For women there were punishments designed to humiliate as well as to hurt. The scold’s bridle took many appearances but in essence each was the same – a metal cage to clamp around the head with a built-in gag. Included in the design of some was a bell which rang when the ‘scold’ was paraded around the town. Of course, in the streets she was subjected to the jeers of the crowd.
In Ipswich the scold was drawn around the town on a cart in the ‘gagging’ chair or ‘Tewe’, as it was known. The bridle, also known as the brank, was first used at the end of the Middle Ages in Scotland. It was rarely used after the start of the 19th century.
A scold was defined as a ‘troublesome and angry woman who by brawling and wrangling amongst her neighbours breaks the public peace, increases discord and becomes a public nuisance to the neighbourhood’. It remains unclear why men should not be pulled up on a similar charge. It was up to the judges to pronounce on whether a woman was indeed a scold. Frequently, it was a disgruntled husband bringing his wife to court.
The town jailer kept the bridle and was on call to apply it. In 1858 William Andrews gave a talk before the Architectural, Archeological and Historic Society of Chester which gave further clues to its use.
‘In the old-fashioned, half-timbered houses in the borough, there was generally fixed on one side of the large open fireplaces a hook so that when a man’s wife indulged her scolding propensities, the husband sent for the town gaoler to bring the bridle and had her bridled and chained to the hook until she promised to behave herself better for the future’.
This was presumably carried out as a favour to the husband, to spare him the trouble of appearing in court.
The first bridles were seen in Edinburgh in 1567 and in Glasgow, from 1574. By 1632 there was one as far south as Surrey. It was donated by a man called Chester and inscribed: ‘Chester presentes Walton with a bridle, To curb women’s tongues that talk too idle’.
Sometimes the bridle was used in conjuction with another punishment which again mostly befell women. The ducking stool was grossly unpleasant and frequently fatal. the victim was strapped to a seat which dangled on the end of a free-moving arm and was plunged into the local pond or river. It was up to the operators of the stool as to how long she remained under the water. The shock of the cold water often killed the elderly women who found themselves in the stool. The ducking stool was used in Britain in the punishment of scolds, prostitutes and minor offenders while in America it was adopted for witches.
Women and men accused of infidelity or bawdy behaviour were together exposed to the ridicule of the Skimmington Ride. The punishment, imposed by outraged neighbours, had the accused pair perched back-to-back on a horse or donkey and paraded through the streets. The crowds jeered and jostled them.
In dorset the custom of ‘Skimmity’ included the donning of a bull’s head by one of the villagers in the order to taunt the accused couple. This ‘beast’ was called an Ooser. In kinder times the practice of Skimmington Riding continued but the erring pair were replaced by models or masked actors.