The Scold’s Bridle

‘The Scold’s Bridle’ by Jenny Paull BA

Many of us have grown up with the idea that the scold’s bridle was used for hundreds of years for women who nagged their husbands, perpetuating the ‘enquiry’ we have on many tours about whether we sell bridles in the shop. The reality is, of course, more complex.

Firstly, it is necessary to look at the late medieval definition of a Scold. This was a woman who had a ‘vicious tongue’ or was ‘causing nuisance by loud invective’, meaning she quarrelled with her neighbours or, more worryingly for them, the authorities. There was a male equivalent, the Barrator or ‘a common wrangler who setteth men at odds, and is himself never quiet but at brawl with one and another’. This term and the punishment for it appears to have gone out of use by the early 17th Century at about the same time as the bridle appeared in England.

In the late 16th Century and the early 17th Century there is also great concern about women ‘running out of control’ by, amongst other things, defying husbands, rioting and challenging priests. The preoccupation with women’s behaviour in the period is reflected in such writings as Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

The origins of the bridle are not clear but it is currently thought to have originated in Europe sometime in the Middle Ages and was used as part of the penal system. It is first heard of in Britain as a punishment for witches in Scotland in the 16th Century and one of the worst examples of it is the so-called ‘Forfar Bridle’. This is particularly horrible, having spikes on the top and bottom of the bitt to pierce the tongue and palate. There is an equally gruesome instrument kept at Stockport and known as the ‘Stockport Bridle’ and this also has spikes on the top and bottom of the bitt.

The first recorded use of the bridle for scolds, in England, was in the 17th Century. Use was predominantly in towns in the North of England though there are other examples and styles of bridles preserved further south. Its use was mostly sanctioned by the Manorial or Church courts and, even then, it was an illegal punishment.

The official punishment for a scold was the ‘Ducking Stool’ and all communities were obliged by law to maintain one and there are many recorded instances of them being used for scolds. Communities had their own established punishment for nagging wives and cuckolded husbands as both were against popular notions of appropriate social behaviour. These punishments were designed, primarily, to be humiliating as well as physically uncomfortable. The humiliation aspect of these punishments also provided a form of sexual titillation as the much-treasured reputation for modesty of women in the period was compromised.

This aspect of the bridle’s history has caused endless fascination for observers since that time. Historical enthusiasts such as Victorian gentlemen historians, including a vicar of that era, have written copiously and energetically on punishment instruments for women reserving particular descriptive relish for the scold’s bridle.

The emergence of the bridle in England coincided with the arrival of James I (James VI of Scotland). As King of Scotland, he had encouraged harsh punishments for female offenders and was very fearful of witches. There are a number of documented uses of the bridle for women in Scotland during his reign.

There are cases in England where the victims of the bridle were involved in social protest or, as in the case of Dorothy Waugh, in dissenting religious movements. Dorothy was from Westmorland and had become a Quaker and her story of what it was like to wear the bridle is the only known written account. The Mayor of Carlisle put her in it for preaching in the market place. To speak publicly was regarded as a very immodest thing for a woman to do at that time. She was in the bridle for four hours, taken out and put back into gaol and then put back in the bridle for another four hours. Afterwards, she was released, whipped and chased out of the town. Unlike many women who were punished in this way, she was not subjected to abuse, lewd comment and sexual assault but drew great sympathy from the townspeople. This undermined the Mayor’s purpose as he wanted to make an example of her and discourage other Quaker preachers. Whether the sympathy of the people was because she was a young religious woman posing little threat instead of an older woman seen as a nuisance, is debatable.

Many of the bridle’s victims were older women such as widows and paupers who were seen either as a drain on the parish or women not under the control of a man, eg husband or son. This often meant that they were perceived as a threat to the moral or economic well-being of the community. Many of these women were also accused of witchcraft.

Despite the notion of the bridle as a woman’s punishment providing a lurid spectacle in a more brutal age, there are claims that men had been bridled for a variety of crimes. There is an alleged example in Nottingham in the 18th Century of a blind beggar who was put into the bridle to keep him quiet in prison prior to his hanging for murder. There is another story from Scotland during the 16th Century of David Persoun being bridled for fornication; though it does seem more likely that his lover would have been bridled.

The Royal Navy used gags which could be described as based on the bridle. The gags were pieces of wood put into the mouth and held in place by a frame which went around the head and were part of a means of punishment for sailors for a number of offences. Happily, they have not been used since the early 19th Century. he scant evidence to support claims of bridled men is vague and it is more likely the bridle was predominantly a woman’s punishment.

The bridled woman was really an outspoken woman and it took a brave one to incur the punishment for being so. This made the bridle a very effective means of social control. Her fate was to be dragged through the streets in the bridle as it shook about on her head; often with her jaw broken, spitting out teeth, blood and vomit and receiving all forms of abuse.

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