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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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.