Some of what I have been reading recently has helped me reflect on the complex ways religious communities portray godliness and immorality when it comes to economic activity and gender. These reflections have come from a somewhat surprising source: the history of beer.

Given the male dominated/bro-centric nature of the beer industry in our culture, I was delighted to learn that brewing was once the preserve of women. Like bread and other daily necessities, for centuries ale was a largely domestic product. Its productionbarrels-1005376_1920 generally fell within the domain of women’s household tasks. It was common practice for women to sell their excess ale to neighbours and passers-by. Not only did this prevent waste, it also enabled medieval European women to earn an income from their domestic labour. In larger towns, women had a near monopoly on the production of ale for commercial sale.[1] Barrels of ale would be sold to colleges, churches, public houses, private homes, and, sometimes, cup-by-cup by an alewife taking her brew out onto the street.

Hops, growing innocently.

The early modern era saw the gradual eclipse of alewives by male brewer’s guilds. This process was complex. The increased use of hops in brewing served as one factor. [4] While hopped beer had a much longer shelf life than ale made with traditional recipes, hop cultivation required a significant investment. Most early modern women lacked the necessary access to capital for such enterprises. Guilds, which were often powerful political/economic entities in medieval and early modern European towns, did have such access.

Social shaming also played a role in the downfall of the alewife.  As Christine Peters, historian of early modern England, notes:

“The making, and especially the selling, of ale strengthened the idea of women as the deceivers of men. The stereotypical alewife served poor quality ale in false measures and tempted men into drunkenness and immorality. Such associations conspired to diminish the social status of the alewife.”[2]

Some research even suggests that our Western archetypal image of a witch stems from negative portrayals of alewives and brewsters: cauldrons for brewing, cats to keep mice out of grain, pointy hats for standing out in a crowded street as an alewife sold her wares. Sounds familiar, does it not? [3]

L0000658 Mother Louse,witch
A seventeenth-century engraving of a dubious alewife from Oxfordshire
Courtesy of: Wellcome Library, London.

Male brewers were able to use the stereotypical negative image of the alewife to their advantage. When churches were built, local guilds often provided a large portion of the funds needed for construction. These contributions gave the guilds some degree of authority when it came to the artwork and decoration placed in the church. Scattered throughout England are several pre-reformation churches whose decorations depict alewives being carried off to hell, tankard in hand, by demons. These overtly negative portrayals are found where professional guilds were strongest.[5] These carvings, tapestries, and paintings convey a clear message: alewives are immoral, hell bound, and worthy of reproach. This church-sanctioned propaganda, combined with the shifting economic landscape, proved effective in marginalizing traditional female brewsters. When the London Brewer’s Guild made their constitution in 1639, it detailed the exclusion of women on the basis of their being “unfit to brew or sell ale and beer.”[6]


Reading about the presence of alewife-damning images in churches gave me pause. Given that most of the population was illiterate in this time period, the importance of visual art as communication tool in religious instruction can not be understated. Economically powerful guilds wanted to exploit the negative image of their female competitors and they used their financial clout in local churches to help them do it. The women involved in the traditional ways of making and selling ale were seen as destined for hell largely because those with power in that particular economic landscape willed it to be so.

The economic elements of church art and decoration are a physical reminder that while every church is a worship space, it is not only a worship space. Its structure and theology have been influenced by the economically active humans involved in its construction. With or without membership in a medieval merchant guild, humans will carry their economically active selves into the church. These often unacknowledged forces shape the portrayal of various economic identities within the community. In my scholarly work on complementarianism I frequently come across theological arguments for particular “Christian” family economic arrangements. In these arguments mothers working outside the home, and the fathers that “allow” them to do so, are given the alewife treatment.[7]

Unwitting participation in unjust theologizing of economic activity is still participation. It is not always easy to name or identify the ways our individual churches have a hand on our notions of praiseworthy/condemnable economic activity. Hopefully the historical example of Mother Louse and her alewife sisters can prompt us into some contemporary reflection. And maybe those among us who indulge should have a glass of ale in their honour…I will.

File 2016-07-18, 9 01 23 PM
Drinking beer as an act of feminist resistance. Next stop, home brewing!


[1] Christine Peters, “Work and the Household Economy” in Women in Early Modern Britian, 1450 – 1650 (New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 53. For example, the 1425 tax rolls of one Welsh town, Cun, list 27 female brewsters and only one male brewer.

[2] Ibid. The closest contemporary cultural parallel I can think of is the stereotypical image of a sleazy used car salesman who hawks vehicles of dubious quality as though they are in mint condition. The stereotype is negative, but many people still buy used cars. There may have been negative stereotypes associated with alewives and female innkeepers, but people still gave them their custom.

[3] I came across this thesis while taking in an exhibit on women and brewing at a local regional museum. A write-up about the exhibit from our local news station can be found here:

[4] Hops had been around for a long time. In fact, the wonderful polymath and doctor of the church Hildegard von Bingen wrote about hops in the twelfth century. Sections of her Sacra Physica detail the usefulness of hops as preserving agents and the health benefits of consuming beer brewed with them. She advised the nuns in her convent to consume a measure of beer daily to aid digestion and assist with maintaining a rosy complexion. So along with being a mystic visionary, a physician, scholar, and abbess, Hildegard was a skilled brewster. Queue imposter syndrome!

[5]As Theresa A. Vaughan observes, “portrayals of rural alewives are somewhat benign, but urban brewsters … were increasingly targeted in the Late Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period.” From “The Alewife: Changing Images and Bad Brews” in AVISTA Forum Journal Volume 21.1/2 (2011), 34. Vaughan’s piece makes interesting comparisons between depictions of alewives and the Virgin Mary in English art. Her article also contains many images of the church art I discuss here but did not have the licence to post online. Her article can be accessed in full online:

[6] Peters, 53.

[7] In case you are unfamiliar here is a clip from a prominent complementarian advocate. Disclaimer: this clip gives me rage cramps.

2 thoughts

  1. All I can say is nothing beats a good ale 😉

    The Smiling Pilgrim

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