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A scold's bridle, sometimes called "the branks", as well as "brank's bridle" was a punishment device used primarily on women, as a form of torture and public humiliation. It was an iron muzzle in an iron framework that enclosed the head. The bridle-bit (or curb-plate) was about 2 inches long and 1 inch broad, projected into the mouth and pressed down on top of the tongue. The "curb-plate" was frequently studded with spikes, so that if the tongue moved, it inflicted pain and made speaking impossible.  Wives who were seen as witches, shrews and scolds, were forced to wear a brank's bridle, which was locked on the head of the woman. The bridle sometimes had a ring and chain attached to it so her husband could parade her around town and the town's people could scold her and treat her with contempt; at times smearing excrement on her and beating her, sometimes to death.
First recorded in Scotland in 1567, the branks were also used in England, where it may not have been formally legalized as a punishment. The kirk-sessions and barony courts in Scotland inflicted mostly on female transgressors and women that were considered to be "rude", "nags" or "common scolds". Branking (in Scotland and the North of England) was designed as a mirror punishment for "shrews'"or "scolds" — women of the lower classes whose speech was "riotous" or "troublesome" — women accused of witchcraft — by preventing such "gossips or scolds" from speaking; however, it was also used as corporal punishment for other offenses, notably on female workhouse inmates. The person to be punished was placed in a public place for additional humiliation and sometimes beaten.
Though primarily used on women, according to the Burgh Records of Scotland's major towns, the branks were at times used on men as well: "Patrick Pratt sall sit … bound to the croce of this burght, 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 (c 1650) Dundee B. Laws 19. ) /" 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).
When the branks was placed on the "gossiper's" head, they could be led through town to show that they had been doing something wrong or scolding too often. This would also humiliate them into "repenting" their "riotous" actions. There was a spike inside the gag that would prevent any talking since any movement of the mouth could lead to a severe piercing of the tongue. When wearing the mask it was impossible for the woman to either speak or eat.
In Scotland, the branks could also be on permanent display, attached to a specific place of note, say the town cross. Then, the ritual humiliation would take place there, with the perpetrator/victim on public show. Having the branks on permanent display, so to speak, may have acted as a reminder to the populace of the consequences of any rash action or slander. Whether the person was paraded or simply taken to the point of punishment, the process of humiliation and potential repentance was the same. The time spent in the bridle was normally allocated as a punishment by a local magistrate.
The scold's bridle did not see much use in the New World, though Olaudah Equiano recorded that it was commonly used to control Virginia slaves in the mid-18th century. Rather, men and women were placed in the stocks as an equivalent punishment.
During 1500s it spread out to some other European countries, including Germany. Some even had a bell on top of them to draw even more attention to the wearer, increasing their humiliation. It was finally used until the early 1800s as a punishment in German workhouses.
In Walton on Thames, 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.
The tongue's curb could be a flat iron plate that prevented the tongue's movement or a spike-studded iron bit that punished its victim rather more painfully. Other variants are shaped like an animal's head, such as a cow for a lazy bones, a shrew for a scold, a donkey for a fool, a hare for an eavesdropper or a pig for a glutton.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Branks.|