Colmar, 1353 CE
Gritta, Appel, and Efi managed to survive the Black Death, only to find that they are in desperate need of money. With limited options and lots of obstacles, they band together to become alewives - brewing and selling ale in the free Alsatian town of Colmar. But when an elderly neighbor is discovered dead in her house, the alewives cannot convince the sheriff and the town council that her death wasn’t an accident, it was murder. As the body count piles up, the ale flows and mystery is afoot!
Set in the tumultuous years after the most devastating pandemic the world has ever experienced, The Alewives is a playful romp through a dark time, when society was reeling from loss and a grieving population attempted to return to normal, proving that with the bonds of love, friendship, and humor, the human spirit will always continue to shine.
* * * * * A short, sharp, snappy, hugely entertaining, medieval mystery that portrays the realities of life at the time, with just the right amount of humour to make it thoroughly entertaining. A well-deserved 5/5 from me! - MJ Porter, author of Cragside and The Erdington Mysteries
Book Buy Link: https://geni.us/thealewives
Elizabeth R. Andersen's debut novel, The Scribe, launched in July of 2021. Although she spent many years of her life as a journalist, independent fashion designer, and overworked tech employee, there have always been two consistent loves in her life: writing and history. She finally decided to do something about this and put them both together.
Elizabeth lives in the Seattle area with her long-suffering husband and young son. On the weekends she usually hikes in the stunning Cascade mountains to hide from people and dream up new plotlines and characters.
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Elizabeth is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Alliance of Independent Authors.
The city of Colmar is the third largest in the French region of Alsace close to the German border and is often termed ''the capital of Alsation wine''. It is not wine, however, that first drew the ever-curious and occasionally idiosyncratic attention of the writer Elizabeth R. Andersen to the area and to the town of Colmar. She explains in her author's note at the end of this excellent, quirky, and always entertaining medieval murder mystery that she had been working, at the height of the pandemic, on the third book in her cycle of books, a Crusade-era epic of Palestine - ''The Two Daggers'' and ''the book was getting darker and darker, as was my general outlook on life. I needed something to pull me back into the light. I needed some humor.....I needed the Alewives.''
This, as it turned out, has proved to be both an excellent cure for both general 'ennui' and an entertaining departure for both the writer and the reader and, in 'The Alewives', we are introduced [perhaps not for the last time] to the extraordinary and engaging figures of Frau Gritta, wife of the worthless and habitual drunk and local wastrel, Jorges Leporteur, a general labourer when he is not drunk and often drunk when he is actually labouring. Gritta is the mother of twelve children [whose names she can never remember] and eking out a hand-to-mouth existence in 'Trench Lane' in the unlovely section of Colmar called 'Les Tanneurs' - named after the noisome and unpleasant water-based industries that occur there. When we first meet her she is in search of both her hoe and a contraceptive potion from her old friend Frau Appel Scneider.
Appel is the widow of a prosperous local Tanner. In fact both he and Appel's entire family were victims of the last visitation of 'The Great Pestilence'. She is a sole survivor and, like Gritta, lives a precarious hand-to-mouth existence in her once handsome house and with her entire family buried in the garden. She is good friends with Gritta and they have known each other for many years. A stout woman grown scrawny as a result of the deprivations of The Great Pestilence, she enjoys [if this is the correct verb] the local and Colmar wide reputation of being a skilful maker of potions, and with all the dangerous intimations of witchcraft that that implies.
The third of the trio, who will become known as 'the alewives', is the young, vivacious, and attractive Efi, a migrant from Kleve. She has just become a widow after her young Blacksmith husband Harald has drowned after attempting [for reasons best known to himself] to pole vault a canal whilst carrying a sack of hammers. As a consequence the resulting blockage has flooded the fields of the local Dominican Abbot. [''dummkopf'', Gritta mutters to herself under her breath.] Both Gritta and Appen hold it their responsibility to look after the so recently widowed young girl, thus forming the triumvirate of the novel's title. Efi soon proves herself, endearingly, to be as lacking in brains as her late blacksmith husband.
Throughout the length of this beguiling tale of local people experiencing local issues [there are no momentous events that shape history to be found here - and this is an aspect of the book's charm] this in no way masks the fact that at all times the author applies the precision and incision of the forensic eye of an experienced observer to all that she sees; a trained eye for the period, location and details such as the industrial processes employed for certain purposes and the beliefs and often transitory moods and emotions of individuals. A description of 'The Great Pestilence' is worth quoting at length to convey this understanding of life for ordinary people in the mid-fourteenth century and any professional social historian would be well pleased to have pictured the scene so vividly and with such accuracy:
''...that anyone could feel happiness during the Great Pestilence and the years beyond was an indication that humankind had either remarkable resilience or an inability to comprehend the desperateness of their lives. For four years, the sickness ravaged every person in the land, from the beggars' settlements to the largest cities, and then it vanished, leaving the survivors shocked and bewildered. And yet, people in Colmar managed to find small ways to feel as if their lives were still normal......''
Having so vividly painted the backdrop of the time and condition in which 'The Alewives' is set, Andersen then expands on the true gravity and impact of the situation.......''throughout the terror, the heartache, the nights of heart-rending screams when the Pestilence was at its zenith, babies were born, couples fell in love, the sun rose and set, and the crops grew. Some lives carried on while others flicked out like candle flames.....''
Here we have the microcosm within the macrocosm! A small city set within a much disputed area and the relatively insignificant lives and existences of its inhabitants set against the larger agony of Europe and beyond! Andersen spares the reader none of the clinical details:
.......''Once the Pestilence grasped ahold of a person, there were a few days of chill as the skin turned progressively darker and painful to the touch. Then the buboes would appear, raising the skin of the groin or the throat to angry, swollen masses of thick liquid.....''
This is what had led to the hasty and unceremonious burying of Appel's entire family in her garden, preceded by a raving and painful death. No person in Europe was left untouched in some way. In Colmar, as in many other places, the Jews had been held responsible and there had been a massacre of the local population. But life goes on and now, Gritta is saddened at her loss of a hoe, and there is a devastated young widow in desperate need of counselling and solace! There is also the perplexing mystery of the night time argument between Hattie Jungerwald [widow of the man responsible for the collection of human faeces and urine for the tanning process] and the unpleasant and obstreperous Frau Widmer - an argument that becomes so heated that Girard of Egwisheim, the night watchman, has to break it up - to ponder over!
The morning after the altercation, shortly before the new widow Efi comes calling, Gritta receives a momentous visit from a stranger, a young Franciscan Friar, short and plump and with unusually large eyes. This is the Friar Wikerus, currently on loan to the Dominican establishment in Colmar in the interests of fraternal cooperation from the Franciscan establishment in Breisach, some twenty kilometres away. The Friar, with some apparent reputation for detection and sleuthing is there to investigate a report or a rumour of theft from the Dominican Abbey. Somewhat irritated, perhaps, the Dominican head of the House, Father Konrad, assigns him pastoral duties amongst the population of 'Les Tanneurs', a section of the population of Colmar long held to be of loose morals and who have drifted away from the true path of Mother Church. Father Konrad is particularly exercised about the number of women widowed by the Great Pestilence and the Devil finding work for idle hands. The duties of Friar Wikerus, 'inter alia', are to include persuading these women to take new husbands and return to the ways of the Church; hence the visit of the nervous and slightly aggrieved young Friar to the house of the 'good wife' Gritta. He also carries momentous news, for their neighbour Hattie Jungerwald has been found dead in her bed! Thus, the life of Friar Wikerus becomes entwined with the lives and fate of Gritta, Appel, and Efi, and there is the matter of three murders and the continued theft of treasure and Holy objects from the Dominican Abbey to resolve. The three women, with the aid of the shy and diffident Friar, join forces and embark on a new life of previously male-dominated commerce.
Enjoying a drink or two and introducing Efi to a novel use of cabbage leaves to ward off the heat of an especially hot summer, the three women bemoan their lot. Appel very much doubts she will be paid to lay out the body of Hattie Jungerwald, as the Church has requested of her, and Gritta is still bemoaning the loss of her hoe. Her worthless husband, meanwhile, has injured himself and cannot work. [There are moments, quite incidentally, when it struck this reviewer that this book would make a fine stage play.] How on earth are they to make ends meet and earn a little much needed coin? Could they take in washing, or sell vegetables? Could they earn money by singing? Efi suggests selling her young body for cash. It is then that Gritta is struck by a brilliant idea! They could brew ale and sell it at a profit that also undercuts the local market. Thus does the tale of the ale wives of Colmar truly begin! Elizabeth R. Andersen, in her notes, provides some useful information on the subject of the importance of brewing in the medieval period. At this time the populace largely drank 'small ale' or beer, low in alcoholic content but safer to drink than the water. It was drunk in large quantity for rehydration and not for intoxication. The addition of hops to achieve a bitter quality was a later innovation. Brewing was largely a cottage industry with any excess permitted to be sold at markets and elsewhere. Stronger and more intoxicating ale was brewed for especial occasions. Alsace, as an agricultural district, was blessed with a particularly fertile soil for both grain and wine grapes and with good waterborne routes for transport and communication.
Their first early attempts at brewing are an unmitigated disaster! Efi, who has proved to be ''as intelligent as a lost hen'' - or her late husband - relies heavily on the two older and vastly more experienced women. Friar Wikerus, who seems to have developed an avuncular interest in the three new alewives, declares their efforts to be undrinkable and gifts them with a sachet of 'gruit', a mixture of herbs to add to the brew for better taste and which he has purloined from the Dominican cellars. When next he tastes the ale it is much improved. Efi has contributed two sacks of grain and Gritta has provided two tubs. One of her sons, who is a cooper's apprentice, has promised to construct and provide more. There is, especially in this very hot weather, most definitely a market. Appel, who has taken on the task of preparing the body of the dead woman, returns with the electrifying news that the woman was in fact murdered, though the authorities, personified by the pompous and inept Sheriff Werner, refuse to accept the death as murder. Gritta, for one, is convinced that the murderer is the odious Frau Widmar. As the ale wives continue to brew and experiment there is a further theft at the Abbey, this time of two relics. Jorges is enlisted for the post of selling their ale locally and proves once again that he cannot be trusted with any money! At one point Friar Wikerus invokes Gritta's wrath when he injudiciously remarks he will leave her to her 'women's work'. Enraged beyond measure, Gritta turns on him with a wrathful ''cri de coeur' that is universal and not at all confined to the mid-fourteenth century:
''All work is womanly work, Friar. We do it all, but our husbands receive the accolades for it....'' Her husband, once young and attractive, had become less so....''And then the children came....[ it must be remembered that Gritta has had twelve children]. ''Jorges was not around us so often, and I had to fetch my own water from the well......Every time a new one [baby] came, Jorges would spend more time away from the house; and I took on more work. I chopped the wood and brought it into the house. I slaughtered the pigs and scalded them myself. When the roof fell in....I climbed aloft myself and shored up the holes with straw that I cut from the field myself. And where was Jorges?.....He was spending half his money on drink before he arrived home......So I ask you, what is ''womens' work?''
The body count and the thefts from the Abbey continue to rise and still the three women labour at their new calling. We are fed details of the brewing process, of how, for example, they pace around the house in a hundred and twelve circles to give the 'gruit' time enough to soak into the brew. There are a number of mysterious gifts of barley grain, Gritte's son the cooper's apprentice provides new barrels, and important trade connections are made in the community. A hot summer turns into an Autumn of frost and then a bitter winter as the three women perfect their art and actually start to make money before being arrested and hauled before the authorities on a number of charges. And all the time they have been discussing the murders and the thefts. They believe that they have solved the riddle and eliminated all the false trails. They seek, now, only the final proof; which is duly provided in a most dramatic fashion.
The reader may rest assured that, in time, matters will resolve themselves and that life will return to a semblance of normality. Gritta will even, in time, be reunited with her beloved hoe that she will need so much in the Spring! At no time in this highly enjoyable and accomplished book, however, does Elizabeth R. Andersen allow the reader to forget the background and the context - the issues, such as the seasons for example, that were paramount to these skilfully portrayed characters:
''.......the residents of Colmar were bundled up against the sharp cold. Above them, the hard round ball of the winter sun rose into an icy-blue sky. Below their feet, the ground sparkled with frost. Slumbering beneath the earth lay their hopes for survival for the next year: clear waters that would flow down from the great Kayserberg as soon as the thaw began and the barley kernels that would rise from the soil to become green fields of grain.''
''The Alewives' is, on one level, a highly enjoyable medieval murder mystery, a tale of three murders and a succession of thefts which the reader, along with the three ale wives, is encouraged and required to solve. Who are the murderers, and who the thieves? There are all the customary leads and clues, false and otherwise. Elizabeth R. Andersen has, however, achieved far more than this! She has created a cast of characters, ordinary people from a distant time, and endowed them with flesh and sinew and very human emotions, weaknesses and frailties. 'The Alewives' is laid out with great compassion, insight and humour and the reader comes to care for these people! The strong and growing working relationship and friendship of the three ale wives in question and round which the action evolves is moving and profound. we are left hoping that good times - and further adventures - are just around the corner!
''Efi walked along the patch of frosted grasses outside the walls of Colmar and drew a deep, full drag of sweet scented air.....Only a fool could overlook the scent of the Rhine valley on a crisp winter day. It smelled of green things sleeping under the earth, the sharp snap of wind upon the nearby river, and cold, clear ice that gilded the edges of the few remaining leaves on the elm trees......as she made her way towards 'Les Tanneurs' , the smell of Colmar grew decidedly more pungent. Efi smiled. It might be smelly, but it was home.''
“The Alewives” by Elizabeth R Anderson receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company