When I was a liberal arts major at SCCC, I took a course called “Language, Women, and Gender.” It was a very good, yet sparsely attended, class; I think there were five girls and two boys. This, however, made for very intimate and thorough discussions during every class. The lectures and readings were usually very interesting, and there are several that have stuck with me until today. One of these was our reading and discussion on “branks” (also referred to as “scold’s bridle,” “gossip’s bridle,” or “scold’s helm”) and their use in Medival times. I had no idea that anything like this existed or was used for such a long period of time. Therefore, I am sharing this knowledge for those similarly unenlightened folks out there.
Usage of branks has been recorded in both England and Scotland from 1567 to as recently as 1856. I have read rumors of their use in America, but could not find a reliable source to confirm this.
One witness to a 1653 bridling described this contraption,
like a crown, it being of iron which was musled, over the head and face, with a great gap [sic], or tongue
This is a good general description of most branks. However, this attractive headpiece came in a plethora of styles, ranging from those which served the sole purpose of humiliating the victim to those that actually mutilated the tongue.
The most humiliating branks I have found are the ones that attempt to make the wearer look like various animals. At least this one has a flat mouthpiece instead of a spiked one.
Now, who reaped the punishment of such a device? First of all, it was only the women. This was probably because they were the only ones to challenge or upset the male-dominated society of their time. If they weren’t doing that, they were busy scolding, nagging, or gossiping. Any of these activities, of course, deserved cruel and unusual punishment. These women were to be silenced and taught their place.
Generally, the tortured were locked into the masks and either lead through the town by an officer (and rope), confined to the town square for public humiliation, or beaten.