Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bridling the scold, or women’s speech silenced

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.


Janice said...

They are chilling instruments, those bridles. As a youngster, I saw one in a New England historical exhibit and remember feeling absolute horror and outrage at the sight.

Emrys Eustace, hygt Broom said...

Fascinating. I've long been aware of these torture instruments, but had assumed that the more severe ones were quite likely products of the same nedievalist fanfic as the "chastity belt" - that is, real historical objects, but fraudulently fabricated long after their supposed period of use.

You're quoting genuine accounts from period, AFAICanTell, and that's pretty chilling.

I've always wondered what kind of a husband it would take to turn his wife (or any close family member, for that matter) in to the authorities for such punishment. Not worse than beating, but colder, more distant - less a "crime of passion" and more of a premeditated horror.

What a species we are.

Bavardess said...

Sadly, not a product of lurid antiquarian imagination. They show up in Glasgow court records in the 1570s and there also seem to be quite a few oblique or direct references in literature, sermons etc. from the period, but I don't know how much systematic research has been done on their use by authorities in England. There is an interesting juxtaposition between this historic silencing of women, and silence about that process in later historical accounts.

painsthee said...

Wow. This information is both deeply disturbing and highly serendipitous, because I am researching female outspokenness related to class, and I wonder how I haven't come across something like this yet. So while I may now have nightmares, I thank you nonetheless.

Bavardess said...

Hi Painsthee, glad you found this useful. I don’t know what period/area you’re looking at, but if you’re interested in 16-17c England, you may also find the following refs useful (if you haven’t come across them already) –

Anthony Fletcher & John Stevenson (eds.), Order and Disorder in Early Modern England – especially the chapter by David Underdown called ‘The Taming of the Scold’
Susan Dwyer Amussen, An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England (which includes a huge number of refs to original sources – court records etc.)

Both of those books put the significantly increased (and more brutal) persecution of scolds during this period into its wider context, including rapid social, religious and economic changes. There was quite a disconnect between the patriarchal ideal of the meek, submissive, dependent woman and the practical reality (especially for families of the middling/lower orders) of needing wives to be assertive and reasonably independent in order to succeed in the marketplace and bring in the bucks for the household economy. There was also a lot of tension created by some of the newer religious sects, which challenged the traditional religious and social hierarchies by putting more emphasis on equality before God between all believers.

If you don’t mind sharing, I’d be interested to know more about your research. I'm quite interested in how class and gender intersect in the persecution of scolds and in similar kinds of public shaming punishments (like the Skimmington).

ZACL said...

I was horribly magnetised to your account of the bridle to silence women. As I read, I had fleeting thoughts about the old asylums. Then to my further horror, though not disbelief,(sad to say) you confirmed the diabolical seed that was forming in my thoughts about the state sanctioned use of such devices of torture against the helpless and the vulnerable.

My heaven! What patriarchal societies were allowed to do to their human counterparts was dreadful.

There is much we suspect but have no proof of, some we have heard of, and have protested against in present day social orders.

I am a random writer about this that and the other,which means I am interested in a wide range of subjects and thoughts, I have therefore, placed your blog on my blog list and I look forward to your next post.

Bavardess said...

Thanks for stopping by, ZACL. I was going to say I'm glad you enjoyed it, but 'enjoy' isn't really the right word!

ZACL said...

You're right, the adjective of interest certainly does needs some thought!

AnneE said...

I saw one of these ghastly things in a museum in Scotland - I think it was Edinburgh, and may have been in a display related to John Knox. I had a very similar experience to yours when you read about them - it just brought so forcibly home to me the realities of what has been done to women who refused to behave properly. The Witches' Bridge in Lubeck had a simlar effect. Thank you for your brilliant posts.

Bavardess said...

I can imagine John Knox being a great fan of these devices.

Earl of Cornwall said...

Analysis of Lynda Boose, "Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds"

"...that history has paid for the right to speak itself, whatever the resultant incongruities."

Oh, how courageous of Ms. Boose to boldly stretch for the low hanging English fruit! Does Ms. Boose's really claim that English women were cruelly tamed en masse sometime around 1640?

Ms. Boose declares;

Around 1640 the proverbial scold seems virtually to disappear from court documents. ...formal mechanisms of control were rarely used after the Restoration. The prosecution of scolds was most common before 1640; while accusations of scolding, abusing neighbours, brawling in church and other forms of quarrel-ling usually make up between a tenth and a quarter of the offences in sample Act Books of the Archdeacons of Norwich and Norfolk before 1640, they do not appear in the samplebooks after 1660. Why did "scolds" apparently disappear? Were they always just the projections of an order-obsessed culture, who disappeared when life became more orderly? Or is the difference real and the behavior of women in the early modern era indeed different from the norms of a later one? ...Perhaps the gentle and pleasing Stepford Wives of mid-nineteenth-century Chester are precisely the products that such a searing socialization...

Ms. Boose leaves out one very important, one very accessible fact: Torture was abolished in England sometime after 1640! Around the time of the English Civil War, the English Parliament banned all torture except a few methods of capital punishment. Now, of course it would be a while before the law took hold, and many forms of punishment endured, but any recording of municipalities administering punishment via torture would have instantly come off the books! Why have the town clerk record it if it's illegal? Does Ms. Boose deduce that all the drunk Englishmen in stocks have all disappeared because of a miraculous sobering up of the entire British Isles at exactly the same instant? Ms. Boose's assessment of the timing is suspect also. According to William Andrews in Old Time Punishments (Hull, 1890) "[The bridling scold] was used at Edinburgh in 1567, at Glasgow in 1574, but not before the 17th century in any English town." This leaves only a little more than one generation for the entire female population of England, over three million women, to be "tamed" sufficiently that they and all their female progeny have their "behavior" permanently changed into Stepford Wives (did she really say Stepford Wives? Post-restoration English sexual robots?). Boose is not saying society as a whole in England (like everywhere else in the world) gradually changed over three centuries and gender roles and traditions adjusted as well - Boose is bluntly accusing a single generation of English men of violently and cruelly employing a device of torture to permanently psychologically damage enough of the three million strong population of women into changing for three hundred years the entire social moiré and consciously breeding nine million lobotomized "sexual robots" by the mid-ninteenth century.

That is just fucking preposterous (IMHO).

Bavardess said...

While I know it seems rather churlish (and kind of a cheap shot - last word and all that), I had to return to this post and respond to the last comment, because for some reason, this post is still generating a lot of hits on this blog and I wouldn't want to leave its criticisms unaddressed.

Anyway, the Earl makes some valid comments about the need to return to the primary evidence, but I find the argument about the legal abolition of torture completely unconvincing. Technically, torture wasn't legal in medieval England, either, but it certainly didn't stop the authorities imposing punishments from clipped ears through to hanging, drawing, disemboweling and quartering. Torture as it was perfected by the good old Inquisition had a very specific purpose, which was to extract truth. However, bodily punishments that look to us like torture could still be considered *not* torture by medieval English judicial authorities, because they were imposed with the purpose of teaching others a lesson and/or imposing a kind of retributive justice on the offender, *not* for the purposes of extracting truth.

I may pick up this conversation in a new post (in which case I will link it here), because it really does touch on some complex ideas about the relationship between torture and truth. For now, though, I think we are all familiar enough with the dynamics of domestic violence to know that just because a form of bodily violence or shaming wasn't statutorily recorded, it didn't happen. (Also, I think the commenter somewhat misrepresents Boose's argument.)