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UNC-CH Medieval History Scholar Finds Women Chief Brewers, Children Drank Ale

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

UNC-CH News Services

(Embargoed) CHAPEL HILL -- People who think under-aged drinking is a modern phenomenon may reconsider when they hear what a medieval history scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has discovered.

While researching her new book, "Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England," Dr. Judith Bennett found that children's chief drink during the Middle Ages in England and much of northern Europe was ale.

Women, not men, brewed most of the ale drunk in the 14th and 15th centuries.

"We have more information about peasant women in the brewing industry in medieval England than we do about any other activity women were involved in," Bennett said. "That's because brewing, like baking, was a highly regulated industry that generated a lot of records, many of which still exist. People who sold ale in communities were listed so they could pay small fines, which were essentially taxes."

Very poor people drank only water, she found, but because water was so polluted even then, most folks avoided it if possible and drank only ale or beer of varying strengths. Only the wealthy could afford wine, most of which was imported from France and Spain. Milk generally was made into cheese to preserve it rather than drunk.

Like adults, children from all classes drank ale at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Household records of the time specified what and how much individuals consumed at various meals. Average daily ale consumption was a gallon for adults, less among children. At Christmas, people brewed Yuletide ales that were especially strong. Ale for everyday drinking was weaker.

Southern Europeans, such as Italians and Spaniards, stuck with wine, and few people in the region brewed beer or ale. Before the plague known as Black Death swept through Europe in the 14th century, the English did not use hops in brewing so that beer was not yet available. Their ale was sweeter than modern forms.

Bennett worked at two dozen archives in the British Isles, including Windsor Castle, Hatfield House, the British Library and public records offices in London, Suffolk, Essex, York and elsewhere. Old records still exist because they were inscribed on parchment made of sheepskin or goatskin. Paper, introduced in the 15th Century, deteriorated quicker.

Many of the records belong to private families and were kept as proof of ownership of a manor when other evidence was lacking.

Oxford University Press has just published "Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England." "Brewsters" were women who made ale and beer, and "brewers" were men who took over the profession later. Similarly, she said, a "webster" was a female weaver and a "baxter" was a female baker.

"My book looks at a very simple problem, " the historian said. "In 1300, almost all the people who brewed ale for sale in England were women, and by 1600, brewing was a man's occupation. I tried to understand when that happened and why it happened."

Bennett concludes that brewing became so profitable and prestigious that men moved into the trade. Standards of living improved after the plague, and people were able to buy a lot more ale and beer.

"It wasn't that women were pushed out of the trade or could not do the physical work of carrying heavy barrels as some people have speculated," Bennett said. "The trade simply changed and grew, and women were not able to keep up with those changes, in part for economic reasons, but also because of urbanization and changing cultural and ideological ideas about women's roles."

Similarly, midwifery used to be women's work exclusively but by the early part of this century had evolved into a highly skilled men's profession.

Churchmen and civic authorities were just as concerned about drunkenness in medieval Europe as their counterparts are today around the world, Bennett said. Their message, however, was moderation, not abstinence.

"People had to drink something," she said. "They had no choice."

Supplying army and navy campaigns became a major problem for British monarchs and a great expense of war. At least one commander wrote the king in a dispatch that his troops hated their beer and that the monarch needed to supply a better brew to keep the soldiers happy.

Other records show drinking in the medieval university town of Oxford was a continuing problem, Bennett said. In 1355, a student riot began in a tavern resulting in extensive property damage and at least one death.

"As punishment for the way the students behaved, after the riot the king took away the town's right to regulate brewing and gave it exclusively to the university," she said. "Town-gown tensions were common even back then."

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Note: Bennett, on leave this semester, can be reached at (202) 547-6940, or bennett@email.unc/edu.

Contact: David Williamson

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