The Scold’s Bridle

Today’s snippets follow on with the theme of female transgression in early modern England.

Over time, specifically female crimes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came to be divided into three principle categories; scolding, witchcraft, and whoring. Punishments meted out in response to these’crimes’ often involved painful humiliation. One punishment consisted of the ‘cucking stool’; a chair-like device into which the offending woman was strapped before being dunked in water over her head. The cucking stool went by several names and had originally been used for both men and women as a punishment for cheating weights and measures in the marketplace. The cucking of scolds was often something of a carnival event; the device  was used primarily to shame the woman, and the process of cucking usually involved the scold being paraded through the streets, often to the accompaniment of music, jeering and denigrating shouts.

According to a legal summation of 1675, ‘A Scold in a legal sense is a troublesome and angry women, who by her brawling and wrangling amongst her Neighbours, doth break the publick Peace.’ The Scold’s Bridle, or Brank, shares an interesting, if horrific place in early modern history.

A device of containment designed to prevent a woman from speaking, it is today regarded as an instrument of torture. In its earliest form, the Bridle consisted of a hoop head-piece of iron, opening by hinges at the side so as to enclose the head, with a flat piece of iron projecting inwards so as to fit into the mouth and press the tongue down. Later it was made, by a multiplication of hoops, more like a cage, the front forming a mask of iron with holes for mouth, nose and eyes. Sometimes the mouth-plate was armed with a short spike. With this on her head the offending woman was marched through the streets by the beadle, or chained to the market-cross to be gibed at & pissed on by passers-by. It was solely dependent upon the gentleness of the man leading the woman in the bridle as to whether or not her teeth and jaws were permanently injured or even smashed. The Scold’s Bridle does not appear to have ever been a legalized form of punishment; but corporations and lords of manors in England, town councils, kirk-sessions and barony courts in Scotland assumed a right to inflict it.

A male account of the usefulness of the bridle from 1686:

I look upon it as much to be preferred to the Cucking Stoole, which not only endangers the health of the party, but also gives the tongue liberty ‘twixt every dipp; to neither of which is this at all lyable, but brings shame for the transgression, and humility thereupon, before ’tis taken off…which, being put upon the offender by order of the magistrate, and fastened with a padlock behind, she is lead round the towne by an officer to her shame, nor is it taken off, till after the party begins to show all external signes imaginable of humiliation and amendment.


Dorothy Waugh, who had been moved to ‘speake against all deceit & ungodly practises’, recounts her personal experience of being forced into a Scold’s Bridle in The Lamb’s Defence Against Lyes (1656):

The Mayor

was so violent & full of passion that he scarce asked me any more Questions, but called to one of his followers to bring the bridle as he called it to put upon me, and was to be on three houres, and that which they called so was like a steele cap and my hatt being violently pluckt off which was pinned to my head whereby they tare my Clothes to put on their bridle as they called it, which was a stone weight of Iron, & three barrs of Iron to come over my face, and a peece of it was put in my mouth, which was so unreasonable big a thing for that place as cannot be well related, which was locked to my head, and so I stood their time with my hands bound behind me with the stone weight of Iron upon my head and the bitt in my mouth to keep me from speaking; And the Mayor said he would make me an Example… Afterwards it was taken off and they kept me in prison for a little season, and after a while the Mayor came up againe and caused it to be put on againe, and sent me out of the Citty with it on, and gave me very vile and unsavoury words, which were not fit to proceed out of any mans mouth, and charged the Officer to whip me out of the Towne.

I have drawn on several secondary sources for this post, especially Linda Boose’s Scolding Brides.
© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved


  • Anonymous
    November 20, 2011 - 1:13 pm | Permalink

    This was during a time when women knew their place. Kitchen and bedroom and raising children. Nowadays women want to wear the trousers and surpass what men do. Life was simpler then, women have made it so complicated nowadays.

  • Anonymous
    April 24, 2011 - 12:35 pm | Permalink

    My partner,Lynn,very often chatters parrot-style when I am trying to concentrate. Confining her in this contraption for a few hours would, I am certain, very quickly teach her to respect the value of occasionally holding
    her tongue!
    Can I purchase one of these bridles at Tesco ?

  • Anonymous
    June 15, 2010 - 12:25 am | Permalink

    ohhh yeah. coooll

  • December 1, 2009 - 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Funny thing is I saw one of these at the Wellcome Inst on Saturday. Hideous looking thing too.

  • November 28, 2009 - 3:42 pm | Permalink

    I’d be in one for sure, Sheila!

    Thanks for that Liam, I shall google her work.

  • November 27, 2009 - 9:21 pm | Permalink

    Maryanne Kowaleski (Fordham U) is working on an article on scolds in 14th century England. She gave an interesting talk on it at Columbia University.

  • November 27, 2009 - 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Wow! Makes one wince to think of it (though I’ve read about the Scold’s Bridle before now). Pity a male equivalent could not have been constructed for unfaithful husbands (a sort of male chastity belt 😉 )

    Thanks as ever
    Sheila xx

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