Corporal punishment has always been considered a deterrent for anyone who wanted to do something wrong. From antiquity to the present day, torture has never ceased to be used as a form of punishment or as an “incentive” to confess a crime.
The use of corporal punishment during the period of the Inquisition, when even the slightest suspicion of heresy or witchcraft, led to terrible condemnations is all too well known.
In Scotland, during the Renaissance, lot of women didn’t have to commit who knows what a serious crime to suffer a horrible punishment, it was enough to do a bit of gossip…
For this widespread “crime” an special instrument of torture was invented: the scold’s bridle.
It was a sort of iron muzzle, to be closed around the head, equipped with a plate that went to press on the tongue. The purpose of this device was to prevent the unfortunate gossips from talking, and obviously from eating. Sometimes, on the plate was placed an iron point, which caused serious wounds at the slightest movement of the tongue: even the most talkative of women would have given up!
Not considering this corporal punishment sufficient, to expiate the crime the woman also had to be publicly humiliated: she was led on a leash around the city, very often by her husband. All those who passed along the road had the right to insult her, spit on her and even beat her: violence was not discouraged.
Scold’s bridle was a form of punishment that somehow referred to an ancient practice: those who loved to talk too much and nonsense, slandering other people, had to be hit right on the tongue. Pain was a form of catharsis that erased sin. The device was therefore imposed on women, and in very rare cases on men, who were guilty of slander. The real problem was probably to establish the boundary between harmless gossip and real slander. The bridle, in any case, became a punishment for those women who somehow questioned the authority of the husband, or who, if mistreated, talked about it with other people.
One of the first women to be subjected to this torture was Bessie Tailiefeir, who had defamed a certain Baillie Hunter in Scotland in 1567: she was saying that the man had cheated on the measurement of some land. Scold’s bridle was mainly used in Scotland, but also in England and Wales, where it was not included among the instruments of official punishment. From Great Britain it also arrived in Germany, where was added a bell, which was to draw attention to the victim during humiliating walks.
It was a punishment reserved almost exclusively to women, but only to those of the poorest sections: the noble and aristocratic British ladies could speak aloud without the risk of being “harnessed”.
The women of the people, on the other hand, risked being subjected to this torture even for reasons unrelated to slander: it was enough to be suspected of witchcraft, or simply to appear rebellious and “troublesome”.
If the scold’s bridle was commonly used in the United Kingdom until the 17th century (although it is still present in the punishment list again in 1856, in a small village in Lancashire), in the New World, where it arrived thanks to British colonies, the bridle was used as corporal punishment for slaves throughout the 18th century.