Sunday, October 4, 2009

Scold's bridles and the Skimmington Ride (from Bavardess)

In a recent posting on Bavardess, Amanda McVitty gives a succinct account of the scold's bridle and the skimmington ride, both practices that connect the early modern discourse of gender with horses. I'm fairly sure most readers of this blog are aware of this nauseating cultural practice, but Amanda's account is an excellent synopsis. I've been meaning to let this blog in on it. With her permission, I'm crossposting the entire entry here:

Begin crosspost... "

I’ve been doing some research this month for an encyclopedia entry I’m writing on the ritual of the ‘skimmington’ or ‘skimmington ride’ in early modern England. The skimmington was a form of community censure that in England was primarily aimed at women who transgressed gender norms by dominating or beating their husbands, a transgression that was generally assumed to go hand-in-hand with female sexual infidelity.

Accounts of skimmington rituals tend to be embedded in broader analyses of patriarchal authority and social order during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and so the material I’ve been looking for has often appeared alongside discussion of other gendered constructions of crime and punishment, such as the use of the cucking stool to punish women accused of ‘scolding’ and whoring. In a strong strand of continuity from the medieval period
, such censure persistently conflated uncontrolled or unruly female speech with female sexual disorder, with both forms of specifically female ‘sinfulness’ perceived as threats to proper patriarchal authority and social hierarchy. (Lydia Boose, in the article ‘Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman’s Unruly Member’*, introduces an intriguing reading of the unruly female tongue – represented in the ‘scold’ – as an unauthorised appropriation of phallic authority which carries with it the implicit threat of male castration and a usurpation of man’s ‘natural right’ to rule.)

Anyway, I’d been reading through all this material with my usual sense of intellectual curiosity coupled with relative emotional detachment until I ran across a detailed account on the use of the ‘scold’s bridle’ or ‘brank’, a particularly nasty piece apparatus that emerges in records of the late sixteenth century as a tool of coercion to enforce women’s silence. The bridle was a metal contraption that covered or encircled the woman’s head and incorporated an iron bar or ‘gag’ to hold her tongue down, thus preventing speech. The association of the unruly woman with a horse that needs breaking is obvious, and no doubt part of the punishment was the shame of being reduced to the status of an animal.

A woman accused of scolding – basically, any form of unsanctioned female speech that was perceived as unruly or disruptive – had this vicious device forcibly shoved into her mouth and locked around her head. She was then subjected to the ritualised public humiliation of being led or dragged
through the town, tied up in the public square and pelted with rubbish and excrement, urinated on, and otherwise mocked and degraded. In parts of England, there is also some evidence to indicate that a husband could have his wife bridled and tied up to a hook embedded beside the fireplace in their home.

Scold’s bridles took various forms, but their general design is such that at the least, they would inflict a measure of pain and discomfort. Some versions, which featured spikes or rasps on the gag part that is inserted into the woman’s mouth, would clearly inflict severe pain and damage. A 1653 account from Newcastle talks of a woman being led through the town with blood pouring from her mouth; other accounts allude to teeth being broken or wrenched out, and even of jawbones and cheekbones being cracked. A perilously high price to pay for the ‘sin’ of voicing an opinion.

I found these descriptions of the scold’s bridle and its use – numerous of which have been preserved by various nineteenth century antiquarians and folklorists** – deeply unsettling to my normal scholarly sang-froid. In fact, I found them downright chilling. I felt both nauseated and enraged at the extent of physical violation and psychological degradation women may be subjected to in order to enforce a suitably meek and silent feminine demeanour in the face of male authority. When women today express what is often trivialised or dismissed as ‘unreasonable’ or ‘irrational’ anger at attempts to silence them, I think it’s against history such as this that their anger should be read.

* Lynda E. Boose, ‘Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member’, Shakespeare Quarterly 42, no. 2 (1991): 179-213.

** Boose includes descriptions from an 1858 account by one T. N. Brushfield of the Chester Archaeological society, and reproduces some of the drawings he made of devices he had turned up in places including women’s work houses and mental institutions. It adds another layer of horror to the history of these devices that by the eighteenth century, although they had largely fallen out of use for the public punishment of mouthy women, they appear to have found a new home amongst the tools of coercion and control behind the walls of state-run institutions wherein were incarcerated some of society’s most marginal and vulnerable members.

The images are from 1899’s Bygone Punishments by William Andrews , which draws on Brushfield’s earlier work.

ETA: After I posted this, I remembered a podcast I listened to recently featuring Martin Rediker talking about his book The Slave Ship: A Human History (great book, by the way. I thoroughly recommend it). While I’d previously understood on an intellectual level what he meant when he was talking about how personally draining doing this sort of history is, it wasn’t until I read the material on the scold’s bridles that I really understood at a visceral, emotional level what the cost of doing this type of ‘history from below’ – the history of the poor and despised, the marginal and the silenced – can potentially be."

-- end cross post Thanks, Amanda!


  1. This is a great post. Lots of useful stuff to think about. In this paper I suggested that the scold's bridle also made a woman more like an animal because it deprived her of speech, which was supposed to set humans apart from animals. I'm really interested in the way that real and symbolic things (not in the Lacanian sense) interact. Putting a bridle on a woman symbolises the idea that women are like animals, and it also effectively turns her into an animal.

    After writing that paper I started to wonder whether the scold's bridle really existed in early-modern England, especailly when I read in Judith Bennett's History Matters that the chastity belt was not used in the middle ages but invented later. The stuff you've cited shows that they definitely were used in this period, although my interpretation of its meaning would still stand even if it was a myth. And such a myth would probably serve a patriarchal purpose such as creating an illusion of progress.

    I'd love to write a paper called 'Scolds, Nags and Pony Girls: the Disturbingly Blurred Boundaries Between Women and Horses'. I'm not entirely sure what it would actually say, but it's a great title.

  2. Thanks for the post, Gavin. The way the scold's bridle overtly makes the connection between women and animals also crossed my mind. It definitely plays into the whole late medieval/early modern gender binary that privileges the masculine as more reasoned/rational/controlled (and therefore 'human'). Love the title of that paper!