The Economics of Medieval English Brewing
By Karl Hagen
Paper given at the conference of the Medieval Association of the Pacific (1995)
Introduction: Near the beginning of her autobiography, the fifteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe relates her ill-fated attempts to make her worldly fortune. Among her mercantile ventures, she turned her hand to brewing:
And than, for pure coveytyse & for to maynten hir pride, sche gan to brewyn & was on of þe grettest brewers in þe town N. a iij yer or iiij tyl sche lost mech good, for sche had neuyr vre þerto. For, thow sche had neuyr so good seruawntys & cunyng in brewyng, yet it wold neuyr preuyn wyth hem. For whan þe ale was as fayr standyng vndyr berm as any man mygth se, sodenly þe berm wold fallyn down þat alle þe ale was lost euery brewyng aftyr oþer, þat hir seruawntys weryn a-schamyd & wold not dwellyn wyth hir. Þan þis creatur þowt how God had punched hir be-for-tyme & sche cowd not be war, and now eftsons be lesyng of hir goodys, & þan sche left & brewyd no mor.
The basic narrative here seems clear enough. The town “N” is Margery’s native town—Bishop’s Lynn, as it was then known, although since the reign of Henry VIII it has been called King’s Lynn. There Margery started a fairly large brewery, which failed for a technical reason: the barm, or yeast, fell, something we would now call a stuck fermentation. Her employees became embarrassed and quit. Perhaps they did not wish to be associated with someone against whom providential disfavor was so clearly directed, perhaps they merely thought her incompetent. The end result was that her business failed and she lost her capital.
For all its brevity, this account is a tantalizing glimpse into a craft which, considering its importance to daily life in medieval northern Europe, has attracted remarkably little systematic attention from scholars, and most of that attention has focused specifically on the role of alewives rather than the brewing industry as a whole. Despite the failure of her brewery, I would like to consider Margery Kempe as a typical commercial brewer at the beginning of the fifteenth century and place the hints she gives us into a wider context of how medieval English breweries functioned. I want to ask what it meant to be “one of the greatest brewers” in a fifteenth-century English town. How was her ale produced, sold and distributed? How did the consumption of ale affect the larger economy? What did being a brewer imply about her standing in the community? In answering these questions, we will find that Margery’s adventure in brewing was notable only for its failure and because unlike her fellow brewers from the period she appears to us as a personality, not a mere name in a tax roll.