Although much of Henry Wellcome’s collection was devoted to instruments and materials of healing, some of the objects found in it have a more sinister purpose. Elizabeth Baddeley looks at a tradition of punishment rooted in the fear of female autonomy.
When visitors peer into our cabinet of masks in Medicine Man they are, almost without fail, drawn first to the bright, colourful disease masks from Sri Lanka; to the exaggerated features of the ritual mask from Bhutan; to the almost eerily realistic grinning false face Iroquois mask from North America. It seems almost as an afterthought that they turn to our object here: the matt grey, iron mask of the scold’s bridle. It seems clunky and dull next to the lively features of the more geographically exotic specimens it is displayed alongside. Surprisingly, the history, use and legacy of this and similar objects are a much underexplored subject.
This object is between 200 and 450 years old and is from Belgium, but could be from any part of Northern Europe from the late medieval or early modern period. It is made from heavy iron, and has the caricatured ears of an ass, exaggerated facial features and twisted, cruel-looking horns. It is a scold’s bridle.
The offence of scolding means little to nothing to us today, but in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was an acute insult. It was a uniquely female misdemeanour, and as such it is often compared to that other contemporary, and uniquely female, crime of being a whore. Both were often punished with a round on the ‘cucking stool’ – a mechanism where the accused was dunked into a river or pond while secured to a seat – and both are often viewed as female crime in a male-dominated legal system. A scold was, after all, ‘a troublesome and angry woman, who by her brawling and wrangling amongst her Neighbours, doth break the publick Peace, and beget, cherish and increase publick Discord’ according toWilliam Sheppard in 1675.
The gendered nature of this crime has led to historians discussing whether it was a male way of limiting women’s powers of expression and activity. Indeed, the prevalence of accusations against scolds seems to have peaked between the mid-16th and 17th centuries, and in Britain has been linked to the wider social upheaval surrounding the English Civil War. Punishment with a bridle like this one, or ‘branks’ as they were also known, is less well recorded, but we know that it was done, as with the cucking stool, to ridicule and expose the women in front of her neighbours. It could also be painful. The woman would be made to wear the device for a stated time, and it would be heavy, the iron would be very cold (especially in winter), and the strut of metal that went into her mouth to hold down her tongue from further nagging (which has unfortunately broken off this example) would become increasingly uncomfortable. Indeed, on some bridles this was not just a piece of metal but a spike, designed to cause pain.
The idea of punishing a woman for stepping out of her place is not uniquely British: as mentioned above, scold’s bridles have been found across Europe. This crime of being a scold is represented in the mocking ‘world turned upside down’ rituals of French charivari and Italian carnivals. Men dressed as women, children played bishops and bishops dressed as paupers during the festival; this reversal and ridiculing of traditional norms was used to reinforce the correctness and normality of those norms in everyday life. This was true especially in relation to gender roles: alongside the punishing of scolds was the ridiculing of what cultural historian Natalie Davies calls the ‘woman on top’: domineering wives, especially young brides of elderly husbands or women who abused their husbands. Also linked is the enduring idea that witches were female, often wise old spinsters or midwives. Statistically, we know that a huge number of men were also accused and punished for witchcraft, but the concept of witches and the description of them in contemporary sources is usually purely female and contributes to the general fear of women stepping out of their place. The contemporary fear of powerful women has in the past been linked to a high number of young, unmarried but wage-earning women living away from home as servants and the measure of power and freedom this gave them.
One idea that connects the scold’s bridle, accusations of witchcraft and the ‘woman on top’ is the belief that women were particularly prone to bouts of irrational behaviour, prone to communicating with the devil as they did not have the rational power to stay away, and inclined to scold and nag about unimportant matters. According to early modern medical ideas of the four humours, a theory about the body existent since ancient Greece and changed little by the 16th century, women were cold and damp with little blood. Indeed, this small amount of blood would linger around their uterus, instead of spreading throughout the body and into the brain. The Greeks even wrote of how the uterus would ‘wander around’ the body if it had too little blood. As such, women were often seen as being ‘led’ by their uterus, a dangerous organ, making them prone to irrational behaviour. Nor was this idea soon forgotten, for the very Victorian illness of hysteria takes its name from the Greek ‘hystera’, meaning uterus. This may seem odd to a modern audience, more used to hearing of men being led by their nether regions than women.
Elizabeth Baddeley is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.