sex and marital status of brewers changed over the period 1300-1600. Bennett finds that while there was a transformation in the structure of the brewing industry in this period, from small, domestic production to larger breweries employing many people, there was not a corresponding change in the status of women's work in this trade. That is, in 1300 women were working in a trade that was low skilled and of a low status, and despite the considerable changes of the following centuries, in 1600 women were still engaged in low-status work in the brewing trade, selling ale as hawkers or tipplers while men managed the larger breweries.

This narrative of continuity in the midst of change is set out in five main chapters, with the penultimate chapter being a consideration of how ale-wives were represented in art and literature in the centuries which the book covers. Although Bennett responds to some previous criticisms of this material, this chapter could for example have benefited from a more critical consideration of the different ways in which grotesque images might function in texts and in drama, such as that provided by Mikhail Bakhtin in his book on Rabelais and his World.

Overall though, Bennett's volume will be of considerable interest to scholars and students working in a number of different areas; for historians of drinking and brewing in England, it provides an excellent coverage of the role of women in this trade between 1300 and 1600, and for those interested in economic and women's history, it presents a case study of the ways in which patriarchal values effectively constrained women's work opportunities over this period.

Chris Humphrey is a British Academy postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York.

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

Author - Judith M. Bennett
ISBN - 0 19 507390 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £42.50
Pages - 260

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