Thursday, April 28, 2016

Scolds, cucking-stools, shrew's fiddles - life is not so bad these days

While reading recently (as one does...) about the use of the cucking-stool in medieval law, I got to thinking about the origin of scolding as a criminal offence.
A common scold is essentially an ill-tempered woman - there is no male equivalent - who nags or constantly grumbles and complains, also sometimes referred to as a shrew (as in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew). Not an attractive quality, to be sure, but illegal?
For centuries, a woman could be prosecuted as a common scold (communis rixatrix, in the Latin) if she regularly acted in a troublesome or angry way, and broke the public peace by habitually arguing and quarrelling with her husband or neighbours. It seems to have been a peculiarly British thing, although it was also exported to New England with the British colonists who settled there. It was a common "crime" in medieval Britain, with the earliest evidence of legal prosecution dating back to the early 14th Century. It became more common with the speech repression that followed the outbreak of the Black Death in 1348, and certainly continued into the late 17th Century, although with much less frequency than in its heyday in the 14th-16th Century. It was technically only deleted from the criminal code of Britain in 1967.
The punishment for being a scold was usually the cucking-stool or scolding-stool, a wooden chair into which a woman could be tied. The chair was often built on wheels so that it could be trundled around the parish, and/or suspended from a pole on a fulcrum so that it could be dunked into the water of a local river or pond (hence the later name, ducking stool). You may have seen engravings of the punishment being applied to suspected witches, but it was more commonly used for other feminine offences like scolding, and sexual offences like bearing an illegitimate child or prostitution. More rarely it was used for "unruly" unmarried couples, and also, strangely, for dishonest brewers and bakers. The main purpose was public humiliation and censure, but it did sometimes prove fatal, or the victim died of shock on being ducked.
Another barbaric punishment for a scold was the scold's bridle (also known as branks in Scotland), a locking metal mask or head cage containing a tab to fit in the mouth to inhibit talking. The bridle-bit or curb-plate that fitted into the mouth was sometimes studded with spikes, so that it inflicted pain if the offender moved her tongue to speak.
Other punishments included the pillory or stocks (an uncomfortable wooden or metal framework to secure the offender's neck and wrists, often on a raised public platform), the jougs (an iron collar chained to a tree or other public place, mainly used in Scotland), and the shrew's fiddle or neck violin (a hinged wooden contraption with three holes, one for the neck and one for each wrist, often fitted with a bell for maximum humiliation value).
Sometimes, it's tempting to think that we haven't really progressed much over the centuries. It's a salutary exercise, then, to look back at examples like these to see that, well, perhaps things aren't so bad after all.

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