Common scold

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Punishing a common scold in the ducking stool

In the common law of crime in England and Wales, a common scold was a type of public nuisance—a troublesome and angry person who broke the public peace by habitually chastising, arguing and quarrelling with their neighbours. The majority of individuals punished for scolding were women, though men could also be labelled scolds.

The offence, which was exported to North America with the colonists, was punished by monetary fines, but also by methods intended to publicly humiliate such as dunking: being placed in a chair and submerged in a river or pond. Although rarely prosecuted it remained on the statute books in England and Wales until 1967.

The offence and its punishment[edit]

Medieval England[edit]

The offence of scolding developed from the late middle ages in England. It has been suggested that attempts to control and punish 'bad speech' increased after the Black Death, when demographic shift led to greater resistance and threats to the status quo.[1] This included prosecutions for scolding. Scolds were described using a number of Latin terms, including objurgator, garulator, rixator and litigator, found in both masculine and feminine forms in medieval legal records and all referring to negative forms of speech, chatter, quarrelling or reproachment. Scolding offences were commonly presented and punished in manorial and borough courts that governed the behaviour of peasants and townspeople across England. Scolds were also presented in church courts.[2] The most common punishment was a monetary fine.

Various historians have argued that scolding and bad speech were coded as feminine offences by the late medieval period. Women of all marital statuses were prosecuted for scolding, though married women featured most frequently, while widows were rarely labelled scolds.[3] In some places, such as Exeter, scolds were typically poorer women, whereas elsewhere scolds could include members of the local elite.[4] Women who were also charged with other offences, such as violence, nightwandering, eavesdropping or sexual impropriety were also likely to be labelled scolds.[5] Individuals were frequently labelled 'common scolds', indicating the impact of their behaviour and speech on the whole community. Karen Jones identified 13 men prosecuted for scolding in Kent's secular courts, compared to 94 women and 2 couples.[6] Men accused of scolding were often charged alongside their wives. Helen, wife of Peter Bradwall scolded Hugh Welesson and Isabel, his wife, in Middlewich in 1434, calling Isabel a "child murderer" and Hugh a "skallet [wretched] knave". Isabel and Hugh also scolded Helen, calling her a "lesyng blebberer" (lying bletherer). All parties were fined for the offences, though Hugh and Isabel were fined jointly.[7] Like women, male scolds were often accused of many other offences, such as fornication, theft, illegal trading, and assault.[8]

Later punishments of scolding[edit]

Later legal treatises reflected the dominance of scolding as a female offence. In the Commentaries on the Laws of England, Blackstone says of this offence:

Lastly, a common scold, communis rixatrix, (for our law-latin confines it to the feminine gender) is a public nuisance to her neighbourhood. For which offence she may be indicted; and, if convicted, shall be sentenced to be placed in a certain engine of correction called the trebucket, castigatory, or cucking stool, which in the Saxon language signifies the scolding stool; though now it is frequently corrupted into ducking stool, because the residue of the judgment is, that, when she is so placed therein, she shall be plunged in the water for her punishment.

— Bl. Comm. IV:13.5.8, p. *169
Scold's bridles or branks were probably used as a punishment but no official records of their use have been found.

The prescribed penalty for this offence involved dunking the convicted offender in water in an instrument called the "cucking stool". The cucking stool, according to Blackstone, eventually became known as a ducking stool by folk etymology.

Other writers disagree with Blackstone's assertion equating the two sorts of punishment seat. The Domesday Book notes the use of a cucking stool at Chester, a seat also known as cathedra stercoris, a "dung chair", whose punishment apparently involved exposing the sitter's buttocks to onlookers. This seat served to punish not only scolds, but also brewers and bakers who sold bad ale or bread, whereas the ducking stool dunked its victim into the water. Francois Maximilian Misson, a French traveller and writer, recorded the method used in England in the early 18th century:[9]

The way of punishing scolding women is pleasant enough. They fasten an armchair to the end of two beams twelve or fifteen feet long, and parallel to each other, so that these two pieces of wood with their two ends embrace the chair, which hangs between them by a sort of axle, by which means it plays freely, and always remains in the natural horizontal position in which a chair should be, that a person may sit conveniently in it, whether you raise it or let it down. They set up a post on the bank of a pond or river, and over this post they lay, almost in equilibrio, the two pieces of wood, at one end of which the chair hangs just over the water. They place the woman in this chair and so plunge her into the water as often as the sentence directs, in order to cool her immoderate heat.

The ducking stool, rather than being fixed in position by the river or pond, could be mounted on wheels to allow the convicted woman to be paraded through the streets before punishment was carried out. Another method of ducking was to use the tumbrel, which consisted of a chair on two wheels with two long shafts fixed to the axles. This would be pushed into the ducking pond and the shafts would be released, tipping the chair up backwards and ducking the occupant.[10]

A scold's bridle, known in Scotland as a brank, consists of a locking metal mask or head cage that contains a tab that fits in the mouth to inhibit talking. Some have claimed that convicted common scolds had to wear such a device as a preventive or punitive measure. Legal sources do not mention them in the context of the punishment of common scolds, but there are anecdotal reports of their historical use as a public punishment.[11][12] In 17th-century New England and Long Island, scolds or those convicted of similar offences—both men and women—could be sentenced to stand with their tongue in a cleft stick, a more primitive but easier-to-construct version of the scold's bridle,[13] but the ducking stool also made the trip across the Atlantic.[9]

Historical prosecutions[edit]

This woodcut shows the wheels on the ducking stool which allowed the occupant to be wheeled through the streets before being ducked.

A plaque on the Fye Bridge in Norwich, England claims to mark the site of a "cucking" stool, and that from 1562–1597 "strumpets" and common scolds suffered the punishment of dunking there. In the Percy Anecdotes, published pseudonymously by Thomas Byerley and Joseph Clinton Robertson in 1821–23, the authors state that "How long the ducking-stool has been in disuse in England does not appear."[14] The Anecdotes also suggest penological ineffectiveness as grounds for the stool's disuse; the text relates the 1681 case of a Mrs. Finch, who according to this account had received three convictions and duckings as a common scold. On her fourth conviction, the King's Bench declined to dunk her again, and instead ordered her to pay a fine of three marks, and ordered her imprisoned until payment took place.

The Percy Anecdotes also quote a pastoral poem by John Gay (1685–1732), who wrote that:

I'll speed me to the pond, where the high stool
On the long plank, hangs o'er the muddy pool,
That stool the dread of ev'ry scolding quean.[15]

and a 1780 poem by Benjamin West, who wrote that:

There stands, my friend, in yonder pool,
An engine call'd a ducking-stool;
By legal pow'r commanded down,
The joy and terror of the town.
If jarring females kindle strife...[16]

While these literary sources do not prove that the punishment still took place, they do provide evidence that it had not been forgotten.

In The Queen v. Foxby, 6 Mod. 11 (1704), counsel for the accused stated that he knew of no law for the dunking of scolds. Lord Chief Justice John Holt of the Queen's Bench apparently pronounced this error, for he announced that it was "better ducking in a Trinity, than a Michaelmas term", i.e. better carried out in summer than in winter. The tenor of Holt's remarks however suggests that he found the punishment an antiquarian curiosity and something of a joke.[17] The last recorded uses of the stool for ducking involve a Mrs. Ganble at Plymouth (1808) and Jenny Pipes, a notorious scold from Leominster (1809). In 1817 Sarah Leeke, also from Leominster was sentenced to be ducked but the water in the pond was so low that the authorities merely wheeled her round the town in the chair.[10]

The English common law as received by the law of the United States included the offence of being a common scold. In 1829, a Washington, D.C. court found the American anti-clerical writer Anne Royall guilty of being a common scold, the outcome of a campaign launched against her by local clergymen. Despite the construction of the traditional engine of punishment by sailors at the Navy Yard, the court ruled the punishment of the cucking-stool obsolete, and instead improvised a fine of ten dollars.[18]

Current status of the law[edit]

In England and Wales, the only part of the United Kingdom where the law had any effect, no prosecutions of common scolds occurred for a considerable period.[vague] Counsel in Sykes v. Director of Public Prosecutions [1962] AC 528 described the offence as "obsolete", and section 13(1)(a) of the Criminal Law Act 1967 eventually abolished it.

The common law offence of being a common scold was extant in New Jersey until struck down in 1972 by Circuit Judge McCann who found it had been subsumed in the provisions of the Disorderly Conduct Act of 1898, was bad for vagueness and offended the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution for sex discrimination. Long before this decision, the punishment of ducking, together with all other forms of corporeal punishment, had become unlawful under the provisions of the New Jersey Constitution of 1844 or even as early as 1776.[19] In the United States, many states have laws restricting public profanity, excessive noise, and disorderly conduct. None of these laws carry the distinctive punishment originally reserved for the common scold, nor are they gender-specific as the common scold offense was.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bardsley, Sandy (2006). "Sin, Speech and Scolding in Late Medieval England". Fama: The Politics of Talk and Reputation in Medieval Europe, ed. Thelma Fenster and Daniel Lord Smail: 146–8.
  2. ^ Jones, Karen (2006). Gender and petty crime in late medieval England : the local courts in Kent, 1460-1560. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. pp. 104–106. ISBN 184383216X. OCLC 65767599.
  3. ^ Sandy, Bardsley. Venomous tongues : speech and gender in late medieval England. Philadelphia. pp. 123–125. ISBN 9780812239362. OCLC 891396093.
  4. ^ Sandy, Bardsley. Venomous tongues : speech and gender in late medieval England. Philadelphia. pp. 135–136. ISBN 9780812239362. OCLC 891396093.
  5. ^ Sandy, Bardsley. Venomous tongues : speech and gender in late medieval England. Philadelphia. p. 137. ISBN 9780812239362. OCLC 891396093.
  6. ^ 1939-, Jones, Karen (2006). Gender and petty crime in late medieval England : the local courts in Kent, 1460-1560. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. p. 108. ISBN 184383216X. OCLC 65767599.
  7. ^ Sandy, Bardsley. Venomous tongues : speech and gender in late medieval England. Philadelphia. p. 102. ISBN 9780812239362. OCLC 891396093.
  8. ^ Sandy, Bardsley. Venomous tongues : speech and gender in late medieval England. Philadelphia. p. 103. ISBN 9780812239362. OCLC 891396093.
  9. ^ a b Alice Morse Earle (1896). "The Ducking Stool". Curious Punishments of Bygone Days. Archived from the original on 17 January 2007. Retrieved 18 January 2007.
  10. ^ a b Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Ducking and Cucking Stools" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 361.
  11. ^ Thomas Dugdale, William Burnett (1860). England and Wales Delineated: Historical, Entertaining & Commercial. p. 1238.
  12. ^ Frederick W. Fairholt (1855). "On a Grotesque Mask of Punishment Obtained in the Castle of Nuremberg". Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire. 377, Strand. London: J.H. Parker for the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire. VII: 62–64.
  13. ^ Alice Morse Earle (1896). "Branks and gags". Curious Punishments of Bygone Days. Archived from the original on 3 April 2007. Retrieved 18 January 2007.
  14. ^ Reuben Percy and Sholto Percy (1823). The Percy Anecdotes. London: Printed for T. Boys. Archived from the original on 10 September 2004.
  15. ^ John Gay (1714). "The Shepherd's Week : Wednesday; or, The Dumps". Retrieved 31 October 2014.
  16. ^ Alice Morse Earle (1896). "Curious Punishments of Bygone Days". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 31 October 2014.
  17. ^ "The Founders Constitution:Volume 5, Amendment VIII, Document 19". University of Chicago. 1987. Retrieved 18 January 2007.
  18. ^ Cynthia Earman (January 2001). "An Uncommon Scold". Library of Congress. Retrieved 18 January 2007.
  19. ^ State of New Jersey v. Marion Palendrano, 120 N.J. Super. 336 (1972) McCann JCC (Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division (Criminal) 13 July 1972).

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