Beer 101: Maybe the Fairytale Witch Wasn’t a Brewster, After All

05-30-2016, The BeerVibe Crew

She Brews

What follows should confuse you no more than it confuses me. While there is a high level of confidence

among some researchers that the similarities between the fairytale witch and the brewster of the

Middle Ages are too many to be just a string of coincidences, other well-thought out views exist. It’s

the purpose of Beer 101 to present the long and intriguing history of our drink. Sometimes for clarity

and for accuracy, it is necessary to take sideways glances at other issues.

So it is with the brewster as the model for the horrible hag of fairytales and cartoons. When perusing

some history on witches we come up with some surprising ideas having nothing at all to do with beer.

For example, it is reported that people in ancient times tried to influence the success of their planting

season by running and jumping as high as they could through their fields, carrying poles and brooms to

stimulate their crops to grow as high as they could jump in an ancient pagan fertility ritual. This was, of

course, a vain attempt at magic, but they jumped with their brooms as if they were flying.

But it doesn’t stop there. It is well known that some herbs and mushrooms have a hallucinogenic effect.

In 1324 in Ireland, Lady Alice Kyteler was accused of witchcraft by her stepsons. She fled and was never

heard from again. In the investigation of the charges it was reported:

“In rifleing the closet of the ladie they found a pipe of ointment wherewith she greased a staffe, upon

which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.”

The staff she anointed with grease was possibly a broom, and was used as a transdermal applicator of a

concoction that came out of the witch’s brewing pot, or cauldron. Ergot, a fungus that occasionally

infests rye, is a powerful hallucinogenic. So are henbane, deadly nightshade, and mandrake. According

to Johann Weyer, writing in 1563, these were common ingredients in the witch’s “flying ointment.” A

common effect of these drugs is the sensation of flying. These drugs can cause serious problems (look

out, liver and heart!) when taken orally. Transdermal methods were preferred.

Another view comes from a professed modern witch who presents a powerful line of reasoning for the

origin of the fairytale witch as coming from several waves of anti-Semitism occurring during the Middle

Ages. In 1460 Alfonso de Espina, a Franciscan bishop in Spain, published his work, Fortalitium Fidei, in

which he spells out the four chief enemies of the Catholic religion, that is, heretics, Muslims, Jews, and

demons. Evidently Espina’s attacks upon the Jews spawned tales and propaganda that spread abroad,

about Jews cheating, stealing Christian children and sacrificing them in horrible rituals, poisoning

people, and in short, doing all of the things today better known as the crimes of fairytale witches. As the

ugly witch usually has a hooked nose, this is seen to come from the exaggerated stereotype formed

then. Also while under persecution, Jews were often required to wear distinctive articles of clothing,

which in our day would remind us of the costume of a witch, including variations of the tall pointy hat,

called the pileum cornutum, which was rumored to hide a single diabolical horn growing out of their

heads. Those who hold this view of the witches’ costumes maintain that the popular depiction of the

witch as extremely anti-Semitic.

Some of these stereotypes, insulting and demeaning to Jewish people, were used by Nazi propagandists

(think of Joseph Goebbels), notably by the cartoonists drawing for DER STÜRMER.

So, the writer of history, even the history of beer, sometimes has to go to strange places. Maybe the

brewster did not become the model for the fairytale witch, after all.

Still, women in the beer brewing and selling business were becoming increasingly marginalized. For

example, in 1540, in Chester, England, a law was enacted that prohibited women between the ages of

14 and 40 from selling ale. Women, called tipplers, serving beer in pubs were often believed to be

lowlifes and immoral. Husbands might be held liable if anyone got hurt or sick from drinking beer his

wife sold. Laws and customs laid specific requirements on single, married, and widowed women in the

beer business.

In 1545 John Skelton wrote a long poem called The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng. She sold beer at a

pub. While the antique English is barely understandable, here anyway are a few lines:

Scuruy and lowsy;

Her face all bowsy,

Comley crynklyd,

Woundersly wrynkled,

Lyke a rost pygges eare,

Brystled with here.

Her lewde lyppes twayne,

They slauer, men sayne,

Lyke a ropy rayne,

A gummy glayre:

She is vgly fayre;

Her nose somdele hoked,

And camously croked,

Neuer stoppynge,

But euer droppynge;

Her skynne lose and slacke,

Grained lyke a sacke;

With a croked backe.

You get the picture, even if you can’t get all of the words. She kind of resembles the fairytale witch.


To read beer reviews click here.

To read more history, science, and entertaining humor click here.

We welcome and value your opinions and inquiries. Please contact us at