Halloween witches resemble medieval beermakers, says Waterloo historian

The broomsticks and pointy hats associated with Halloween witches have their roots in the traditional costume of medieval beer producers, according to a Waterloo historian.

Garb of traditional brewsters looks eerily familiar to typical costume

Adults and children alike will dust off their broomsticks and don their pointy hats for Halloween this Saturday night. (NL Photos)

As Halloween approaches, plenty of would-be witches and warlocks are digging through the broom closet and dusting off their pointy hats — but they might be surprised by the costume's history, according to curator Stacy McLennan of the Waterloo Region Museum.

The stereotypical hat-and-broomstick depiction of a witch is actually based on the traditional garb of female beer producers, McLennan explained to Craig Norris, host of The Morning Edition on CBC Kitchener-Waterloo, on Tuesday.

Witch and 'brewster'

During the early medieval period in Europe, the beer industry was largely run by women. "Ale wives," who sold the beverage and ran the local taverns, played an important role in the beer trade. Female brewers, commonly referred to as "brewsters," were the primary producers of ale.

And as McLennan explained, the traditional clothing worn by brewsters bore more than a passing resemblance to the contemporary witch costume.

"If you look at the stereotypical witches' garb that we think of — a cat, a pointed hat, a broom and a bubbling cauldron, for instance — those are all pieces of equipment essentially that brewsters would have used in their trade," she said.

The women made their beer in large cauldron-like vats. When the product was ready to be sold, they signaled its readiness to customers by driving a tall, broomstick-like "ale stake" into the ground outside their door.

"People walking by their house would see the ale stake and know, 'Oh — I can go in and purchase the ale, it's ready to be sold,'" McLennan said.

In the marketplace, brewsters and ale wives wore high-pointed hats in order to stand out among the crowded throngs of potential customers.

As for the black cat sidekicks, women of the time were heavily reliant on felines to protect their grain stores from vermin.

Propaganda and the brewster's demise

For centuries, women enjoyed success and respect as the beer industry's key drivers. But as men became more involved in the industry from the 1300s onward, that attitude started to change, McLennan said.

"There are more depictions of ale wives in hell during this time period than any other profession," she explained. "Most medieval churches in England have some sort of painting or carving or some sort of depiction of an ale wife in hell in the Last Judgment scene."

Brewsters were also targeted in art. Over time, images of brewsters were increasingly associated with witchcraft and evil.

"Men were becoming actively involved in the brewing industry and they were essentially forcing women out," McLennan said. "They used these symbols to associate female brewers with witchcraft as a way to force them out."

For the women, that strategy had serious consequences — for both their livelihoods and their lives.

"Very few people who were accused of witchcraft were ever pardoned, unfortunately. So a lot of these women would have been put to death," McLennan said.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?