The Inequality of Women in the Brewing Industry

Throughout history, and still in the modern day, the question of women’s rights and the authority they have to participate in many common male functions if often raised. Looking back during the medieval times, you can tell that much of this has not changed. Industries that were predominately managed by women suddenly being ran by predominately men, the inequality of women’s work, and the lack of women in any leadership or positions of power, are all areas that can help shine light into the actual level of authority the premodern women had.

In late medieval and early modern England, brewers produced an essential beverage, a beverage that most people drank most of the time. Today, we drink ale and beer for taste and intoxication. Then, people also knew well the pleasures of drinking good ale, but in addition, they drank as a basic part of their diet. Children drinking ale as well as adults, and it was consumed throughout the day (Bennett, 16-17). What was once a thriving industry, predominately managed and operated by women, was slowly transitioning into an industry dominated by men. Throughout the fourteenth century women did most of the brewing in most places, their presence was signified in the various languages of the time. During this time, they were known as brewsters, but by 1500, the near gender distinction of brewster and brewer was fading away (Bennett, 3). In the earlier years, around the 1300’s, brewing was small scale, local industries pursued by women who worked from their homes. By 1600, brewing in many cities, towns, and villages was so large scale and centralized that it was assuming a leading role (managerially, technically, and commercially) among other contemporary industries. It was also largely controlled by men (Bennett, 9). While the broad relationship between male advantage and female disadvantage remained unchanged in a changing world, one thing that did change, the women who remained in the brewing industry (Bennett, 8).

In 1300, it was most common to buy ale or beer from married brewsters who supervised their families’ work in the trade. However, by 1600, it had become more common to buy ale from married male brewers who supervised work that constituted the primary occupation of their households and that sometimes employed more hired than familial labor (Bennett, 60). Just as brewing had changed to a predominately male occupation, the women who remained in the industry were often married women. Women who were not married, particularly single women and widows, seemed to have been squeezed out of the brewing trade earlier than married women (Bennett, 8). Most brewsters, like most adult women, were married. Single women brewed in many villages, but they brewed very occasionally. Widows also brewed for profit, but seldom frequently. It seems, that even women who actively brewed while married, often left the trade after their husbands died (Bennett, 27). Women in the brewing industry not only were being dominated by males, but outside of married women, women in the brewing industry slowly were disappearing. Although in 1300 women had brewed for profit more frequently then they would in 1600, the status of their work did not really changed (Bennett, 7).

In 1300, in 1600, and unless things changed dramatically in the next few years, most “women’s work” can be characterized as low skilled, low status, and poorly remunerated. Skilled wage workers (almost all of whom were male) took 3d. a day or more for their labor, and artisans or merchants who worked out of their own shops did even better (Bennett, 24). Women in late medieval Europe, were often paid 1d. a day rather than the 1.5d. or 2d. earned by men (Bennett, 6). Bennett responded to this by saying “how is that any different from the 68 cents that women now earn for every dollar earned by men?” (6). Alice Clark  referred to this as industrial capitalism, which was due to the profoundly limited and devalued work done by women (Bennett, 7).

We might respect the brewsters of a village who could carefully prepare the malt, tend the wort, and spice the ale, but they excelled at work in virtually all women were competent. Skilled they were, but they were not valued as skilled workers. Brewsters also made only modest profits from their work. Their work was always restricted by regulations and amercement, profits were particularly limited during this time. (Bennett, 33). Brewsters’ best opportunities for large sales came from two discrete sources, aristocratic households and markets or fairs. For many wives, brewing for sale was one of many elements in an “economy of makeshifts.” The extra income that women brought home, probably often made the difference for their families between starvation and survival (Bennett, 34). Compared to the trades of men, commercial brewing was perceived as low skilled and low in status, and it was poorly remunerated. But it offered more than most occupations open to women. Compared to other working women, brewsters stood out as particularly prosperous (Bennett, 35). Skilled workers in medieval towns signified their status in many clear and public ways, one of which was the formation of a gild to organize the trade (Bennett, 24). However, records later showed that one-third of the members of the Brewers’ gild were women and, indeed, that most of those women were wives (Bennett, 60).

Between the 1500’s and the 1600’s, brewing had become a family affair. Wives and husbands worked together in brewing in early fifteenth century London, but they did not, it seems, work in equal ways. The slow professionalization of brewing, of which gild formations was a critical part, was pushing husbands to the forefront and wives to the background (Bennett, 62). The gild, represented the upper crust of the brewing trade, and its membership exclusively many humble brewers, many part-time brewers, and all alesellers. Some nameless women remind us that for many tapsters and some brewsters the formation of a gild promised more ill than good. Gilds helped to professionalize the trade. They also created their own public and political structures from which women, even those economically very active and successful in the trade, were generally excluded (Bennett, 63). The obligation to pay quarterage accompanied, of course, entry to the fraternity, and whether women formally entered the fraternity or not, they were liable for quarterage payments (Bennett, 69).

Although their husbands were full members, enjoying all the perquisites of gild life, wives, at best, were only partial members, enjoying a quite limited range of opportunities offered by the guild. The different experiences of women and men in the Brewers’ gild sought to limit the participation of women (Bennett, 67). The third and final tier of gild life, participation in gild politics, seems to have been entirely closed to female members. Although they changed the length and terms for the gild masters so that younger members were able to enjoy the honors and benefits of mastership, no women ever served as master of the gild. Women joined the gild and supported it with the same quarterage payments as those rendered by men, but they were always part of the governed, never part of the governors (Bennett, 71). By the early 1500’s, wives no longer paid quarterage at all, and the only women then admitted to membership were widows. Married women increasingly worked in the show of the public presence of their husbands, who, whether they worked in the trade or not, personified in public the brewer in the household (Bennett,73). 

According to Bennett, she began to see it not as a story of transformation in women’s lives, but instead as a story of remarkable stability to women despite considerable socioeconomic change (7). Women during the medieval times had to struggle with their industry being taken over by men, their work never being seen for what it was worth, and they were never allowed to participate in the governing of the gild. Just as Bennett said earlier, this was a remarkable story of how durable and strongminded the premodern women truly was.

Works Cited

  • Bennett, Judith M. Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Womens Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600. Oxford Univ. Press, 1999.


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