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

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Women brewed and sold most of the ale consumed in medieval England, but after 1350, men slowly took over the trade. By 1600, most brewers in London were male, and men also dominated the trade in many towns and villages. This book asks how, when, and why brewing ceased to be women's work and instead became a job for men. Employing a wide variety of sources and methods, Benn Women brewed and sold most of the ale consumed in medieval England, but after 1350, men slowly took over the trade. By 1600, most brewers in London were male, and men also dominated the trade in many towns and villages. This book asks how, when, and why brewing ceased to be women's work and instead became a job for men. Employing a wide variety of sources and methods, Bennett vividly describes how brewsters (that is, female brewers) gradually left the trade. She also offers a compelling account of the endurance of patriarchy during this time of dramatic change.


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Women brewed and sold most of the ale consumed in medieval England, but after 1350, men slowly took over the trade. By 1600, most brewers in London were male, and men also dominated the trade in many towns and villages. This book asks how, when, and why brewing ceased to be women's work and instead became a job for men. Employing a wide variety of sources and methods, Benn Women brewed and sold most of the ale consumed in medieval England, but after 1350, men slowly took over the trade. By 1600, most brewers in London were male, and men also dominated the trade in many towns and villages. This book asks how, when, and why brewing ceased to be women's work and instead became a job for men. Employing a wide variety of sources and methods, Bennett vividly describes how brewsters (that is, female brewers) gradually left the trade. She also offers a compelling account of the endurance of patriarchy during this time of dramatic change.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    Mel

    Very good academic history on two of my favourite subjects, women’s history and ale! It covers the period from 1300 where brewing was a predominantly female industry and all Brewers were Brewsters (a word for women in a profession which has fallen so out of use that word thinks it’s a spelling mistake), to the 1600s when it had become a predominately male industry. Bennett examined the causes for both of these things. How the work changed during that time period. How the work became more valued Very good academic history on two of my favourite subjects, women’s history and ale! It covers the period from 1300 where brewing was a predominantly female industry and all Brewers were Brewsters (a word for women in a profession which has fallen so out of use that word thinks it’s a spelling mistake), to the 1600s when it had become a predominately male industry. Bennett examined the causes for both of these things. How the work changed during that time period. How the work became more valued and profitable and as a result of that more male. While women changed their work from brewing to other forms of labour which weren’t considered valuable. It challenged the idea that in an earlier golden age women were more able to work. The book also looked at how these women who did work as Brewers were portrayed in the popular imagination in literature, ballads and plays in which they were considered to be sexually aggressive and cheats. The book started with the question of how has this changed? If women were given inferior jobs then and now, then the answer would be not much. P. 7 Looks at “the pioneering work of Alice Clark”. “Before the rise of capitalism and industrialism, women enjoyed what the medievalist Eileen Power called a rough and ready quality with men, afterward everything went downhill. Brewing seemed to fit this pattern nicely, for before brewing expanded, capitalised and centralised women brewed, afterward they increasingly did not. P 59 As stocking knitting and lace making developed in England, many not married women (and many wives) found employment in producing such goods. Not married women also worked in other aspects of victualing – in making cheese, gardening for market, raising poultry, and huckstering food stuffs in cities and towns. Other not married women supported themselves in less legal ways, profiting from smuggling or prostitution or petty thievery. And of course many not married women… worked as domestic servants in town or country, and others received wages as common day labourers. … Most important whatever the work of non married women in 1600 it was viewed (like the work of their forebears in 1300) as low skilled and low status work, and it yielded poor remuneration. Low in perceived skill, low in conferred status, low in pay or profits. This is the sort of work that not-married women had found in brewing in 1300. P 60 in 1300 it was most common to buy ale from married Brewsters… talks about how women were independent of their husbands as the brewsters and how this changed by 1600. How records can obscure the wives’ rolls as husband is “legally responsible”. p. 61 “In February 1418 William Porlond was appointed clerk of the Brewers’ Guild of London, and he began immediately to record information about the gild in a book which he kept from his initial appointment to his death in 1438. He recorded not only miscellaneous petitions, arguments, and accounts but also information about personnel of the guild. … For the first seven years of his book (1418-25) we have a complete list of members and for 1420-21 in particular, we know who paid quarterage (or annual dues) to the guild, who attended the gild breakfast, and who wore the gild livery (distinctive clothing) of either hood or gown, who feasted at the gild dinner, who joined as new members, and who acquired the freedom of the city, through the gild. … Porlond’s records show that about one third of the members of the Brewers’ guild were women, and indeed that most of these women were wives.” P 62 wives joined the guild as members while their husbands perused other trades. P 64 between 1418 to 1424 between 78 and 152 women paid dues each year. (exact figures on table p. 65) P 70 in 1421 155 people attended the guild dinner 36 wives and 6 women alone… women accounted for one in three members of the guild but only one in four at the dinners. Women didn’t wear livery, didn’t attend the annual breakfasts and were excluded from the committees and decision making, the political side of the guild. 71 the third and final tier of gild life, participation in gild politics, seems to have been entirely closed to female members. … no woman served as master of the gild. P 79 beer was an alien drink, produced by aliens and drunk by aliens P 122 has a lawyer in the US in 1948 writing an opinion for the supreme court that bartending by women may give rise to moral and social problems because of ale wives… to justify banning women from selling liquor unless working in establishments owned by their fathers or husbands! p 147 The history of brewing offers no evidence of a medieval rough and ready equality between the sexes or of a medieval golden age for women. When women brewed, it was a humble employment, offering little prestige and little profit. Compared to other sorts of work available to women, brewing was a good option, but compared to the sorts of work available to men, it was a poor option indeed The history of brewing also offers no evidence of a descent from paradise. Brewsters worked less frequently in 1600 than in 1300 but they had not lost a high status trade; they hadn’t, instead, failed to participate in an ascent to paradise, failed to hold on to the once modest trade of brewing as it grew in profits and prestige. The history of brewsters shows, first that even the best women’s work in the middle ages was humble work … and second that the enduring characteristics of low status, low skilled and low profit describe women’s work in 1300 as well as in 1600…. P 150-151 looks at how the variety of factors took away women’s ability to stay in the industry when it became more prestigious.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Emmkay

    I enjoyed geeking out on this academic study, which focuses on a time period in which there was a shift from ale, brewed primarily by small-scale female 'brewsters,' to ale and beer brewed primarily by professionalized, larger-scale male brewers. Very interesting historiographically, as the details are not easy to get at through the available records. Much food for thought, and filled with what were to me fascinating details, even if rather drily written from the perspective of a general audienc I enjoyed geeking out on this academic study, which focuses on a time period in which there was a shift from ale, brewed primarily by small-scale female 'brewsters,' to ale and beer brewed primarily by professionalized, larger-scale male brewers. Very interesting historiographically, as the details are not easy to get at through the available records. Much food for thought, and filled with what were to me fascinating details, even if rather drily written from the perspective of a general audience.

  3. 4 out of 5

    AskHistorians

    A master class in how to find and tell women's stories when the sources don't want you to. In addition to uncovering the life and death of a world of women who brewed ale in medieval England for their families and as a profession, Bennett explains in depth how she used different types of court records, civic ordinances, art, guild archives, and literature to build her argument.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jenny

    Bennett argues that mainly married women brewed commercially, but it was more out of necessity than for profit. Women enlisted the help of their children and had access to the materials for brewing in their home. Women could handle the work of brewing and reaped the benefits in a positive way by being able to represent themselves in court. All types of women could brew, but it was harder on not married women because they did not have financial support from a husband. Women joined Brewers’ Guilds Bennett argues that mainly married women brewed commercially, but it was more out of necessity than for profit. Women enlisted the help of their children and had access to the materials for brewing in their home. Women could handle the work of brewing and reaped the benefits in a positive way by being able to represent themselves in court. All types of women could brew, but it was harder on not married women because they did not have financial support from a husband. Women joined Brewers’ Guilds, many with the help of their husbands. Women were the face of in industry in these guilds, but in reality, the husbands had little to do with the brewing industry at the time. After the Black Death, brewing became more industrialized. During this time brewing moved from a supplemental income to the main source of income and became a more male dominated industry. The brewing industry also changed with the introduction of hops. Ale was a female industry. When hops were added, ale became beer, men began to have more of a presence as brewsters, and with these changes, beer became more popular. This change in industry was advanced by alien, or foreign, brewers who only hired men. Assize court wanted to keep brewing local and imposed regulations, including advertising amounts of beer available for sale. Both men and women were opposed to these new regulations, but it was the women who refused to sell because of these regulations. Beer was monitored daily and regulations included fines, forfeitures, and corporal punishments like the use of the cucking stool. Sexism became prevalent in Assize court, siding more with the male population. This change became widespread in the public’s eye and the ale wife was now viewed as a cheater while ale houses were known as prostitution hubs. This book is a highly detailed case study of women as brewsters during a 300-year period in England. Bennett’s facts at times seem to contradict each other, but I believe that this may be due to the intense amount of facts that were inserted into the book. This book tells a story that many women know very well. Women work in a non-illustrious industry and become good at what they do. The industry begins small and is not very profitable, but women excel to support themselves or their family. The industry changes to big business, becomes highly profitable, and due to the nature of a patriarchal society, men take over. This story has implications that date back to the 14th century but are still relevant today. I commend the author for researching the topic of women as brewsters in early England, but I wish that she had presented this case study in a more readable way. I sincerely hope that more people research this topic and publish their case studies in a more story-like fashion.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Alyssa

    As far as sociological, economical, academic historical analysis goes... - this was gripping! 75% completed but I got what I wanted from this book. Bennett discusses the topic of women working in low pay low skill jobs by challenging the traditional argument that this is the consequence of patriarchy and deliberate suppression. She instead challenges that this is a nuanced issue that stems more deeply from issues in social structure that distanced women from having access to the resources necess As far as sociological, economical, academic historical analysis goes... - this was gripping! 75% completed but I got what I wanted from this book. Bennett discusses the topic of women working in low pay low skill jobs by challenging the traditional argument that this is the consequence of patriarchy and deliberate suppression. She instead challenges that this is a nuanced issue that stems more deeply from issues in social structure that distanced women from having access to the resources necessary to compete with men within a growing and industrializing trade. These inaccessible resources include limited access to loans, being granted significantly smaller loan amounts than men, difficulty maintaining or leading servants or employees (especially male), limited or rare access to guild resources and knowledge etc. She also does very thorough research to suggest a need to consider that statistics are skewed by women who where the sole brewers of a household (and sole producers of that source of income) but did so register under/the property and tools for brewing were owned under their husband's name. Thus giving an inaccurate impression of the gendered division of labor by a strictly statistical analysis. Solid sources, detailed analyses, and a strikingly thorough nuanced argument given. Very informative - this is a monumental contribution to the field.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mathew Powers

    I forgot about this book until a workmate of mine brought it up to me today, but the knowledge obtained from this book has never left me since reading it in grad several (many?) school years ago. Dr. Bennett's career work speaks for itself, and this book only demonstrates why she has enjoyed so much success. Her research is impeccable. Some reviews here will knock it for its "dryness," but it is an academic work meant to inform; this is not a creative story. All told, the book sheds light on wom I forgot about this book until a workmate of mine brought it up to me today, but the knowledge obtained from this book has never left me since reading it in grad several (many?) school years ago. Dr. Bennett's career work speaks for itself, and this book only demonstrates why she has enjoyed so much success. Her research is impeccable. Some reviews here will knock it for its "dryness," but it is an academic work meant to inform; this is not a creative story. All told, the book sheds light on women by through the lens of beer and beer making. I won't drone on because reviews on the book exist here, on JStor, in various popular magazines, and in various academic works that have built upon her research, but it's a valuable book for anyone wanting to understand medieval history, history of women, or beer history -- or all three, if you are interested!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Monica

    Interesting account of women in the brewing industry during the late middle ages and onwards. The author of iconic "History Matters" gives us a thorough analysis of how and why women were excluded from ale- and beer making after the Black Death.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Twizzlestyx

    This was a really informative book for a history student / history buff. She made cogent arguments, supported by sources. Bennett listed her sources in the appendices, including some texts and with hew own helpful notes. The book was fairly well organized, but by topic, not strictly chronological, which made it a bit confusing. Also, Bennett fails to define some terms, and her sentence structure is sometimes unnecessarily convoluted. bottom line: great for history students an buffs, but not a fu This was a really informative book for a history student / history buff. She made cogent arguments, supported by sources. Bennett listed her sources in the appendices, including some texts and with hew own helpful notes. The book was fairly well organized, but by topic, not strictly chronological, which made it a bit confusing. Also, Bennett fails to define some terms, and her sentence structure is sometimes unnecessarily convoluted. bottom line: great for history students an buffs, but not a fun read.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Toni (teebe)

    A lot of good information for anyone interested in this subject (I definitely would not recommend it otherwise.) It was an okay read, able to keep my attention better than some history books but it's still a little tedious at times.The details on records and documents is very dry but the overall cultural aspects about women at centre of ale production is worth it.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Campbell Scollo

    Bennett overall wrote a very informative book, but the attention keeping was overall not so great and very dry. I would have flipped through the book and sat it back down if it hadn't been required reading but it is rather informative and interesting if you can get through it.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Read this for a history class, and while the concept was interesting, the content and the way it was written was difficult for me to get through. For the subject, this book was very dry (ironic pun definitely intended). Would not recommend to anyone unless you have to read it.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Monica

    It was very interesting to learn how autonomous some women were in the middle ages.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Diana

    The first brewsters were women. This book has the first recipe for ale created by a woman.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Allison Thurman

    MC library

  15. 5 out of 5

    Nicole

    Has to be one of the most boring books every written. I had to read it for one of my history clasess when I was in college.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Siobhan Doody

  17. 4 out of 5

    Drea Tucci

  18. 5 out of 5

    Amy Harris

  19. 5 out of 5

    N.W. Martin

  20. 4 out of 5

    David

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jason Colman

  22. 5 out of 5

    Seth Powers

  23. 5 out of 5

    Dylan

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lemon

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lalig

  26. 5 out of 5

    Letícia Garcia

  27. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Frick

  28. 5 out of 5

    Marsha

  29. 5 out of 5

    Catt Thompson

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sara

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