This instrument is a scold’s bridle or ‘branks’ used to hurt and humiliate women whose speech or behaviour was thought to be too offensive or unruly.
With its twisted animal horns and haunting, inhuman features, the heavy iron mask made the wearer a figure of ridicule when she was paraded in public. It would also have had a sharp metal gag which pointed into the mouth to restrain the tongue, like the bit on a horse’s bridle – but that part is missing from this particular mask held in the Wellcome Collection.
What was a scold?
The word ‘scold’ was used as a legal term for women – and, much more rarely, men – who disturbed their neighbours’ peace with loud quarrelling, gossiping, slanderous speech or brawling.
It was illegal to use bridles to punish those charged as scolds. Nevertheless, these devices were employed in Scotland and England by local magistrates, around the 16th and 17th centuries. The practice spread to other parts of Northern Europe, including what is now Belgium, where this bridle originates. It is difficult to date precisely, but seems to be have been made between 1550 and 1800.
The scold’s bridle was part of a wider culture of fear and punishment of witches, prostitutes, ‘shrews’ and other unconventional women, who refused to play the part of quiet, submissive wives.
In Shakespeare’s play, the two Minola sisters are repeatedly defined by their contrasting natures, ‘The one as famous for a scolding tongue, / As the other for beauteous modesty’ (1.2.252–53). Bianca appears, at least at the start, to conform to the stereotype of the silent (1.1.70), ‘sacred and sweet’ (1.1.176) woman, while Katherina is the loud, ‘curst and shrewd’ scold (1.1.180), wanted only for her dowry.
Others assume that Katherina will be made ‘to bear the penance of her tongue’ (1.1.89), but Petruchio ‘tames’ her without using a scold’s bridle. He preserves the possibility of romance in the play by subduing her with so-called ‘kindness’ (4.1.195). But, as the critic Lynda E Boose has argued, repeated references to horses and their broken bridles (4.1.81) serve as a reminder of more brutal punishments for women like Kate in this era.