The dark history of women, witches, and beer

The history of women in brewing goes back millennia where it was a respected profession. How did it help give rise to our modern image of witches?

Billions of people enjoy a nice beer in the evening to unwind. Beer is the third most consumed beverage in the world after water and tea and has been an essential part of the human diet for at least 7000 years. Even for those of us who don’t like the stuff, the history of beer is a curious thing to study. Especially since it is Women’s History Month and the history of beermaking is primarily a history of women.


A history of female brewers

Beer was originally produced nearly exclusively by women, so say archeologists who study fermentation. With the ancient division of labor putting men out on the hunt, it was up to the women to collect the ingredients and brew the drinks. Evidence of brewing can be found as far back as the fifth millennium BCE in Iran and may have been referenced by an alewife in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest work of literature known.

It is thought that women brewed beer nearly exclusively across Mesopotamia right up until the rise of the Roman Empire when records show an increased number of male brewers in Egypt. Women continued to be the primary producers of beer in northern Europe, with women having a near monopoly on the production of homebrew in Viking Scandinavia. This tendency did decline, however, as feudalism began to restructure society during the dark ages.

A model depicting beer making in Ancient Egypt kept at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. (Wikicommons)

While men continued to take over the business of brewing, this didn’t stop women from still having some role, particularly in nunneries. The German polymathic nun St. Hildegard of Bingen has the distinction of being the first person to publicly recommend the use of hops in brewing for their “healing, bittering, and preserving” properties long before anybody else.  

However, things would go from difficult to life-threatening for many women in brewing, as persecution against suspected witches began to rise in Europe.

Wait, witches?

In the dark ages, brewsters, women who brewed beer, had some rather odd advertising methods. To be noticed in crowded markets, they tended to wear tall, pointed hats. To indicate when a brew was ready, broomsticks would be placed in the doorways of alehouses. Images of frothing cauldrons full of ready product and six-sided stars to indicate the quality of the brew also abounded. Lastly, out of manifest necessity, cats would be kept in the brewhouses to protect the grains from mice.

An image of Mother Louise, an Alewife in Oxford in the 1600s. Her entire ensemble screams "witch." (Wikicommons, original image by David Loggan)

While the connection between the imagery of a witch and a brewster is clear, the reasoning behind it remains a subject of debate. A writer for the German Beer Institute (of course they have one!) muses that “In a culture where beer defines part of the national character, the question of who controls the brew is paramount. He who has his hand on the levers of power, also has his thumb in the people’s beer mug”. With the enactment of standards of quality for beer in the 1500s, the oldest food purity laws still on the books, many women were forced out of the market due to increased production costs. In a few hundred years breweries were monopolized by men.

It would also be dangerous to be a woman with extensive knowledge of how herbs and plants could mix well together to provide nourishment and healing to the drinker when the inquisitions were at their height across Europe. As the production of beer would require these very skills, it wouldn’t be difficult to confuse the local alewife with a witch without malice. 

Some of the change in the ratio of men to women in brewing comes down to old-fashioned ideas on what women ought to be doing with their time. In 1540 the city of Chester banned women between the ages of 14 and 40 from being alewives in hopes of moving the trade towards women outside of childbearing age. While women in the profession during that time in England were accused of cheating customers and having several "undesirable" traits, records show women were no less trustworthy than men at the task. 

Which brings us to today

Women have long had a hand in brewing. With the poor quality of water before modern sanitation methods, these women played a vital part in keeping humanity healthy and nourished. While the occupation has long since been taken over by men in the west, it remained a woman’s job in parts of Latin America and Africa. As women begin to re-enter the brewing industry with fewer fears of being burned as witches, they can step into the shoes of countless brewsters before them. Beer lovers may rejoice at this news.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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