Silence and the Scold's Bridle

Guest post by Miranda Garno Nesler (Vanderbilt University)

In early modern England, a woman's speech was recognized as one of her most dangerous attributes. By using her voice freely, a woman revealed her agency and, thus, uncovered the myth of complete patriarchal control; she also blurred gender lines by entering into the public exchange of knowledge. For this reason, conduct literature writers strongly advised women against talking, claiming that "the woman of modesty openeth not her mouth" (1).

Yet the trouble with conduct guidelines as social controls is that they rely on women's acquiescence; therefore they tacitly acknowledge the very agency they attempt to deny. Anxious men needed a way to physicalize and externalize social control--to have a visible sign of their ability to control female speech. Enter the Scold's Bridle, an instrument "used almost exclusively for the punishment of women" (2). Composed of a metal cage to control the head and an iron gag bit to flatten and constrain the tongue, the Scold's Bridle was the ultimate weapon in silencing women. Invented in the mid-sixteenth century, Englishmen employed it as a disciplinary tool until the mid-eighteenth century.

Numerous examples of the Bridles survive throughout England. Some possess flat bits, while others' bits are spiked and roughened to increase the wearer's discomfort. One infamous Scold's Bridle, dated 1633, continues to be housed and displayed at a church in Walter-on-Thames (3). A gift from one parish to another, the Bridle is embroidered with the following rhyme:

"Chester presents Walton with a bridle
To curb women's tongues that talk so idle" (3).

Silenced, the tongues of women posed a less overt threat. Thus women's speech, when absent, could be construed as "idle" rather than threatening.

Miranda Garno Nesler is a Ph.D. Candidate in Vanderbilt University's English department.
Image: Gardiner, Ralph. England's Grievance Discovered. London, 1655. (Bodleian Library)

(1) Riche, Barnabe. The Excellency of Good Women. London, 1613.
(2) Pettifer, Ernest B. Punishments of Former Days. Sherfield: Waterside Press, 1992.
(3) Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. London: W. R. Chambers, 1864.

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  1. I find this Scold's Bridle so amusing, both in a modern context and attempting to view it from society's perspective at the time. Of course women didn't have the education to be respected by the male sphere, but I also see two additional aspects: First, a significant contempt of women by a small number of men, which may have been related to their own personal issues or orientation. Second, there was no identification or treatment for mental illness, so if a woman was truly irrational or violent, this device may have been used as an attempt to correct what was viewed as a moral weakness.

  2. Thanks for this interesting post.
    When I took my sons to England some years ago I was explaining the use of the Scold's bridle to them in the Tower of London (where there are a couple of examples). I turned around to find I was the centre of a whole circle of interested tours who obviously thought I was a tour guide! Missed my vocation...

  3. Ugh, I wonder how often this was actually used. Whether peer pressure would have made at least made a husband think twice about using the Bridle.

  4. Hello, all!
    I thought I'd take a second to respond to some of the interesting comments that have shown up since my post.

    Re: dreamingspires' note: The scold's bridle was, in fact, commonly used. The information I've found suggests that they were commonly owned by parishes and communities -- which husbands could then borrow to use on their wives. Making women wear them publicly served as a kind of (especially cruel) chari vari. In this sense (sadly!) peer pressure would be more likely to encourage it!

    Re: K's comment, many women in England during the period were educated (at least in the upper eschelons, where women might have private tutors who'd teach "feminine arts" like dance and embroidery as well as humanistic arts like Latin, French, and Greek). Those women who were less educated were more likely to belong to the lower ranks (where the men would be less educated as well, but would maintain power through misogynistic structures like the church). The suggestion of mental illness is fascinating! Certainly it went undiagnosed, so there had to be mentally ill women who got Bridled. Yet men would've gone undiagnosed as well; and there are very few recorded instances of _and_ men getting the Bridle. This suggests that gender power-dynamics regarding speech were at the foundation.

    Does anyone know of any good books about mental illness in the period? I'd be interested to read more!

  5. What Miranda said.

    And to this in the OP:
    "Chester presents Walton with a bridle
    To curb women's tongues that talk so idle" (3).

    Silenced, the tongues of women posed a less overt threat. Thus women's speech, when absent, could be construed as "idle" rather than threatening.

    To "speak idle" means to speak without cause and to gossip. The "scold" is an old and still prevalent stereotype of women as people who nag, gossip, and prattle aimlessly. Hence the name, "scold's bridle." It's a bridle for scolds. Cheater presented the town of Walton with a bridle in order to quell the women's gossip, or idle speech.
    Chester was a misogynist asshole.

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