“To curb women’s tongues that talk too idle” – Quote found in Walton on Thames Church Vestry attached to a Scold’s Bridle
The Brank’s or Scold’s Bridle Torture device was a type of metal cage or mask that was fastened around the victims head. The Brank’s was made from metal probably iron and often had various additions to it depending on the medieval period or location, for instance sometimes bells were attached to the back of the Brank’s torture device so that attention would be brought to the victim who would be subjected to verbal abuse, spitting and worse, from the people of a medieval town or village.
The device could be described as a mask, helmet, muzzle or cage all these descriptions are accurate and the Brank’s was also known by many names depending on the location and period it was used, common names that are also recognised are the “Scold’s Bridle” and “Gossip’s Bridle”.
In some cases, a spike was attached to the bridle-bit, so that the movement of the tongue would cause wounds, additionally discouraging the victim from even attempting to speak.
The scold's bridle was never a national legal punishment endorsed by legislation. It was a local measure adopted in some areas but not used in other (women in Derbyshire, for example, were said to be so calm and such good wives that the scold's bridle was never needed there!). It was a humiliating punishment and could function as a method of torture in some cases. The scold's bridle in the past was more commonly referred to as the branks. The reasons for this name are unclear but it may derive some lost North European or Viking expression. One other theory is that it derives from the Old French "bernac" for barnacle (which was an instrument put on a horse's nose to keep it quiet)
There are differences of opinion to why the Scold's Bridle was invented originally, depending on where you read, it is said it was for only women, or it was a sof punishment by husbands, or it was for witches.
It seems not even the history books knows the real reason for its invention, but there is no argument to what it was used for later.
It was used on both men and women alike, it was designed to be uncomfortable as possible, some designed to injure.
they were used for witches, both men and women wore the bridle as punishment, telling a tale they heard 'so and so' say at the market, this was roumour spreding and punishable with a Bridle.
The founder of the Museum, Cecil Williamson, wrote of it: "A so-called scold's bridle, but in actual fact this bridle is reported to have come from Exeter castle where it was kept to clap on any female prisoner who gave way to shouting, swearing or screaming abuse during the night hours, it is highly uncomfortable to wear, for discomfort is the name of the game." and "The purpose of the bridle was to prevent the witch shouting and cursing the town or persons in authority."
It was widely believed that only through pain and suffering could a person achieve innocence after a crime was committed. The bridle (or branks) was a form of mirror punishment, which relies on the eye for an eye principle. Since the crime was related to talking, the mouth of the guilty party was punished.
So, this metal frame was intended to be worn by a person (mainly women) accused of gossip or slander. The problem is that gossip and slander were very loosely defined terms in an age when you could be burned at the stake for a simple misunderstanding.
The scold’s bridle often represented punishment for a woman who undermined her husband’s authority, or was badly treated and simply decided to speak out about it.
One of the earliest recorded uses of the practice took place in Scotland in 1567, but it was probably also used in England and Wales around this time. The punishment in this first case was handed out to Bessie Tailiefeir, who allegedly slandered a person called Baillie Hunter regarding the use of false measurements in a land dispute.
Most people still assume the bridle was only ever used on women as “Scolding women in the olden times were treated as offenders against the public peace…”
But another of the earliest documented examples of its use in Britain refer to its use on any person of guilty of the specific crime of blasphemy (a law from Edinburgh in 1560 stated that all persons guilty of blasphemy should be punished by the iron brank) or the more general crime of immorality. On 7th October 1560, David Persoun of Canongate, Edinburgh was found guilty of fornication and forced to “be brankit for four houres” The woman he fornicated with was banished from the city!
The Brank’s torture device could be fitted for any length of time anything from a few hours, a few months and also permanently if it was the intention to kill the victim. This could depend on the seriousness of the “crime” but could quite as easily be determined by mind set of the person administering the punishment as the rules on crime and punishment was often vague and unfair in medieval times. It was also a serious crime for a victim to remove the Brank’s torture mask, and a worse punishment would be administered for this act, which would lead to a worse torture punishment or even a sentence of death could be applied.
Later examples of its use give clues as to why it is sometimes called "the scolds or gossip's bridle".
In 1574, records from Glasgow record the punishment: “two scauldes to be branket.”
In 1600, the "brankes" is mentioned in Stirling as punishment for a shrew. In 1699, Cecily Pewsill “a notorious scold in the workhouse” had to wear the branks in the street for half an hour.
In 1741, Elizabeth, wife of George Holborn in Northumberland was tied to the market-cross for two hours for “scandalous and opprobrious language to several people.”
In 1789, the branks was used in Lichfield. A local farmer enclosed a woman’s head “to silence her clamorous Tongue” and led her round a field while boys and girls “hooted at her”
“Nobody pitied her because she was very much disliked by her neighbours.”
Some call the bridle the witch's bridle and associate it primarily with that time of misogyny and persecution: the Witch Trials. While there are cases of the bridle being used on accused witches who were later executed, there are far more examples of its use as a general punishment for scolds (for whom this was probably the only punishment). To historian James Sharpe, these are two facets of the same intolerance as he refers to "The witch and her sister the scold." Part of the cultural idea that noisy, quarrelsome women were dangerous. There was a genuine fear of female conspiracy and the power of female words in the early modern period. Doctor Johnson probably spoke the view of the majority when he said “I am very fond of ladies, I like their beauty, I like their delicacy, and I like their silence.” The ideal of the quiet woman can be found in 18th century ballads such as this one:
“A woman should like echo true
Speak but when she’s spoken to
But not like echo still be heard
Contending for the final word.”
One particularly gruesome account was that of Agnes Sampson, who was examined by King James himself at his palace of Holyrood Palace in 1590. She was fastened to the wall of her cell by a “witch's bridle” an iron instrument with four sharp prongs forced into the mouth, so that two prongs pressed against the tongue, and the two others against the cheeks. She was kept without sleep, thrown with a rope around her head, and only after these ordeals did Agnes Sampson confess to the fifty-three indictments against her. She was finally strangled and burned as a witch.
There were many variants of the Brank’s torture device, different designs and additions were made to the device throughout it’s history and there were no rules , the only restrictions were the imagination of the person designing the Brank’s which were usually made by medieval Blacksmith’s to the stipulated design. Popular additions to the Brank’s Torture Mask were bells that brought attention to the victim and sometimes spikes were added to an iron curb-plate that inserted into the mouth of the victim and pressed down against the top of the victim’s tongue. Spikes added to the mouth area of the Brank’s would hurt the victim as they spoke, penetrating the tongue and other parts of the mouth.
Although this, The Bridle, was seen as soft punishment in times past, by today's standards one would conclude this punishment was brutal, evil and given by those who were just a tad shortcake.
Although the past cannot be changed..... Let us hope our wold is learning by our constant mistakes....