A scold's bridle, sometimes called a brank's bridle or simply branks, was an instrument of punishment used primarily on women, as a form of torture and public humiliation. The device was an iron muzzle in an iron framework that enclosed the head. A bridle-bit (or curb-plate), about 2 inches long and 1 inch broad, projected into the mouth and pressed down on top of the tongue. The curb-plate was frequently studded with spikes, so that if the offender moved her tongue, it inflicted pain and made speaking impossible. Wives who were seen as witches, shrews and scolds, were forced to wear the branks, locked onto their head.
Origin and purpose
England, Wales and Scotland
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'
However, 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. The Lanark Burgh Records record a typical example of the punishment being used, " Iff evir the said Elizabeth salbe fund scolding or railling… scho salbe sett upone the trone in the brankis and be banishit the toun thaireftir" (1653 Lanark B. Rec. 151).
Though primarily used on women, the Burgh Records of Scotland's major towns reveal that the branks were at times used on men as well: "Patrick Pratt sall sit … bound to the croce of this burgh, in the brankis lockit" (1591 Aberd. B Rec. II. 71) / "He shall be put in the branks be the space of xxiiij houres thairafter" (1559 (c 1650) Dundee B. Laws 19. )
When the branks was placed on the "gossiper's" head, they could be led through town to show that they had been 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 woman 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.
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.
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. Men and women were usually placed in the stocks as an equivalent punishment.
During the 1500s it spread to some other European countries, including Germany. Some bridles even had a bell on top of them to draw more attention to the wearer, thus increasing their humiliation. It continued in use until the early 1800s as a punishment in German workhouses.
In 1567, Bessie Tailiefeir (pron. Telfer) slandered Baillie Thomas Hunter in Edinburgh, saying that he was using false measures. She was sentenced to be "brankit" and fixed to the cross for one hour.
In Walton on Thames, in England, a scold's bridle, dated 1633, is displayed in the vestry of the church, with the inscription "Chester presents Walton with a bridle, To curb women's tongues that talk too idle." The story is that someone named Chester lost a fortune due to a woman's gossip, and presented the town with the instrument of torture out of anger and spite.
Impassioned Clay is a novel by Stevie Davies. In the heroine's garden a skeleton of a 17th-century woman is uncovered, the corpse had been buried wearing a scold's bridle.
The scold's bridle is also referred to in the book Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. He refers to one on display in the church at Walton on Thames, joking that a shortage of iron, or possibly iron not being strong enough to curb a woman's tongue, was why it was no longer in use.
- "Definition of branks". Free Dictionary. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
- "Scolds Bridle". National Education Network, U.K. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
- "History talk sheds light on Scold's birdle". Retrieved 7 August 2012.
- Classic Encyclopedia
- Chambers, Robert (1685). Domestic Annals of Scotland. Eddinburgh : W & R Chambers. p. 37.
- Torture devices
- Chambers, Robert (1885). Domestic Annals of Scotland. Eddinburgh : W & R Chambers. p. 37.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Branks.|
- Media related to Scold's bridles at Wikimedia Commons
- Bygone Punishments of Scotland by William Andrews 1899 on electricscotland