Since it’s cruel inception in Scotland, 1567, the “Scold’s Bridle”, Brankis, or later called the “Witch’s Bridle”, has silenced many wagging tongues that dare cross the paths of any person, mostly misogynistic village leaders, that had felt transgressed.
An instrument of corporal punishment, the iron framework enclosed the wearer’s head, and muzzled the face. A bridle-bit about 2 inches long and 1-inch broad was slid into the mouth and either pressed down on top of the tongue as a compressor used to raise the tongue to lay flat on the wearer’s palate. This prevented the unfortunate recipient from speaking and resulted in many unpleasant side effects for the wearer, including excessive salivation and fatigue in the mouth. It’s intended purpose was to send a clear cut message, “mind your tongue”.
The Scottish courts sentenced this form of legalized torture mostly on female transgressors, and women considered to be rude or nags or extremely outspoken. It was designed to be the opposite of the guilty party’s crime of being “riotous”, and troublesome, particularly in women of lower-class. To inflict a sense of ‘learn your place’.
England, in that time, saw it as an advantageous tool in the witchcraft hunt. It also found its way to women in workhouse prisons, where the already humiliating punishment was coupled with becoming a public spectacle, and sometimes beaten. The Lanark Burgh Records record a typical example of the punishment being used: “Iff evir the said Elizabeth salbe fund scolding or railling… scho salbe sett upone the trone in the brankis and be banishit the toun thaireftir” (1653 Lanark B. Rec. 151).
Though mostly used on women, the Burgh Records of Scotland’s major towns reveal that the bridle was, at times, used on men as well: “Patrick Pratt sall sit … bound to the croce of this burgh, in the brankis lockit” (1591 Aberd. B Rec. II. 71) / “He shall be put in the branks be the space of xxiiij houres thairafter” (1559-1650 Dundee B. Laws 19.)
The device also acted as a leash. As it was placed on the “gossiper’s” head, they were led through the town to show that they had committed the offense or that they had been reprimanded too often for speaking their mind. The intent was to humiliate them so they would regret their actions. Sometimes a spike was added into the gag to prevent them from speaking, which in the more rebellious victims, would cause a severe piercing of the tongue. Some variations of the bridle, included an adjustable gag with sharp edges, causing any movement of the mouth to result in laceration of the tongue.
Often, the device would be publicly displayed in the town to remind people of the consequences of speaking out. Quaker women were sometimes punished with the bridle for publicly speaking religious doctrines. Very rarely used in Colonial America, “the stocks” were used as an equivalent punishment. However, in the mid-18th century, records have shown that they were used to quell slaves in Virginia. Though those are the only records here that make mention of the bridle, time has a way of erasing the misdeeds of people afraid of the person who would speak out against a dominant collective, or possibly the “witch” that could cast her curse on the offending village who conspired against her.