Book Review: Ale Beer and Brewers in England

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Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World 1300-1600, written by Judith M. Bennett and first published in 1996, is intended to bring attention to the role of women in the ale and beer brewing industry in England during the Middle Ages. In Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World 1300-1600, Bennett aims to determine how women's role in the ale and beer brewing trade transformed during a span of 300 years and how women's work in the brewing trade came to be almost exclusively overtaken by men. Bennett aims to determine when these changes occurred, how these changes occurred, why they occurred, and the impact these changes had on not only women, but on society.

Bennett's Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World 1300-1600 has the potential to bring to light the massive contributions of women to the brewing trade during the late medieval period. Furthermore, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World 1300-1600 provides insight how society and governmental regulations, in addition to the Black Death, drove women from a trade where they could thrive independently in to a trade to one where their skills and trade was micromanaged by the men in their lives and the men in society. Additionally, Bennett aims at investigating the cultural and political significance of ale and beer brewing during the late medieval period. Ultimately, Bennett is able to craft a book that is full of historical, social, and political information gathered from a multitude of resources ranging from public records to medieval literature to present her findings to the public.

Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World 1300-1600 is intended to provide a critical assessment of the ale and beer brewing trade during the medieval period. Bennett writes the book from her perspective and based on academic background and interests. Furthermore, Bennett intends to make a social scientific and historic contribution to academia by focusing on a field and topic that has not been investigated in great depth within the academic realm.

In order to achieve her goal, Bennett has scoured a multitude of resources. These resources include William Langland's Piers Plowman (written ca. 1360-1387),

[a]dminstrative records of attempts to regulate brewers through order, compromise, and threat; accounts that list sums paid by brewers; tax records reporting the wealth of brewers; royal papers about the involvement of various monarchs in the trade; gild records that detail brewers' attempts to organize themselves as a trade; and literary and artistic remains that depict brewers and popular opinions about them. (Bennett 5)

In addition, Bennett also referenced and refuted works by Alan MacFarlane, "who argued in 1978 that English society in 1200 was fundamentally similar to English society in 1700;" the Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century by Alice Clark, first published in 1919; and medievalist Eileen Power, among others (5, 7).

Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World 1300-1600 is divided into eight chapters that focus on a different aspect of ale and beer brewing during the medieval period. The first chapter, "Brewsters," introduces the concept of brewsters and brewing, and is used to explain Bennett's methodology, resources, and motivations. Furthermore, this first chapter also summarizes what will be discussed in the ensuing chapters. Chapter Two, "When Women Brewed," focuses on "exploring brewing in the decades that preceded the devastation wrought by the Black Death of 1348-49" (10). Bennett that "[m]ost households had the capacity brew ale, and most not only brewed ale but also occasionally offered it for sale to others. In these households, women took primary responsibility for brewing, both for domestic consumption…and for commercial sale" (10). Bennett also argues that before 1350, few women brewed commercially and regardless, brewing proved to be "good work for women, offering them more profit and prestige than most other occupations available to them" (10).

In Chapter Three, "New markets, Lost Opportunities: Singlewomen and Widows as Harbingers of Change," Bennett explores the commercial changes that occurred within the brewing during the fourteenth century, which further marginalized women brewers and almost drove them out of the trade. Chapter Four, "Working Together: Wives and Husbands in the Brewers' Gild of London," shifts attention from the social changes taking place before and after the Black Death to women as wives in the brewing industry. Furthermore, Chapter Four "also considers the implications of gild formation for women" (11). Bennett argues, "In general, the formation of brewers gilds undermined the work of women in the trade; most gilds either excluded women altogether or accepted them as only quasi-members" (11).

Chapter Five, "New Beer, Old Ale: Why Was Female to Male as Ale Was to Beer?," shifts focus from ale to beer as new brewing techniques, adapted from foreign techniques, were introduced to brewing in London. More specifically, this chapter investigates why brewing with hops was less used by women and seeks to provide an explanation that touches on the "migration and settlement of foreigners in England, the demands of military provisioning, and the commercial requirements of successful beerbrewing" (11). Chapter Six, "Gender Rules: Women and the Regulation of Brewing," "considers how the regulation of brewing affected women and men in the trade" (11). Bennett also notes how these regulations were often enforced more harshly on women, which is one of the many factors that led to women dropping out from the trade.

The two closing chapters of Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World 1300-1600 are distinct from the other chapters of the book in that they focus on ideology and feminism. Chapter Seven, "These Things Must Be if We Sell Ale: Alewives in English Culture and Society," Bennett asserts that she "seeks to discover, from a variety of literary texts and artistic remains, what English people thought about brewsters and how their ideas might have affected the ability of women to compete with men in the trade" (11). Finally, in Chapter Eight, "Women's Work in a Changing World," Bennett attempts to understand and come to terms with the social and political shifts that forced women from the ale and beer brewing trades, and tries to place this transformation within the larger construct of feminist/female history.

While Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World 1300-1600 provides great insight into the brewing industry during the late Middle Ages, one of the major failures on Bennett's behalf is the structure and organization of her data, research, and findings. The book itself is difficult to read, not because of its content and subject matter, but because of its awkward sentence structures and repetitiveness. As seen in the summarization above, much of Bennett's arguments and explanations are covered in Chapter One, which makes the rest of the book appear to be even more repetitive. Additionally, Bennett's decision to modernize some aspects of her research while disregarding modernization of other aspects such as spelling (gild instead of guild) is incomprehensible.

Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World 1300-1600 would be much easier to read if Bennett had structured her book chronologically, beginning in the 1300s in Chapter Two (as Chapter One serves as an introduction to the subject) and concluding with the 1600s in Chapter Seven. Moreover, this type of chronological structure would prevent the book from becoming repetitive as every chapter appears to state the same information as the chapters preceding it and following it. Secondly, Bennett assumes that the reader knows to whom she is referring to especially when quoting or citing sources within the text. For instance, Bennett refers to people such as Zvi Razi and Richard Smith without explaining their relationship to her research, nor… [END OF PREVIEW]

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