Momentous Monday: Witches’ brew

You’re suddenly whisked back to medieval Europe, where you see a woman walking down the street. She’s wearing a tall, black, pointed hat — which is why you notice her in the first place, and she’s selling people some sort of potion.

Intrigued, you follow her until she comes to her permanent place of business, which is also her home. The “sign” above the door is a broom, and she invites you in, where you see a bubbling cauldron and the black cat who is the only other occupant.

She finally offers you her potion and you reluctantly take it, wary of whatever witchcraft she’s trying to pull. Then you realize that she’s selling beer, and this is a microbrewery.

The tall hat is mainly to be seen over the crowds. As for the “broom,” it was actually an alestake, a sign to let people know that a fresh batch was ready. The cauldron, of course, was for the actual brewing and fermentation, and the cat was meant to keep rats and other rodents away from the necessary grains.

From its beginnings in Mesopotamia and Egypt 9,000 years ago, brewing was done almost exclusively by women, which makes sense if you consider it to be more of a culinary art, which in many ways it is.

This continued to be the case on into the Middle Ages, and in many cases it was the only way a woman could earn money — either extra money for the household, or to support herself if her husband died.

Ale was very popular at the time because the water wasn’t so good, but people needed a pure source of hydration and nutrients. Ale and “small beer” of the time wasn’t that strong. But women made a lot of money doing it.

As the industry grew in the 14th century, men started getting involved, particularly in the production of “hopped” brews, which had a longer shelf-life and different flavor than the women’s un-hopped versions.

In that age-old story, because the men wanted in on the action and brewing had made many women independently wealthy, the Ale Wives begin to suffer increased scrutiny, and the Church helped out by associating their symbols with what they bring to mind today: witches.

They were also libeled by male authors, particularly John Skelton in his The Tunning of Elynour Rummyng, which depicted every aspect of the Ale Wife trade as ugly and unsavory, from the brewsters themselves to their customers and their brews.

Of course, the Church was only too happy to oblige in changing the depiction of these women from successful entrepreneurs and business owners to Satan’s handmaids and minions of evil.

This all came about because the Catholic Church had suffered a schism in 1517, When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Luther only intended them for the clergy, but thanks to the invention of printing, they were translated from Latin to German and promulgated far and wide.

They might as well have been 95 Feces, because the shit hit the fan.

Over the course of 70 years, from 1560 to 1630, The Great Hunt saw about 80,000 people accused and 40,000 executed. It was all about marketing. Once the idea of witches had been sold to people, whichever church found and dealt with more of them would convince more people that they were the “right” one.

Those 40,000 deaths were individual selling points for whichever side caused them.

One of the few prominent cases of a man being executed for witchery and dealing with the devil was decidedly political. The early 1600s, Cardinal Richelieu wanted to un-fortify towns around France, but one recalcitrant priest, Urbain Grandier, refused to tear down the wall around his town, Loudun. He was ultimately executed in 1634.

Aldous Huxley wrote a documentary novel about these events, The Devils of Loudun, in 1952. It was later adapted into a play that was eventually made into the film The Devils, directed by Ken Russell and starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave.

While these witch-hunts were marketing for the church, the secular impetus for them was the usual: the continued oppression of the already powerless, particularly women, who made up the bulk of the accused.

There modern, non-European examples as well, such as The Dakan of Gujarat. Currently ongoing in India, these are cases of men basically accusing women — often from their own families or households — of witchcraft and sorcery in order to take over land that the women own.

The drivers in this case are a combination of misogyny, the caste system, and a way to blame women for the problems caused by failed economic policies created by… the men.

One of the more extreme examples: Women in a household were accused and beaten by men in the same household because the women had the audacity to tell the men to not shit in the fields where the women were growing food crops. How dare they!

Ultimately, every case of railroading, persecuting, and punishing the less well-off are just cases of the 1% desperately trying to keep what they have — which is already way too much.

This is perfectly depicted in the cartoon where a rich, old white man with a plate piled high with cookies points accusingly at a person of color with no cookies at all, and telling a construction worker with one cookie on his plate, “Careful, mate… That foreigner wants your cookie!”

Someday, the “foreigner” and the worker are going to figure out that they can just take most of the hoarding billionaire’s cookies and share them among themselves.

Witch hunts are just the way that the richest use the least powerful as a scapegoat to keep everyone in the middle from realizing who the real witches, demons, and villains are.

While the Ale Wives had money, it wasn’t enough in a society that wouldn’t even respect the concept that women could. And so the rival brewers called them licentious women, the church called them the Devil’s Daughters, and everyone else started buying their beer from the men, and going to the church that made them feel safer via better witch-killing spectacles.

It’s a never-ending story that needs to end, but even to this day has not. After all, the Japanese Internment in America that began with WW II was never about national security. It, too, was about taking land and an industry away from a defenseless class.

Remember the Ale Wives and what happened to them the next time you’re enjoying a beer that was no-doubt brewed by a man, and make an effort to support businesses that are owned by women, people of color, or members of the queer community.