Pillory or Stocks?
Updated: Oct 5, 2022
The Hunt for Witches
Respected historian, author and broadcaster, Dr Lucy Worsley OBE, had a new documentary series that aired on UK television in June 2022. Titled ‘Lucy Worsley investigates…’ the first episode of four focused on ‘The Hunt for Witches’ and followed the case of Scottish ‘wise woman’ and healer Agnes Sampson. The programme is definitely worth watching as it highlights the abuses women like Agnes suffered in the 16th- and 17th-centuries resulting from a genuine fear of witchcraft and devilry that pervaded societies at the time. Yet, in its production, the episode repeated a common misconception, an error which we thought we might address.
While discussing the records of public expenditure on the torture and punishment of suspected witches in Forfar, Scotland, attention was drawn to an entry for the making of two ‘pairs of stoks’. In the sequence, Dr Worlsey then raises her hands to shoulder height describing people being ‘held up like this [while] people threw eggs at them…’ A few seconds later, the programme cuts to a recreated scene of an actor constrained as shown in this screenshot (right). ‘So what’, you might say? Well, here is the problem. The discussion was on ‘stocks’ used as a form of torture on accused witches, but what is clearly depicted is a pillory. Undoubtedly this was a genuine mistake, but one we suspect it is one born from a common misconception, and one that seemingly continues to confuse people.
Errors like this can be forgiven for any number of reasons. Perhaps the right prop was not available. Perhaps the team recreating the scene were not briefed correctly on what type of device was to be depicted, or perhaps it was simply general ignorance that there is a difference between stocks and pillory. As viewers we cannot know for certain, but such inaccuracies in historical documentaries do raise questions on what other elements might be incorrect or misrepresented. Leaving aside discussions on the media’s reliability, is there actually a difference between stocks and pillories? If there is, then which one is which?
A dictionary is always good starting point. Miriam-Webster, for example, defines a pillory (noun) as:
a device formerly used for publicly punishing offenders consisting of a wooden frame with holes in which the head and hands can be locked.
a means for exposing one to public scorn or ridicule.
Etymology The word is documented in English since 1274 (attested in Anglo-Latin from c. 1189), and stems from Old French pellori (1168; modern French pilori), itself from Mediæval Latin pilloria, a word of uncertain origin .
For centuries, ‘pillory’ referred only to the wooden frame used to hold a ne'er-do-well, but by the early 1600s, people began to use the word as a verb describing the act of putting someone in a pillory (‘pilloried’). Within a century, they had further expanded the verb to cover any process that led to public humiliation (‘pillorying’).
According to Britannica, a pillory was ‘an instrument of corporal punishment consisting of a wooden post and frame fixed on a platform raised several feet from the ground.’ As can be seen in the screenshot above and shown right, the pillory generally consisted of hinged wooden boards forming holes through which the head and hands of the offender were inserted . The holes needed to be of a size that prevented the offender slipping their head or wrists out of the pillory. The boards were locked together to secure the captive. In the statutes of King Edward I of England, it was enacted that every pillory or ‘stretch-neck’ should be made strong enough to hold offenders without peril to their bodies. Indeed, the main purpose of the pillory was not necessarily to physically harm the offender, but to publicly humiliate them. That said, being forced to bend forward and stick their head and hands out in front of them would have been extremely uncomfortable for offenders during their punishment in the pillory, even if said punishment generally lasted for only a few hours.
In its a common form, only one person was detained in each pillory. More complicated versions of the device had a frame consisting of a perforated iron ring that could secure the head and hands of several persons at the same time. In keeping with the public humiliation theme, pillories were typically set up to detain offenders in marketplaces, at crossroads, and other public places. The pillory was often raised on a platform to increase public visibility of the person. Often a placard detailing their crime was placed nearby.
Those who gathered to watch the punishment typically wanted to make the offender's experience as unpleasant as possible. In addition to being jeered and mocked, those in the pillory might be pelted with rotten food, mud, offal, dead animals, and animal excrement. There are records of some people being killed or maimed in the pillory as the watching crowds became too violent and pelted the offender with stones, bricks and other potentially lethal objects (Cavendish, 2003).
Acts of public humiliation were often augmented by further punishments. It seems to have been customary for men sentenced to the pillory to have their head and beard wholly or partially shaved off. Likewise, it was not unusual for female offenders to have their hair cut or, in extreme cases, their head shaved. Offender could also be sentenced to regular corporal punishment(s). Most notably would have been flagellation  where, in this instance, the pillory served as the ‘whipping post’. An offender’s ears might be nailed to the wooden board effectively immobilising the head. If when pelted with missiles the victim either had to remain immobile or, as was more likely, the ears would be bloodily torn from the nails. Permanent mutilation such as branding  or having an ear or both ears cut off (known as ‘cropping’) was also carried out.
Longevity In 1816, use of the pillory was restricted in England to punishment for perjury or subornation (the bribing or otherwise inducing someone to commit an unlawful act such as perjury) (Kellaway, 2003, 64-65). Punishment in the pillory was formally abolished in England and Wales in 1837, although the stocks remained in use, though extremely infrequently, until 1872 . The last person to be pilloried in England was Peter James Bossy, who was convicted of ‘wilful and corrupt perjury’ in 1830. Offered the choice of seven years' penal transportation or one hour in the pillory, he chose the latter (Beadle and Harrison, 2007, 53).
The pillory was in common use in other western countries and colonies, and similar devices were used in other, non-Western cultures. In France the instrument, called ‘carcan’, was used until 1832. Across the Atlantic Ocean the pillory was employed in the American colonies, and US federal statutes provided for its use until 1839. Delaware, however, was the last US state to use the pillory until abolishing the practice in 1905.
Variations on a theme Other similar devices were also used to publicly humiliate individuals. One variant called a ‘barrel pillory’ or ‘Drunkard’s Cloak’ (known as the ‘Spanish mantle’ in Denmark) was reportedly used in England to punish drunkenness. The device, a barrel as the name suggests, fitted over the entire body leaving the offender’s head sticking out from a hole in the top. Two smaller holes in the sides were cut for the arms. Once suitably attired, the miscreant was paraded or left to roam through the town, effectively being pilloried (ridiculed and scorned) (Hornsey, 2003, 337).
Like the pillory (or pranger in German), stocks were a form of ‘lesser’ corporal punishment and public humiliation, the difference between the two devices being that stocks only restrained the feet.
As shown right, the offenders’ feet were placed through holes in large, hinged wooden boards which were then secured. Public stocks were typically positioned in the most public place available since, as with the pillory, public humiliation was the principal aim of the punishment. Restrained at the ankles, the offender would be exposed to whatever treatment passers-by could imagine. The variety of abuses might range from verbal insults, being spat on, having refuse thrown at them, kicking, to having the unprotected feet tickled, paddled, or whipped (bastinado) .
The last recorded use of stocks in the UK was in 1872. Since then, their use as a legal punishment has largely been forgotten even though the use of stocks may not have been formerly repealed in UK law. Regardless, being made of wood and naturally subject to rotting and decay, most stocks simply have not survived. Some examples are occasionally preserved in churches or museums, but those you are most likely to encounter today are recreations, of both stocks and pillories, in castle grounds or similar visitor attractions where people can use them for photo opportunities. But now, dear reader, you will know not to get your head stuck in the stocks or your feet in a pillory. How publicly humiliating would that be...
1. There is no standard plan for a pillory. Rather than hinged, the boards might be slotted into the upright supports. Whichever method used, the boards had to pegged, bolted or padlocked to securely restrain the offender’s neck and wrists.
2. Flagellation (Latin flagellum, 'whip'), flogging or whipping is a punishment imposed on an unwilling subject using specialised implements such as whips, rods, switches, the cat o' nine tails, the sjambok, the knout, etc.
3. Branding, or stigmatizing, is the process by which a mark, usually a symbol or ornamental pattern, is burned into the skin of a living person using a hot or very cold branding iron. The intention is for the resulting scar to be permanent and visible.
4. Foot whipping, falanga/falaka or bastinado is a method of inflicting pain and humiliation by administering a beating on the soles of a person's bare feet. Unlike most types of flogging, it is intended to be painful rather than to cause actual injury to the victim. Blows are generally delivered with a light rod, knotted cord, or lash.
5. The stocks were never formally abandoned in England and Wales, but simply dropped out of use.
Beadle, J. & Harrison, I., (2007), ‘Firsts, Lasts & Onlys: Crime’, Robson Books.
Cavendish, R., (2003), ‘Daniel Defoe Put in the Pillory’, History Today, Vol 3 Issue 57, available online (accessed June 10th, 2022).
Hornsey, I.S., (2003), ‘A History of Beer and Brewing’, Royal Society of Chemistry.
Kellaway, J., (2003), ‘The History of Torture and Execution’, Pequot Press.
Online Etymological Dictionary, ‘Pillory’, available online (accessed June 10th, 2022).