Scold’s bridle used to ‘curb the tongue’

A scold's bridle

A scold's bridle

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Written by Jeannie Swales

If ever there was a symbol of the inequality of the sexes, this is it.

This fearsome-looking piece of equipment is a scold’s bridle, also known as a brank’s bridle, brank, or branks. In less civilised times, it was used in this country to curb the tongue of a scold, defined legally as follows (from A Digest of the Criminal Law of England: As Altered by the Recent Statutes):

“A common scold, communis rixatrix, (for our law Latin, says Blackstone, confines it to the feminine gender,) is a troublesome angry woman who, by her brawling and wrangling amongst her neighbours, breaks the public peace, increases discord, and becomes a public nuisance to the neighbourhood. She is liable therefore to be indicted as a nuisance...”

That book (by Edward E Deacon, Esq, of the Inner Temple, Barrister at Law) was published as late as 1831 - but the brank, a common punishment for a scold, came into use in this country some time in the mid to late 1500s.

Our picture here shows a scold’s bridle dating from the 1640s - and it’s a fairly simple affair compared to some, which could feature grotesque faces and decoration.

It was considered to be a ‘mirror punishment’ - that is, the transgressor was repaid in kind, by having their over-active tongue essentially trapped by that protruding plate, known as a bridle bit or curb plate, at the bottom. The cage-like device fitted over the head, and would be padlocked on at the back and the studded or barbed bridle bit would sit on top of the tongue and make it at best painful, at worst, impossible for the wearer to speak.

Our brank is a relatively gentle piece of work, with some small studs on the bit: one of the most notorious is known as the ‘Forfar Bridle’ – a Scottish example on which the curb plate bore spikes both top and bottom, so both the tongue and palate would be pierced if the wearer tried to speak.

To be fair, the brank’s use wasn’t entirely limited to women – but it seems they suffered the most from its infliction. And its use wasn’t limited to those who were a bit quick off the mark to spread gossip and discord - it was also a punishment for witchcraft, a trumped-up accusation which gave the establishment an excuse to torment, torture and execute so many poor, disenfranchised women throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Much of a witch’s power was considered to reside in her words, so preventing speech curbed her malice.

The scold’s bridle is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork owned by the borough. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.