March 9, 2021 by Dymphna

T-Bomb: why I would have been burnt at the stake

Truth Bomb Tuesday: I’m lucky to live in a time where my success doesn’t get me killed. But I’m not taking that luck for granted.

I know I probably would have been burnt at the stake.

I count myself lucky to born at this time and in this great country.

I know if I had been born at any other time, I probably would have struggled. There’s a good chance I would have been killed.

That’s just what’s tended to happen to successful women who can be a bit lippy – who weren’t happy just to keep their heads down and play by the rules.

Take alewives and witches, for example.

Do you know this story?

So the whole mythology of witches – the hats, the broomsticks, the cats – it was all based on medieval European alewives.

An alewife was a woman who would brew beer for her village or community.

Beer has been around for at least 5,000 years. And for most of that history, it was women who brewed it up. I know you blokes like to boast about your bespoke small-batch craft breweries, but for most of human history, beer was women’s work.

Now, in Europe, around the 1500s, you could often see an alewife out the front of her house, bent over a bubbling cauldron, singing songs to herself, and throwing in all sorts of healing herbs and secret flavours.

When the beer was ready and she was open for trade, she would hang a broomstick above the door to let people know she was open for business.

And since she had so much grain in storage, she needed a cat (or two, or twelve) to keep away the mice.

And when she took her ale to market, she would wear a tall black hat so people could easily pick her out in the crowd.

And here’s a picture:

And it was this way for centuries.

So how did we get from humble alewives to witches?

Well, at some point, as our economies started to industrialise and employ greater economies of scale, some people decided to industrialise beer. It went from being done at a village-by-village level, to something that was being done by large breweries, servicing entire regions.

Of course now we’re talking about some serious bucks. Beer became big business.

And the large breweries saw these local alewives as a threat. They wanted them shut-down.

And how did they do it?

They did it with a concerted PR campaign that sought to paint alewives as ‘witches’ – as literally hand-maidens to the devil.

And so all those ale-wifey things became synonymous with witches. Cauldrons, brooms, cats and hats.

They also leveraged off all the panic and fear that was being driven by the Inquisitions being launched out of Spain.

As a result, not only were many alewives shut down, many were burnt alive for practicing witchcraft.

(Let that sink in for a second.)

For the sake of greater market share, these brewery owners were willing to see good women burned alive.

Good women who were just trying to service their communities. They were just trying to do the best they could in a system that gave them few economic opportunities – particularly if you were an old spinster with no children to support you.

Not only did they take their livelihoods away, they took their lives in a brutal and ungodly way. 

This is our history.

And when I read this, I know that I’m lucky.

I’m an enterprising woman. I’ve got a head for business. I know my success has made a lot of very powerful people jealous.

I also have a curious spiritual side. I want to know how things work. I want to know why we’re here.

In any other age, my enemies would have mobilised against me. They would have sought to put me “back in my box”. They would have sought to muscle in on my turf, and if having me burnt alive at the stake was the only way they could do it, then that’s what would have happened.

Thankfully this is not medieval Europe. This is Australia in the 21st Century. This is a land where a woman can take her own financial future into her own hands, and make a fortune for herself.

And no one can take it away from her.

There’s a lot to be thankful for.

But we can’t take it for granted either.  And so today I tip my hat for all the women through history (and all the many good men as well), that have stood up for a woman’s right to be the master of her own wealth.

The success and wealth I enjoy now – that I teach my students – is built on the good work that’s been done.

So stay strong, witches. And if anyone comes to mess with your wealth, tell them Aunty Dymphna’s going to throw a frog at ‘em!