Taking stock, birching at the pillory and the scolds bride
A few years ago, there was a chance reference to a punishment handed out to a ‘loose woman’ on an educational crime and punishment site. It said that the woman should be ‘stocked kneeling to provide for a birching’. The picture published a few days ago this blog had hitherto been considered a fantasy, but this one reference opened up a world of possibilities to those of our inclination.
The stocks are actually a means of securing a prisoner while sitting, the interesting instrument for our purposes is actually the pillory.
The pillory they are placed around the arms and neck and fixed to a pole, and the miscreant either stands or kneels. Since stocks often served as an outdoor public form of punishment, its victims were subjected to the elements. The reality of this was often fatal, especially as in law while the person was in the stocks or pillory anything could be done to them.
The pillory was positioned in the most public place available, as public humiliation was a critical and the condemned person was subjected to a variety of abuses, ranging from having refuse thrown at them, to paddling or whipping.
The stocks were used in Elizabethan England, and by the Puritans in the colonial period of American history. Their last recorded use in the United Kingdom was in 1872 at Adpar, Newcastle Emlyn, west Wales.
The Spanish conquistadors introduced stocks as a popular form of punishment and humiliation against those that impeded the consolidation of their settlements in the new world. They were still used in the 19th century in Latin America to punish indigenous miners in many countries for rebelling against their bosses. Indeed it is still technically the law in England that any person found breaking a boiled egg at the sharp end will be sentenced to 24 hours in the village stocks. This was a law actually enacted during the reign of Edward VI.
The pillory was last used in the workhouse where it was brought indoors away from the public gaze. The illustration of the girl with the backless skirt above, is probably fanciful, but is suggestive of a woman’s lot whilst a workhouse inmate.
Also in use was the scold’s bridle a punishment device for women. It resembled an iron muzzle or cage for the head with an iron curb projecting into the mouth and resting precariously on top of the tongue. The curb was frequently studded with spikes so as to cruelly torture the tongue if it dared stir: with the tongue lying calmly in place, it inflicted a minimum of pain.
First recorded in Scotland in 1567, the branks were also used in England, where it may not have been formally legalized as a punishment. kirk-sessions and barony courts in Scotland inflicted it upon transgressors. Branking was designed as a mirror punishment for ‘shrews’ or ‘scolds’. It was applied to the riotous or troublesome women or those accused of witchcraft. In later times, particularly in the American colonies it was used on gossips or scolds, often in conjunction with corporal punishment.
Quaker women were sometimes punished with the bridle for preaching their doctrinal message in public places. It may also used against women accused of slander. Men may be fined for such offences but fining the woman would often mean the money was paid by her husband and was not considered a deterrent. In 1567 Mistress Nathan slandered Baillie Thomas Hunter in Edinburgh, saying that he was using false measures. She was sentenced to be brankit and set on the cross for one hour. In Walton on Thames, also in England, a scold’s bridle is displayed in the vestry of the church, dated 1633, with the inscription “Chester presents Walton with a bridle, to curb women’s tongues that talk too idle.” The story is that one Chester lost a fortune due to a woman’s gossip, and presented the town with the instrument of torture out of anger and spite. As late as 1856 it was in use at Bolton-le-Moors, Lancashire.
In Salem during the 17th century one woman was ‘so given to cursing’ while going about her daily tasks that she was charged to wear the ‘branks’ in public for one month and every Sunday for an indefinite period. Further her husband was ‘directed to birch her soundly’ whenever she swore at home.
A few years ago, one of the Sunday newspapers published an excerpt from Fair Fields for Fair Maidens, a 1930s account of serving folk between the wars. One of the maids recalls being told that when her grandmother was in service young maidservants were birched at the otherwise disused pillory for wrongdoing.
“I were told that many is the time that a fresh young thing would be stripped to her shift and set at pillory by the housekeeper for an afternoon after first being soundly birched. No care whatever was taken to repair her dress afterwards so there were many a young lad who might see all that she had. Added to this it may be done throughout May through September unless it were raining and then the girl were taken in for thrashing.”
This may have been a story to frighten your servants or to persuade them that they should feel lucky that were not in service in earlier times.
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