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.