Women’s work

Woman brewing beer.

Gervais Markham set high standards, in the 1615 and 1623 editions of his book The English Housewife, for the domestic beverage arts, counselling that:

When our English housewife knows how to preserve health by wholesome physic; to nourish by good meat, and to clothe the body with warm garments, she must not then by any means be ignorant in the provision of bread and drink;… And forasmuch as drink is in every house more generally spent than bread, being indeed (but how well I know not) made the very substance of all entertainment…

Gervais Markham, The English Housewife, 1615

Markham further postulated that a wife who additionally knows how to ferment cider, perry, and mead as well as how to distil spirits and non-alcoholic waters on alembics made of ‘either of tin, or sweet earth’ certainly secured ‘the health of her household’. Why were these beverages held in such high esteem and demand?

Ale and beer sated the voracious thirst that accompanied the early modern English diet of cereal grains, salted meat, and fish. For example, John Latimer recounted that breakfast consisted of, ‘cold meat or skimmed milk cheese, according to the position of the household, and bread accompanied with milk for the younger members, and beer for the adults,’ about which he concludes that the great consumption of beer was no surprise because it was ‘exceedingly cheap and to a large extent nourishing.’ Geoffrey Quaife calculated that in seventeenth-century Somerset, every man, woman, and child ‘drank the equivalent of one quart of beer or cider per day’, or about 343 litres per year. Craig Muldrew similarly estimated that late seventeenth-century English beer consumption amounted to almost two pints per day. Keith Thomas reckoned the quantity was 1.5 pints per day based on King’s 1684 calculations, combining national quantities whether excise was paid or not. Applying state statistics recorded in 1695 John Latimer gauged that consumption ‘averaged one quart and a half daily per head, for women as well as men, irrespective of a vast consumption of cider.’ These estimates imply that a housewife in a family of four needed to annually acquire or produce around 1,372 litres of beer per year regardless of county or region throughout England.

—Anistatia Miller