This is the fourth in a series of posts written to mark the publication of my book, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England, which is now available in paperback. Monster readers can take advantage of a special offer to get 25% off (getting the book for just £13.49) by using the promotion code ‘BB125’ when ordering here. Each post in this series focuses on a character that features in the book, and uses them to highlight some of my key themes and arguments.
The seventeenth-century English alehouse was undoubtedly a male-dominated space. It was certainly not, however, an exclusively male space. For a start, it was common for alehouses to be run by widows, or by the wives of men whose name was actually the one on the license, and many young women would have worked as serving maids in these institutions. But women also represented a significant component of alehouse customers. Indeed, one historian has estimated that as many as 30% of the customers in Essex alehouses in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were women.
Women often drank in alehouses with their husbands, and young women frequented them as part of mixed-gender groups of friends. Of course, the alehouse was an important centre of courtship for the young in the villages and small towns of seventeenth-century England, in an age when a trip to the cinema or the bowling alley—or whatever it is young folk do for courtship these days—were not available options. (Although some alehouses did have bowling alleys attached to them even then, so the link between bowling and courtship may be older than we think).
So, women certainly participated in alehouse culture, but did they do so in similar ways to men? Did they engage in the good fellowship rituals that were such a central part of the institution’s appeal? Some women did, such as the central character of this post, Elizabeth Case.
In 1620s Chester, Elizabeth Case routinely kept company with a group of male good fellows in the city’s alehouses and taverns. And in a number of important ways she insisted that she drink with them as an equal: Case made a point of reciprocating any drinks purchased for her; she competed with her male companions at games of shovelboard; and she also kept pace with her male drinking companions, consuming as much as they did.
On one occasion she had been drinking with the shoemaker Thomas Cowper and the ironmonger John Minshall. Between them they consumed between six and nine pints of wine—they could not remember exactly—during a drinking bout that went on until 11 o’clock at night. As they stood up to leave Cowper noted that Case was ‘somewhat spent in drink’ and offered to help her home. But as a matter of principle Case declared that she ‘scorned to be brought home’ and insisted she could walk unassisted. As it turned out she fell down and injured her face, but what this example shows is that the central principle of good fellowship—that any drinker worth their salt should be able to drink heavily whilst retaining control of mind and body—was a maxim Elizabeth Case also subscribed to. It suggests that a woman could, by meeting the relevant criteria, lay claim to the title of ‘good fellow’. It was not exclusively reserved for men.
Such a conclusion comes with a major caveat though: we only know all of this about Elizabeth Case because it was reported as evidence of misbehaviour on her part, and used to support her husband’s appeal for the seventeenth-century equivalent of a divorce. Elizabeth Case participated in good fellowship in similar ways to men, but not on the same terms: she sacrificed her good reputation by doing so. Women were not excluded from alehouse drinking rituals, but they were not able to engage in them with the same level of impunity that men could.
Nor could women enter alehouses as safely as men, and there was a much darker side to the gender imbalance in drinking culture: there were many instances of sexual assault committed by men against women in England’s alehouses. In one particularly shocking case that took place in an alehouse in Snargate, Kent, in 1602, a group of male drinkers gang-raped a serving maid who died from the injuries inflicted. When this appalling crime was first reported to the local magistrate he initially dismissed it as ‘but a trick of youth’. The case eventually came to trial, but this reaction is a stark reminder of how brutally misogynistic this society could be.
In spite of the risks involved many women did nonetheless participate in alehouse culture, though it is telling that mixed-gender drinking companies were relatively common whereas all-female companies were not. Going to an alehouse with known male companions was an important form of protection against potential sexual assault or accusations of prostitution that could be levelled at female alehouse-goers. What is clear is that the alehouse was not an exclusively male space, and good fellowship was not a male-only activity: rather, they both provided contexts in which a range of interactions between women and men took place, and the insights they provide into gender relations in this society are another central theme of the book.
The alehouse was, then, a space that was central to the recreational, and indeed working, lives of both ordinary men and women in seventeenth-century England, and studying them offers us a fascinating window onto various aspects of everyday life in the English past. Thankfully, there is now a book available that aims to do just this….
 Amanda Flather, Gender and Space in Early Modern England (2007), pp.110-121.