About History: the Scold’s Bridle
The ‘Scold’s Bridle’, sometimes known as ‘The Gossip’s Bridle’, was a punishment used officially and unofficially in England to discipline people, almost invariably women, who gossiped or spoke too freely. The name perfectly encapsulates the device’s role in controlling women whose speech was thought to be aggressive or disruptive, particularly towards husbands, addressing contemporary fears that such outspokenness could upset the prevailing gender power structures in communities. There is evidence that Bridles were used to punish blasphemers and religious dissidents of both sexes.
The earliest evidence for these devices dates from the end of the 16th century. Although specifications varied, presumably according to who commissioned it or who made it, a Scold’s Bridle was a large iron framework placed on the head of the offender, forming a type of cage. The cage integrated a metal strip, known as a ‘bit’, which, like a horse’s bridle bit, fit into the mouth to constrain the tongue and render speech impossible. Bits sometimes incorporated a spiked plate. or spikes. so that any movement of the tongue was certain to cause severe injuries to the mouth. The ’bridled’ person would be symbolically paraded through or exhibited in their local community as a form of public humiliation. The Bridle’s use both silenced individuals and signalled their misdemeanour and invoked personal shame.
In Scotland a more brutal version known as a ‘Brank’ featured extra prongs that extended farther into the offender’s mouth. In addition, a chain was attached to the back of the cage by which the individual was led around. Aggressive tugs on this chain could cause disfigurement and loss of teeth.
The use of such punishments lingered for centuries. The practice continued into the 19th century when Scold’s Bridles were employed in workhouses to discipline unruly women and those suffering from alcoholism.
Nash, D., (2022), ‘What was a scold’s bridle?’, Q&A, BBC History Magazine, p. 36.