A woman wearing a scold's bridle, 1655


The word ‘scold’ was used to define women – and, much more rarely, men – who disturbed their neighbours’ peace with gossiping, ‘chiding and scoulding’ or unruly behaviour.

This book describes the harsh punishments for so-called ‘scolds’ inflicted by local magistrates in 17th-century Newcastle. It includes a troubling description of the scold’s bridle or ‘branks’ – an instrument used to humiliate and inflict pain on such women.

Although their use was illegal, these devices were employed in Scotland and parts of England by a number of magistrates, around the 16th and 17th centuries.

What cruel punishments are described here?

Ralph Gardiner records how a witness saw Ann Bidlestone driven through the streets by an officer of Newcastle. He was ‘holding a rope in his hand’ attached to the scold’s bridle. The heavy iron ‘crown’ was ‘musled over the head and face’ with a sharp metal gag ‘forced into her mouth’ to restrain the tongue, driving ‘the blood out’ (pp. 110–11).

Gardiner also describes the ‘ducking stool’, the more official punishment for ‘scoulds’. The accused was tied to a stool and ‘Duckt over the head and ears into the water’ (p. 111).

‘The irksome brawling scold’ in The Taming of the Shrew

This was part of a wider cultural fear of witches, ‘shrews’, and other rebellious women, like Kate the ‘irksome brawling scold’ (1.2.187) in The Taming of the Shrew.

Importantly, however, Shakespeare’s Kate is never subjected to the scold’s bridle or ducking stool. Her husband uses other methods to ‘tame’ her ‘from a wild Kate’ to a ‘conformable … household Kate’ (2.1.277–78), perhaps making him seem less brutal.

What is this book by Ralph Gardiner?

England’s Grievance Discovered (1655) is a petition to Oliver Cromwell, the Protector of the Commonwealth, from the brewer Ralph Gardiner. Gardiner had been imprisoned by the city’s corporation for refusing to close his brewery in North Shields near Newcastle. While he was in gaol, Gardiner wrote this book, arguing that the Free Hostmen of Newcastle should relax their control over the trade of coal and other goods along the river.

Full title:
Englands grievance discovered in relation to the coal-trade. With the map of the River of Tine and situation of the town and corporation of Newcastle. The tyrannical oppression of those magistrates, their charters and grants, the several tryals, depositions, and judgements obtained against them
1655, London
Book / Quarto / Print / Illustration / Image
Ralph Gardiner
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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