Brewing Ale and Breaking the Law in Late Medieval Scotland

Anyone who has been to Scotland knows how important ale is to the Scottish diet. Elizabeth Ewan, unironically, argues this point in an essay titled “For Whatever Ales Ye’: Women as Consumers and Producers in Late Medieval Scottish Town.

The essay sets up Scottish women as the primary producer of ale–everybody made their own beer back then–and therefore the primary consumer of ale. With out purified water, ale and wine were pretty much the only options for beverages during those days. So, in order to keep the fridge stocked, women had to make beer for the family. And then drink it all day long while they were making it, just like testing the cake batter.

Meet me at the Sign of the Woman as Producer and Consumer of Beer in Late Medieval Scotland
Meet me at the Sign of the Woman as Producer and Consumer of Beer in Late Medieval Scotland

The separate burghs in Scotland created strict regulations for the buying, making, and selling of ale because it was the main beverage. In all fairness, they had to make sure everyone had equal buying opportunities lest they all dehydrate. Various laws were put into place.

All ale had to meet quality standards, the price of ale was regulated, and ale could only be sold at official markets at official prices. Inspectors used their own equipment and were responsible for “tasting” the ale to make sure it was high quality.

It should be no surprise that these laws were constantly broken, mostly because ale was brewed at home and difficult to regulate. Because women were the primary brewers, women were breaking the law left and right. Of all the laws, women were charged with breaking the quality-control regulations and illegally selling ale the most.

The town of Dundee was a hot-bed for this white color crime:

  • In 1521 several women were caught using false weights when setting their prices.
  • Two years later, a woman named Jonet Holat was banished from town for using false weights.
  • Suspiciously, a similarly named woman called Janet Howlk was accused of buying at wholesale and then illegally reselling outside the market, punishable by banishment.
  • The wife of a man named Jonkyn Inch was accused of only selling to the highest bidder.

Another common occurrence was for someone to pre-pay for ale and then the goods “mysteriously never show up.” In 1470, a wife and her husband, named Alexander Turbe, were accused of taking a man’s money and not delivering the wheat needed to brew ale that he had supposedly purchased. Around 1521, a man named Will Lawson pursued a woman he said owed him malt that he had bought.

There were also regulations on who could brew. Men, and most women, were only allowed one profession. In 1468, brewer Ellen Bessat of Aberdeen was given the shakedown for having other jobs, one of them being a “receiver of stolen goods.”

In Edinburgh in 1530, laws tried to restrict brewing to the upper class and allow only burgess families to brew the most expensive ale. The following year, one-tenth of women brewers broke this law.

Ale was so important to the Scottish diet that victims would go to sobering lengths for justice. A Dunfermline woman who ran her own alehouse kicked out a man for public intoxication. Because he hadn’t finished his drink when he was ejected, he sued her for his money because he had paid for it.

However, as important as beer was, the makers of beer in Scotland did not enjoy a high social status. According to Ewan, brewing was a secondary occupation that mostly women partook in because they had to put food and drink on the table. It wouldn’t be until 1820 and the vision of the Germans with the first Oktoberfest that beer would finally receive its place in the pantheon of alcoholic beverages.

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