There’s a knock at the door. It’s All Hallows’ Eve. You wonder what horrors will greet you on the other side. Skeletons? Werewolves? Vampires?
You open the door and find a tiny girl in a black pointed hat with a cat under one arm and a broomstick trailing behind. You sigh with relief. No horrors await you here. It’s a legitimate businesswoman. The actual horror is the unjust and patriarchal propaganda that has destroyed the lives of this poor girl and her ancestors before her.
Stay with me here. Let me give you an insight into how your view of medieval magnates has been skewed.
Step back in time...
Let me take you back to the Middle Ages, to a time before social media, mortgages and before Brexit was even thought of (just). It was a simpler time and people lived carefree.
The only trouble was that people kept dying. Disease was rife and water was often the way diseases spread. As people had to drink water, they ran a greater risk of succumbing to the various bacteria in untreated water.
However, people were safer if they drank alcohol. Science now tells us that they were healthier because the water used to make the beer or ale had been boiled (no nasty bacteria), but the belief then was that the brewers had some magical powers. And who were the brewers?
As a by-product of their gathering role, women were in charge of the grains, the fruits, the wheat and whatever they chose to do with them. They chose to make alcohol. For health reasons. Probably.
And so, life went on medievally, women in the kitchen brewing and serving it to their families. Occasionally these women had been retailers on a very small scale; selling a little ale that they’d produced over their own family needs. All was fine.
Well, until the Black Death arrived.
At death's door
By the mid-1300s, estimates claim that between a third and half the entire population of Europe and Asia had been wiped out by the disease. Communities were left bereft. Families didn’t have fathers; women had lost their families; it was a time of fractured lives.
This meant that women who had previously only worked for the family had a new role to play. The small-scale business had to be ramped up (sound familiar?!). Many women had to start making money to provide for their family. Other women had been left alone when no family members had survived the Plague. Money had to be made, so they looked to their skills, including brewing. Any excess beer brewed could be sold to other families who had no brewer, and beyond. It was a time of medieval monopoly for those who had survived.
Now, let me enlighten you as to what these home brewers looked like:
They were women.
They brewed in a big cauldron at home.
They kept cats around to ward off mice who would try to steal the tempting grains and wheat.
They would hang a broomstick outside the house to signify extra beer to sell.
They would wear the fashion de rigueur to the market (a hennin – a tall pointy hat) but chose to make their hats black rather than the usual white in order to stand out from the crowd (literally in the market so people could find them to make purchases).
Now, I know what you’re thinking: women, cauldron, cats, broomstick, pointy hat… fucking witch!
And I say NO!
Well, yes and no.
That’s what these women looked like and what they did. They were not known as witches; they were alewives. They were legit businesswomen. They started brewing and selling ale as a commercial venture. They were the foremothers of the independent female capitalists of today. Everything was looking up for our heroines. Cue the patriarchy to throw one hell of a spanner in the works.
The world at that time was governed by the church. The church had the power and the church was run by men. These men didn’t like the fact that women were growing in independence. Women didn’t need to rely on fathers and husbands to make money, own land, own property, own a business, or to generally live autonomously.
So what do you do if you’re jealous of someone? What do you do if you want to diminish someone’s power? You trash talk them.
Which is exactly what the church did.
The church lectured about hell and the devil. They drove fear into the impressionable common man by talking about and vividly demonstrating satanic consequences in paintings and in sculptures.
And who did they say allied themselves with the devil?
And who did they say used black magic and evil?
And who did they say were ugly, immoral, deceitful, treacherous, scheming demons?
The church had (mis)used their power and their reach to construct the image of the witch as we now know her and turned the persona of the unassuming alewife into something to be feared, pitied and reviled. The propaganda was so thick and fierce that a once legitimate career was turned into the devil in a fairy story. The church was also happy to perpetuate the existence of witches. Previously, they’d denied any existence of devil-women from Pagan culture, but once it suited them, the church readily agreed that these witches were a real danger to society.
At that time, guilds were starting to form. Men clubbed together to form an impenetrable club to control where and when and how, and more importantly, who could brew the ale. Obviously, women weren’t allowed. The patriarchy had won back their control.
The first time I heard the real account of witches and that they had been totally misrepresented from their alewife identity, I was physically shocked that I knew nothing about this. I was shocked and angry that I’d been so hoodwinked by history. Then I was angry nobody else was as angry as I was. So I started telling people. Family, friends, people I’d just met, anyone who was even remotely listening. Knowledge is power and the more people who know this reality, the more power the alewives (retrospectively) have, and the more power the women of today have to run their own enterprises, to make their own living and to be independent.
Women have had the knowledge, the skills and the spirit for centuries. It was just hidden away and suppressed underneath layers of shit spread by jealously and the need for control that distorted the truth beyond all recognition. Much like the witch masks full of warts and hooked noses we wear to try to look like these ‘evil’ women.
So next time you see a ‘witch’, on television, or being burned at the stake, or even wandering along to the school disco, remember that she’s actually a legitimate businesswoman trying to get by despite the incessant barrage of years of patriarchal judgement and disinformation burdening her every move. We all know what that’s like, so give her a break. She should be lauded as a hero and an entrepreneurial pioneer. Maybe an extra treat wouldn’t go amiss tonight when the alewives come a knocking?
Current Affairs Editor, Katie Isham...
Katie Isham is a writer, teacher, drummer and mild adventurer. She loves cakes, dogs and her own company, especially when near the sea. Whenever she needs to escape from reality, she tries to ride her bike or listen to Springsteen. She is powered by sarcasm and a need to smash the demon lizard patriarchy. Katie believes kindness is a superpower.
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