Marie-Eve Levasseur: A later history of beer, especially in medieval England, mentions the figure of the alewife, one that is not easy to separate from the figure of the witch: she brewed with a cauldron, often needed the company of a cat to keep the stored sacks of grains safe from mice, used a broom as an alestake over her door to indicate beer surplus to sell, and wore a conical black, sometimes pointed hat on market days to be recognized from afar as a beer seller.
According to some historians, the witch hunts of the Middle Ages represent the moment where women were gradually pushed away from the beer business.
»Guilds formed and as a result, women were increasingly pushed out of their traditional roles as brewing became a higher status, more desirable, and better paid position. While this process occurred gradually and differed in temporal and geographical contexts, by 1700, women were by and large pushed out of brewing. […] In response to this, or perhaps parallel to this process, female brewers, braciatrices, became vilified. Not only were they depicted as purveyors of the mortal sins of gluttony and lust, they were also believed to be wholly incapable of brewing. They were, as a group, cheaters, liars, and completely untrustworthy – selling beer in illegal measures and doctoring their ale with various nefarious ingredients. They were portrayed in art and literature as prostitutes, procuresses, and sexual deviants. And somewhere, somewhere at the crossroads of greed and misogyny, these charges became even more sinister, and perhaps even deadly. Alewives could be associated with witches.«
With the Inquisition from the Catholic Church, general oppression and marginalization of women were highly common. Especially women with knowledge of plants and herbs, a potential financial autonomy due to selling their own beer, and the fact that the brewsters would supervise a bubbling brew that, after fermentation, could cause someone to lose control after drinking it, it was easy to see some devil’s magic in there.
Mara-Johanna Kölmel: So the history of beer making speaks at the same time of a history of erasure of female influence. This in turn reminds me of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Here he writes that presences and absences of history »are neither neutral or natural. They are created. As such they are not mere presences or absences, but mentions and silences of various kinds of degrees.« Why do you feel the digital medium is a suitable medium to tackle such silences of history?
Marie-Eve Levasseur: A very recent erasure, yes. Those presences and absences in history definitely are the product of a situated production of knowledge. Mostly situated in patriarchy. That’s very problematic, and it is something we cannot »erase« from the past way of telling history, but we can certainly transform and expand it in the future. To those old ways of mentioning only that what once was considered relevant (values that fortunately tend to shift over time), we can add a knowledge that is situated elsewhere in the now with the voices we have, mentioning stories we consider important today and people who are missing in history and storytelling. I’m not an historian, and I can’t pretend to know how that should be done, but as an artist, I am able to make things visible. I wasn’t aware of that almost untold history until I made my own research. It is also through the Internet that I found scientific as well as mainstream articles that informed my project, along with my own experience in brewing. A combination of digital and material translations are necessary here. I see the digital medium as perfect for spreading knowledge and make alternate narratives accessible. There are advantages in using our networks to fill gaps from the past, but there are materials that are more sustainable in time, that can be found again in the future and that we or others might be able to decode better than old rusty hard drives (like the 4,000 year-old cuneiform clay tablets that allowed us to translate the Hymn to Ninkasi, for example). In my opinion, we need to prevent erasure again and move toward inclusively writing events as well as dismantling phallogocentrism in all spheres of life.