Working Women of York: Brewsters

This is part of a series of posts in which I gleefully speculate about some of the women’s names found in the York Register of Freemen. To read my full research on these women, go here.

A woman with a flagon
A woman with a flagon

“Brewing was women’s work.” At least, that’s what they tell us. The reality, as usual, isn’t that simple. Many women supplemented their income by brewing. In the 12th and 13th centuries, ale was brewed on a small scale by a large number of women. The brewing industry during this time was not heavily regulated, and brewing tended not to be a guild occupation.

This changed during the later medieval period. Starting in the 14th century, brewing as an industry became more concentrated; professional brewers emerged, responsible for large quantities of commercially produced ale. The village alewife slowly disappeared. There are a number of explanations for this phenomenon. I know that I cannot do them justice here. If you are interested in learning more about brewing, Judith Bennett (as usual) has the best writing on the subject: Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World and  “Misogyny, Popular Culture, and Women’s Work” in History Workshop Journal 31.1 (1991).

What does the evidence from York show? Because I only studied the 13th and 14th centuries, I can’t give a full account of the possible rise of male brewers through the 15th and 16th centuries, and because my source material only gives evidence for guild members I can’t really speak to the many women who may have worked as brewsters without having the social and legal protection of a guild. But here is what I do know.

During the reign of Edward I, I found no recorded brewers of either gender, however two men appear to have brewing related surnames, the del Brouhous brothers. During the reign of Edward II, two female brewsters appear: Alicia de Wetwong and Isabella Brewer. There were no male brewers during this time period. During the reign of Edward III, there were no female brewers entered into the Register, yet six male brewers. Incidentally, all the male brewers are noted as breuster or brewster; although I have always read that the -ster suffix denotes that the occupation is female (webster = weaver, baxter = baker), I actually did not find evidence of this in the Register, instead, men seem to have been given -ster occupations too.

While these data are very sketchy, they do seem to suggest a trend of a rise in professional male brewers in the late medieval period. Did this trend continue? That should be a relatively simple set of data to pull from later volumes of the Register of Freemen if one is interested. I might explore this more, and in the meantime I think one of you reading this should try to track down an answer!

Here are the stories I tell myself about Alicia and Isabella: they are friends, sharing trade knowledge freely with one another (although Alicia things Isabella’s ale is too sour). Plenty of other women brew, but only Isabella and Alicia do it as their only occupation. Some of the bakers use barm from both brewers to make expensive bread for the richer citizens to enjoy. Isabella likes to use stale beer when she boils bacon. Alicia is a tanner’s widow; she misses her husband, but mostly she misses the income from his business. Isabella has never been married and is thankful she doesn’t have to take in laundry anymore. Alicia worries about her daughter, who should be married already but hasn’t shown an interest. Neither woman has any sense they’ll pass their business on when they die.


Women as Workers in Medieval England (a brief overview)

This is an excerpt from a research paper I presented at An Tir’s Kingdom Arts and Sciences Championship in March. The full paper is available in the files section, and includes a full bibliography and works cited; this post has been edited from the introduction to that paper and provides a broad overview of women’s roles in medieval English town economies. The original introduction had a large number of footnotes, because I love footnotes, which I have awkwardly inserted as parentheticals.

A woman making a nail and a woman doing laundry, both from a 14th century English picture Bible

The purpose of this research was to uncover evidence for women’s participation in trades, paid work, and commercial/craft guilds (as opposed to parish guilds) in York, England during the reigns of Edward I, Edward II, and Edward III, which covered the years 1272-1377. This was a transitional period in Europe, corresponding with a rise in urbanization and the subsequent boom of the guild movement. In England in particular this was a period of tremendous social upheaval; from the relative stability of the thirteenth century, the early fourteenth century brought a series of famines that significantly weakened both systems and people, and the devastation of the Black Death left chaos in its wake. Yet guilds persisted in spite of significant social upheaval, a phenomenon which has been relatively well-studied. In post-plague England, wages for skilled workers increased, and in general there was an increase in the percentage of the working population involved in trades rather than agriculture. (See Penn and Dyer, “Wages and Earnings in Late Medieval England: Evidence from the Enforcement of the Labour Laws” for more analysis of general post-plague patterns.)

Continue reading “Women as Workers in Medieval England (a brief overview)”