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March 1, 2019

Scold’s Bridle, a Metal Mask Was Used to Punish Mainly Women Found Gossiping, Nagging, Brawling With Neighbors or Lying

If a wife talked too much during the Middle Ages, you were often forced to wear metal torture devices on their face to serve as punishment by their husbands.

18th century scold’s bridle in the Märkisches Museum Berlin.

Scold’s bridle is a metal mask meant to bring upon public humiliation. It originated from Britain and spread to other European Countries and was used to punish and torture women till about the 1800s. Scold’s bridle was assigned by the local magistrate to women found gossiping or quarrelling.

The device was an iron muzzle in an iron framework that enclosed the head (although some bridles were masks that depicted suffering.) A bridle-bit (or curb-plate), about 2 inches long and 1 inch broad was slid into the mouth and either pressed down on top of the tongue as a compress or used to raise the tongue to lay flat on the wearer’s palate. This prevented speaking and resulted in many unpleasant side effects for the wearer, including excessive salivation and fatigue in the mouth.

Made in many different styles, some husbands allowed their wives to pick the style they preferred and even adorned them with scrolls or gold paint. A lighter weight chain could be used to ease the burden on the neck and shoulders while being chained to the wall of their home.

This item is one of the more disturbing objects in Henry Wellcome’s collection. This example has a bell on top to draw even more attention to the wearer, increasing their humiliation. It was used until the early 1800s as a punishment in workhouses. (Credits: Science Museum London)

16th-century Scottish branks. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.

‘The 'Bishop’s branks’ of St. Andrews.

17th century Dunfermline branks.

First recorded in Scotland in 1567, the branks were also used in England, where it may not have been formally legalized as a punishment. The kirk-sessions and barony courts in Scotland inflicted the contraption mostly on female transgressors and women considered to be rude or nags or common scolds.

Branking (in Scotland and the North of England) was designed as a mirror punishment for shrews or scolds; women of the lower classes whose speech was deemed “riotous” or “troublesome”; — often women suspected of witchcraft — by preventing such “gossips or scolds” from speaking. This also gives it its other name ‘The Gossip’s Bridle’.

An Iron scold’s bridle mask used to publicaly humiliate.

A Belgian Iron scold’s bridle or branks mask, with bell, used to publicly humiliate and punish, mainly women, for speaking out against authority, nagging, brawling with neighbours, blaspheming or lying.

It was also used as corporal punishment for other offences, notably on female workhouse inmates. The person to be punished was placed in a public place for additional humiliation and sometimes beaten. Though primarily used on women, the branks were at times used on men as well.

When the branks was placed on the “gossiper’s” head, they could be led through town to show that they had committed an offence or scolded too often. This was intended to humiliate them into “repenting” their “riotous” actions. A spike inside the gag prevented any talking since any movement of the mouth could cause a severe piercing of the tongue. When wearing the device, it was impossible for the person either to eat or speak. Other branks included an adjustable gag with a sharp edge, causing any movement of the mouth to result in laceration of the tongue.

The brank, or scold’s bridle, originated around the early 17th century. The metal device passed over and round the head and was fastened at the back of the neck by a small padlock. The bridle-bit - a flat piece of iron, about two inches long and one inch broad, went into the mouth, and kept down the tongue by its pressure.

A branked scold in New England, from an 1885 lithograph.

In Scotland, branks could also be permanently displayed in public by attaching them, for example, to the town cross, tron or tolbooth. Then, the ritual humiliation would take place, with the miscreant on public show. Displaying the branks in public was intended to remind the populace of the consequences of any rash action or slander. Whether the person was paraded or simply taken to the point of punishment, the process of humiliation and expected repentance was the same. Time spent in the bridle was normally allocated by the kirk session, in Scotland, or a local magistrate.

Quaker women were sometimes punished with the branks for preaching their doctrine in public places.

Scold’s bridle – Medieval instrument against women chatter.

Staged photo of a woman in the Middle Ages scold’s bridle.

The show’s title piece (all works 2014) depicts five stiffly corseted women wearing scold’s bridles. The artist’s predilection for hiding the faces of his figures deprives them of identities and safely relegates them into the anonymity of fiction. Peering out from behind their shackles, the eyes of these women urge us to look past any assumptions regarding their mindless acceptance of fashion or subservience. They stare at the viewer with accusation, resignation and defiance. Citation: “Magenta Magazine – Lauchie Reid.” The Magenta Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2015.

The scold’s bridle did not see much use in the New World, though Olaudah Equiano recorded that it was commonly used to control Virginia slaves in the mid-18th century. White men and women were usually placed in the stocks as an equivalent punishment.



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