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  • Writer's pictureTessa Floreano

Ale wives and other fables for All Souls Day

Brooms and cats and cauldrons and hats. Typically, you think Halloween, but what if I told you there's more than meets this Eye of Newt. These items were the tools of the ale wives' trade. You might know an ale wife from her common misnomer—witch. What you might not know is that her original trade was as a brewster, or someone who brews beer.*

Think about it:

  • To brew beer, you need a pot. Cauldron, check.

  • To protect your beer from rodents, you need a good hunter. Kitty cat (black, preferably) check.

  • To advertise your beer from your home, you need an outdoor banner or sign of sorts, but if you were illiterate, as most women were in the Middle Ages, you couldn't write. You'd have to use household implements you have on hand or that you could easily make. Broom hung on your door or side of your hut, check.

  • To promote your beer in a market place, you need to stand out in your stall. Pointy hat, check.

Where the green skin, striped stockings, and warty nose came from is still up for debate (or maybe I just don't have the wherewithal to check right now).

But you can see how stirring concoctions in the home would be relegated to women's work. And you can see how the resultant libations from raw ingredients might seem like magic. You can also see that if the "magic" wasn't working, that is, the brew didn't ferment in the manner in which the local citizenry was used to consuming or the grain crop didn't fare well during harvest, blame could become rampant. After all, in the days of yore, when drinking water was suspect and ale was the only healthy alternative, and it was lacking in either quality or quantity, someone was going to take the fall.

In my ancestral land of Friuli, the farmers, be they men or women, had "Frascas". A Frasca was a hut or crude shelter out in the fields that offered liquid refreshments to satiate the mouths and bellies of parched farmers. One could spot the refuges where these contadini congregated because it had a branch perched above the doorway. During the spring through fall months, the branch was often green, sometimes with buds jutting out. As the seasons wore on, the branch grew brittle and was eventually discarded during the shut-in winter months when farmers imbibed indoors.

The ale wife, be she the precursor to whom we currently refer to as witch, was just doing her job. A job she knew how to do and often did well. So well, that she aroused jealousy among the men. Eventually, the task of brewing was subsumed by men, and the ale wife returned to her other household duties like, midwifery, healer, and bringer of new life. And all of those eventually came under attack, too, and she became branded as someone untrustworthy. Sometimes it pays to keep your talents hidden and remain silent on the results of their use, she learned soon enough. At least now you know a little more history behind and transition forward of the name and function of ale wife to witch.

Happy All Souls Day, when the veil thins and truths are revealed!

Before I leave you, here's your final questions of the day: Frascas or broom? Depends on your ancestry. Brewster or witch? You decide :-)

* Credit goes to the Food Network's Food: Fact or Fiction? series for bringing this lesser-known info to the masses

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