Merchant Enterprise and Margery Kempe
by Rachel Arnold, Holy Cross College '99

Enterprise in the medieval town, like that of the countryside, was based on the family unit. Women were most frequently employed in the same occupations as their husbands. However, many unmarried women supported themselves as shopkeepers and other wage earners and married women often carried on occupations distinct from their husbands. This independence is what is seen in The Book of Margery Kempe. In Chapter 2, we see Margery foray into the brewing business in attempt to increase her income. She started brewing, and at first the venture seemed successful. The town archives show that John Kempe was associated with the venture, although his wife was the principal proprietor. It was after three of four years that the business began to crumble. The cause of the failure, whether it be mismanagement of inexperience of the owner, or divine intervention as Margery was inclined to think, is unclear. However, Margery’s attempts at becoming a successful businesswoman were not over. 

In another attempt to increase her wealth and prove her success to the world, Margery set herself up as a miller, with two horses to turn the grindstone. Unlike her brewing experience, this enterprise failed almost immediately. She records that the horses she had purchased suddenly refused to pull in the mill. Some of the townspeople took this occurrence as a sign that Margery was cursed, "neither man nor beast would serve the said creature." 

The Art of Brewing

In medieval and early modern England, brewers produced an essential beverage, a beverage that was a staple of the common folk's diet. Modern day consumption of ale is primarily a recreational activity. However, in medieval times, ale was a food staple; children and adults regularly consumed ale throughout the day, at breakfast as well as dinner. Grain converted into ale retained its caloric value and was safe from degradation from vermin, molds, or other storage problems. The beverage was crucial because other liquids were unhealthy, unsuitable, or unavailable; in a world where water was often polluted, milk was converted into cheese, and wine was too expensive for commoners; ale was the most readily available and safest beverage. 

Production of ale was extensive by early 14th century. If is assumed that everyone in England drank just a quart of ale a day, more than 17 million barrels had to be produced each year. At this time, brewing was a fairly straightforward process that required widely available skills and commonly accessible tools. All of these factors made brewing an ideal option for Margery Kempe's industry. She hoped that a successful brewing industry would increase her personal wealth while maintaining her elevated social status within her community. 

Brewing was considered to be a by-industry, meaning it could be done at home in order to earn supplementary income. Women, both married and single carried out almost all of the work of by-industries. Many women of the medieval period were accustomed to producing ale for consumption by their husbands and families. Taking into account that brewing was already a part of their domestic responsibilities, may women saw the advantages to be had of producing excess for sale. Before, 1350, although many women brewed by-industrially, few women and men brewed professionally or provided the primary income of the household. 

The actual process of brewing was a time consuming task. First the malt had to be ground (not too finely); then water was boiled; and then the two were mixed together, ideally with the malt and water running together into a large vessel. To this vessel yeast and herbs were added, the wort was drawn off, and the ale would be ready for drinking within a day. As a result of its accessibility, brewing was an industry of thousands of petty producers, not the craft of a specialist. These petty producers were divided into two groups- those who brewed for consumption by their families (domestic brewers) and those who brewed for sale (commercial brewers). Margery would have fallen into the second category of brewers. It has been estimated that in Wakefield (Yorkshire) between 1348 and 1350, 185 women- accounting for almost one third of all women who brewed for sale. 

Bennett, Judith M. Ale, Brew, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World. New York: Oxford University Press. 1996.