By Judith M. Bennett
The Salt of Common Life: Individuality and Choice in the Medieval Town, Countryside and Church. Essays Presented to J. Ambrose Raftis on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday, Edwin B. DeWindt, ed. (Medieval Institute Press, 1995)
Introduction: In the countryside of medieval England, brewing was largely a female trade. Women worked in brewing both as producers and sellers of ale, and in many villages they essentially controlled the market. Female control reflected the informal nature of the rural trade in ale; in most villages, ale was supplied by local wives who sold to their neighbors excess from brewings intended primarily for domestic use. This trade was not entirely informal (especially since commercial ale sales were supervised by manorial officers), but most commerce in ale was haphazard and casual. The rural ale market was small and localized; alewives were numerous, and brewing was a by-trade, not a profitable profession. As a result, brewing suited the multiple responsibilities of rural wives, and in many early fourteenth-century villages – from Kent to Cambridgeshire to Lincolnshire to Yorkshire – women dominated the trade in ale.
…In this essay I examine how women and men worked together in the brewing industry of the emerging metropolis of London, a city three to five times as large as any other English town in the later Middle Ages. London provides not only the starkest contrast to the circumstances of rural brewers but also unusually detailed information about its brewers.