Janet S. Loengard

title.none: Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England (Loengard)

identifier.other: baj9928.9806.007 98.06.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Janet S. Loengard , Moravian College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Bennett, Judith M. Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300 - 1600. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. xiv, 260. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-19-507390-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.06.07

Bennett, Judith M. Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300 - 1600. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. xiv, 260. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-19-507390-8.

Reviewed by:

Janet S. Loengard
Moravian College

Brewsters -- women brewers -- are old acquaintances for Judith Bennett. She dealt with them in her 1987 Women in the Medieval English Countryside and returned to the topic more specifically in articles such as "The Village Ale-Wife: Women and Brewing in Fourteenth-Century England" (1986) and "Women and Men in the Brewers' Gild of London, ca. 1420" (1996). Now she has written a book, short but ambitious, tracing the history of women ale-brewers in England from before the Black Plague to the early modern period. In a sense, it is two books in one, for it is not simply a chronological study of a craft and its personnel. Bennett's interest in large part is in women's work as a barometer of women's status. She describes the book as "a book about structural continuities enduring in the midst of enormous historical change" (p.8). The change occurred as brewing itself rose from being a low-status, low- paying cottage occupation in which women predominated and became a highly organized and profitable trade in which women gradually ceased to take part. The structural continuity is evidenced by women's new place in the drinks trade as employees: ale-carriers, ale-sellers, servants in brewhouses -- all of them low-status, low-paying jobs.

Six of the eight chapters are a closely-reasoned analysis of why women began to leave brewing after the Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century. "Leave" may not be the most appropriate word; in fact, they were slowly forced out by a combination of factors. Bennett argues that after the Black Death alebrewing expanded as fewer customers drank more per capita. Volume of sales, together with falling grain prices, meant higher profits and that, in turn, led to industrialization of the craft and its sharper division into alebrewers and alesellers. More ale was sold in alehouses for on-premises consumption (as opposed to sales in individual homes for off-premises consumption, as had earlier been the norm.) A wholesale trade developed and occasional and by-industrial brewers -- the latter defined as brewers, chiefly women, who worked from their homes and for whom brewing was not their chief occupation -- began to be replaced by what Bennett defines as professionals. Particularly in urban areas, larger premises, better equipment, and more servants became common. All this, of course, spelled difficulty for women, particularly for those Bennett refers to as "not-married" women in the trade: spinsters, singlewomen such as widows, and "others". Many had been only occasional brewers but few of them, however often they had once brewed, could expand to compete with industrial brewers. They did not have investment capital or access to ready credit; they could not afford larger premises and more equipment. Moreover, many were unable to maintain their authority over the large number of servants, most of them male, who would have been necessary for a successful venture. These changes proceeded at differing paces in different areas - not unexpectedly, women remained in the craft longer in rural areas and in the north - but by 1500, the trade had altered markedly. Not-married women took up other 'women's work,' that is, jobs which were low-status and low-paying and, in many instances, low-skilled: market-gardening, stocking- knitting, poultry-raising, huckstering, prostitution, and, above all, domestic service. As Bennett explains, women's occupations had shifted but their work status had stood still (p.59).

The reasoning is persuasive. One question is left unanswered, indeed unasked, perhaps because the answers cannot be recovered: Why did the effects of the Black Plague -- higher sales, lower grain prices -- lead to industrialization rather than to a proliferation of cottage enterprises? Was it perhaps in part the governmental response to the Plague -- the response which Robert Palmer has described as an effort to "coerce the lower orders to stand to their obligations"? [1] Brewers were, after all, mentioned in the Ordinance of Labourers and Servants of 1349. Was the industrialization of the craft necessary if alebrewers were to meet their obligations, given the death of so many occasional brewsters?

An even more important development occurred in the fifteenth century, with the introduction of beer-brewing into England and the new drink's growing popularity. So simple on its face, the advent of beer signalled a revolution in the brewing industry. Beer was cheaper to produce and yielded higher profits. It was much more stable than ale -- which soured in a day or two -- and could therefore be shipped longer distances. The result was that a brewer could produce and sell more because he or she could cover a larger territory. But beer-brewing was more labor-intensive, requiring more servants and equipment and the maintenance of a larger inventory of raw materials. Again, women could not compete. As a kind of coup de grace, most of the early brewers in England were not English but Dutch, and the Dutch tradition was of an industry populated by men. As summarized by Bennett, "To some extent, then, beerbrewing was a male trade because it was introduced through immigration skewed heavily in favor of males" (p.83). And as beer's popularity grew, ale's declined so that alewives lost both market and acceptance.

Some women, of course, worked together with their husbands in brewing and a chapter discusses them, focussing on London in part because the London Brewers' gild records are extraordinarily full for the first third of the fifteenth century. One is not surprised to learn that women were not full participants in gild life; they were never free of the gild, rarely wore its livery, and never participated in its governance. One is, rather, surprised to learn that in the early fifteenth century about one-third of the gild's members were women, joining either as individuals (even if married -- most female members were wives) or with their husbands. At least some of those husbands were not themselves brewers or did not brew as their chief occupation; they were, rather, assuming public responsibility for their wives' commercial activity. Married women in the field were, in Bennett's words, privatized. The eventual result was that the wives ceased to be gildswomen. By 1500, they no longer paid quarterage, even with their husbands, and the only women admitted to membership were widows. Bennett attributes this to many factors: the gild frowned on small enterprises, typically managed by women. It replicated the hierarchy of the civil government. It celebrated its male members in public displays. This last suggests a related idea to this reviewer: the Brewers' gild was not one of the great London livery companies. One reason may have been that it was late in incorporating; its charter dates from 1438. But might not another reason have been the very fact that the Brewers admitted women to membership, as most gilds did not (excepting widows of dead members)? And if so, might not one way of reaching for higher status have been to end the anomaly?

The last and in some ways most important chapters of the book deal with perceptions of the brewster -- by the law, by the community, in popular literature -- and their effect. Brewing had almost always meant regulation of a women's craft by men, since few women were aletasters, enforcers of the assize of ale. Thus the effect was to suggest a group of females consistently committing trade abuses while males tried vainly to keep them in line. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when licensing schemes came into being, the desire was for a smaller, more tightly-knit trade made up of larger producers who would be easier to control and tax. That translated, of course, into a preference for male brewers, who were additionally seen as more responsible financially and less likely to use deceptive practices or to keep disorderly houses. These last concerns seem to have been widely shared. [2] Popular comment said that women cheated their customers with false measures, brewed poorly, and overcharged for their ale. By the fifteenth century, brewsters were also depicted as encouraging immorality, as in William Langland's character Betoun the Brewster. Specifically sexually-related misconduct began to be mentioned: Lydgate, for example, wrote that brewsters flirted and teased, while a popular ballad assumed that such behavior was a necessary concommitant of alebrewing. Yet at the same time, alewives were maligned as old-fashioned, brewers of a drink fit only for the old and sick, or at least the unsophisticated. And finally, by the sixteenth century, the representations took still another turn: alewives were not only dishonest and disorderly, lustful and dangerous to men's souls and prosperity, they were also personally disgusting. They were physically filthy and their product was rather sensationally foul (the description of John Skelton's Elynour Rummyng, set out by Bennett, could keep anyone from ever touching strong drink again). There is no way to measure the effect of ballads and satires, of course. Bennett does not claim that they caused people to abandon the alehouses they had previously patronized. But at the very least, constant characterization of an entire group in these terms cannot have improved trade or encouraged women to take up brewing.

Bennett's last chapter is largely an exercise in feminist historiography. In part it is a recapitulation of what was said earlier; in part it is a call for historians to historicize patriarchy. The history of women, as women, has always been different from the history of men, as men; women were always "disempowered compared to men of their group" (p.153). Bennett does not wish to be seen as assigning that result to "nasty men" (p.153). What she has tried to do, she says, is to examine the way institutions and structures worked to maintain patriarchy in a given time and place. She finds its bulwarks existing in all areas of the society she has examined: family organization, legal practice, economic structures, and cultural presumptions. (Given that overwhelming array, chronicling patriarchy must certainly be simpler than dealing with it.) But Bennett's book can be read on two levels. Certainly it documents the course of yet another dance in which womeon never lead, to borrow her metaphor, but it is also an excellent, if sometimes repetitive, account of the metamorphosis of a medieval craft into an early modern industry over the course of more than three centuries.

NOTES 1. Robert C. Palmer, English Law in the Age of the Black Death (Chapel Hill and London, 1993), especially Part III, where the phrase is used several times.

2. They were not new to late medieval or early modern England. Three thousand-odd years earlier, the Code of Hammurabi -- which consistently refers to wine-sellers as "she" -- spoke darkly about the wine-seller who took too much or who made the measure of drink too small, or one who permitted malefactors to gather on her premises without arresting them: she was to be put to death (The Code of Hammurabi, sections 108 and 109). Given women's uncertain ability to act as bouncers -- which may also have contributed to their later reputation for keeping disorderly houses -- the provision seems harsh.