Thursday, March 11, 2021

Witchy Beer

Any magician will tell you that much of the "witch" imagery from fairy tales doesn't seem to have anything to do with magick. It's obviously a caricature of something, but until I recently came across this article I had no idea what it might be. It turns out that the explanation is pretty simple - it has to do with making beer and the history of women in the brewing industry.

From the Stone Age to the 1700s, ale – and, later, beer – was a household staple for most families in England and other parts of Europe. The drink was an inexpensive way to consume and preserve grains. For the working class, beer provided an important source of nutrients, full of carbohydrates and proteins.

Because the beverage was such a common part of the average person’s diet, fermenting was, for many women, one of their normal household tasks. Some enterprising women took this household skill to the marketplace and began selling beer. Widows or unmarried women used their fermentation prowess to earn some extra money, while married women partnered with their husbands to run their beer business.

So if you traveled back in time to the Middle Ages or the Renaissance and went to a market in England, you’d probably see an oddly familiar sight: women wearing tall, pointy hats. In many instances, they’d be standing in front of big cauldrons.

But these women were no witches; they were brewers. They wore the tall, pointy hats so that their customers could see them in the crowded marketplace. They transported their brew in cauldrons. And those who sold their beer out of stores had cats not as demon familiars, but to keep mice away from the grain.

Just as women were establishing their foothold in the beer markets of England, Ireland and the rest of Europe, the Inquisition began. The fundamentalist religious movement, which originated in the early 16th century, preached stricter gender norms and condemned witchcraft.

Male brewers saw an opportunity. To reduce their competition in the beer trade, these men accused female brewers of being witches and using their cauldrons to brew up magic potions instead of booze. Unfortunately, the rumors took hold.

I shouldn't even be remotely surprised that this is flat-out sexism all the way down. Men wanted to push women out of the beer industry and concocted a bunch of nonsense about witchcraft in order to do it. Then that nonsense got integrated into folklore and fairy tales to keep the myths alive - and keep women brewers from practicing their craft.

If you think about it, brewing potions in a big cauldron doesn't really make sense, because they work fine with small amounts. Beer, on the other hand, is consumed and sold in quantity so you would want the largest practical container you could find. Likewise, the pointy hats seem to serve no magical function - but they are immensely practical for women shorter than men who wanted to stand out in a crowd.

The Inquistion messed up a lot of things and I suppose it's no surprised that it messed up beer, too. I expect that since the men had to resort to witchcraft allegations to get traction in the market, those women brewers were making some really good beer.

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