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8 Mar 2021

Hold yer tongue

Written by Vikki Duncan, Curator North
An old, metal, cage-like helmet structure is displayed against a plain grey background. It has a band that goes across the top of the head, a metal collar and a protruding part where the mouth would sit.
The scold’s bridle at Craigievar
Ordinarily when thinking about International Women’s Day, we either consider something empowering or we focus on the inequalities and atrocities still suffered by women all over the world. In this article, we debate whether a scold’s bridle really is something from our past.

The crude device in the collection at Craigievar is described as having belonged to the Forbes-Sempill family, and we acquired it when the castle was given to the Trust in 1963. We don’t know how long it had been at the castle, or upon whom it was used, or why the Forbes-Sempill family chose to retain it. Although it’s possible that the scold’s bridle was in use on the Craigievar policies, my hunch is that it may have come from the old castle or tower house of Brux between Alford and Kildrummy, the main residence of the Forbes-Sempills. That castle was replaced by an early 19th-century granite farmhouse, but both are now derelict.

Also at Craigievar is another unpleasant device, in the form of a mantrap. Both the mantrap and the bridle date to the period between 1650 and 1800, a link that suggests they came from the same source. The mantrap was a harsh deterrent to poachers or trespassers on private land. Hidden in undergrowth, it had a spring mechanism that ensured the metal jaws clamped tightly around the leg of the trespasser, causing excruciating agony and blood loss until released by a keeper, or death. If the victim survived, s/he would probably be maimed for life and unable to work and support a family.

Both the bridle and the mantrap may have been retained by the Forbes-Sempill family as curiosities, long after their original purpose had been outlawed. We know that these obsolete objects were viewed as some of the ‘eccentricities’ from the past, but not necessarily that they were deemed barbaric. However, whilst both objects were outlawed for use in the early 19th century, there is a grim account of the scold’s bridle being used as late as 1856 in Bolton-le-Moors in Lancashire. Incredibly, the crime of being a ‘scold’ was not dropped from the statute books in Britain until 1967.

A black and white line engraving featuring a woman and her three children, all standing outside a house on a street. The woman wears a scold's bridle over her head, and has a white sign stitched to the front of her dress that says: Scold. Two of the children stand in the street with an impassive expression. The third, younger, child sits on the house steps and buries her face in her mother's apron. She appears very upset.
A branked scold in New England, from an 1885 lithograph.

The term ‘scold’s bridle’ demands that we look at both parts of the description of the item. A scold was defined as a type of public nuisance – a troublesome and angry person who broke the public peace by habitually chastising, arguing and quarrelling with their neighbours, or with a male authority figure. Women were most likely to be defined as scolds.

A bridle is a piece of equipment commonly associated with the head of a horse and is used to lead, direct or coerce. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the bridle as including both the headstall that holds a bit that goes in the mouth of a horse, and the reins that are attached to the bit. The bit in the horse’s mouth is a way of making the horse compliant to the rider; if misused, it can hurt or permanently injure the animal. Scold’s bridles are also known as ‘branks’ in Scots, possibly derived from the Irish word ‘brancas’ for a head halter.

The ‘scold’s bridle’, in its most basic form, consisted of a headpiece made of iron, opening by hinges at the side to enclose the head, with a flat piece of iron projecting inwards to press the tongue down and hold it still. Such is the example from Craigievar.

Other versions were made by a multiplication of hoops, more like a cage, with the front forming a mask of iron with holes for the mouth, nose and eyes. Sometimes the mouth-plate was armed with a short spike, to cut into the tongue if it was moved. A particularly cruel bridle was made with a long spike protruding from the mouth-plate into which the tongue was forced to curl, making breathing unnatural and deliberate.

Whilst use of the scold’s bridle was never a legalised form of punishment, it was used by town councils, kirk sessions and barony courts in Scotland, who assumed a right to inflict it. These institutions were set up by men; it was men who sat on the sessions; and it was men who passed the judgements.

Once the bridle was placed on the woman, she was then led through the streets by the beadle or chained to the market cross. Apart from the obvious fear and pain of wearing it, the bridle was intended to humiliate the wearer. Bystanders would jeer, hurl insults, throw objects, spit at and even urinate on women whilst chained. Perhaps even more cruelly, a woman who was forced to wear the bridle at home, as a deterrent to her children, would present a terrifying picture, with the distortion of her features and probable laceration of her tongue and lips.

This barbarous instrument of torture has the dubious honour of being responsible for the saying ‘hold your tongue’ – it is a visceral reference to the metal plate that held down a woman’s tongue.

The scold’s bridle at Craigievar was catalogued as part of Project Reveal. Shockingly, the description of the purpose of the object was: ‘The branks were used to discourage a blethering woman’. Why should we be concerned about this description? Just because it’s International Women’s Day?

This description was added by a young man in 2019. It may be that the description was lifted from another source, to add a layer of identification to the object; or he may have written it at the time. But irrespective of the source, the use of the colloquial ‘blethering’ (and its inclusion within a 21st-century digital storage facility or database) is a reminder that the negative stereotyping of women is invidiously alive and well today.

An old, metal, cage-like helmet structure is displayed against a plain grey background. It has a band that goes across the top of the head, a metal collar and a protruding part where the mouth would sit.
The scold’s bridle at Craigievar

The bridle at Craigievar and other examples are hardly ever mentioned other than as an objects of shock value or even amusement. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the National Museum of Scotland, the towns of Lichfield, Shrewsbury, Leicester and Chester all have examples of branks. Currently, none of them explore the dark and deeply misogynistic element of the bridle, or question its psychological impact on the victim and the message it conveyed to all those who witnessed this type of punishment.

Many institutions, such as museums and heritage bodies, are just beginning to be held accountable for the objects they display and how they are described. In 2019, a group of vociferous women in Northern Ireland had to petition Armagh County Museum to address a concern about the interpretation of a scold’s bridle which was on display. The group protested that ‘Violence Against Women is No Laughing Matter’ as a response to the presentation of the object in a jocular and dismissive tone. The subtitle of the exhibit was: ‘Gossiping women meet their match!’ Whilst the display raised the question of why the torture was reserved for women, it refused to engage with it and ended the description by saying: ‘in the modern era of political correctness it is perhaps best not to pursue the matter further!’

The group of women insisted the museum should clarify that the bridle was a torture device and that it fitted into a gendered pattern of discrimination aimed solely at silencing women in Northern Ireland, which was still continued. The bridle was reserved for women because they had transgressed a gendered behavioural norm: that women should be silent, and that speaking was the preserve of men. The women highlighted the fact that there had been no outcry regarding the presentation of the artefact in 2019, indicating how accepted and mainstream casual attitudes to violence against women remain.

Whilst modern society has dispensed with the use of the bridle, women’s tongues are still consistently and collectively silenced in many ways. Dame magazine published an article entitled ‘We Have Always Silenced Women’ in 2017. It raised the spectre of women not being believed, even when it takes courage to speak up. In the era of the Me Too movement, many women came forward with sexual assault allegations and were disbelieved, ridiculed, critiqued or simply shut down.

Many women struggle with speaking up, not just at home but also in the workplace. Women might recognise having to stop themselves from saying something that they’d really like to say, using the expression: ‘I had to bite my tongue’. This is another expression with its origin in the scold’s bridle and its literal suppression of speech.

A young smiling woman sits at a desk and rests her elbows upon it. She raises her right hand. At the bottom of the image is some text: Let's all choose to challenge. #IWD2021 #ChooseToChallenge
Choose to challenge – the theme for International Women’​s Day 2021

A newly adopted phrase called hepeating describes a moment when a woman has shared an idea or comment which has been overlooked or ignored by a senior colleague, but that same idea or comment is then appropriated by a male colleague who is praised for it. Many women have commented that this happens to them every day, both at work and in their social lives.

It is generally acknowledged that the scold’s bridle has been consigned to history. On International Women’s Day we might reflect that, whilst this metal contraption has been relegated to a collection of curiosities, women are still having to fight to be heard.

  • Fifty years after winning the legal right to equal pay, women still face a median gender pay gap of 15.9%, while 40% of women of ethnic minorities live in poverty.
  • Up to 3 million women and girls in the UK experience rape, domestic violence, stalking or other violence each year.
  • 31% of the funding from local authorities to prevent violence against women was cut between 2017 and 2018. On a typical day, 230 women seeking refuge from abuse were turned away by Women’s Aid due to a lack of space.
  • Whilst we all endured lockdowns during 2020 and 2021, the BBC reported on the shadow pandemic highlighted by the UN– this was a 20% rise in the reporting of domestic abuse in the UK.

Just how far have we come?

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