Scold's bridle by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Scold's bridle, c.1500–1775, Iron, Science Museum, London, A31704, Photo: Science Museum, London

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out

The Tied Tongue

Commentary by

This formidable object was designed to be worn around the head. Called a branks or scold’s bridle, the manufacture of such headpieces arose in Britain from the 1500s and their use spread across Europe, until they were last deployed in the workhouses of the 1800s.

This object was designed as a form of social control through public shaming for those with wayward tongues, such as those thought to be gossips, those speaking insults or malice, or those who simply nagged or complained too often. The headpiece was worn as part of a public procession ordered by a magistrate. Many of these objects included a small length of metal that could be inserted into the mouth to firmly press the tongue down, so no speech could be uttered. In this state the wearer could neither drink nor swallow properly for the duration of this public parade of shaming.

In practice these scold’s bridles were used mainly on women. In this cultural period women were less able to speak in public or even to speak for themselves. This object was clearly designed to silence those women who had used their tongue to speak, and in speaking to assert any independence, wit, or wisdom that questioned the order of things.

Employing the tongue is a natural human response to dismantling pomposity and power. For subjugated people there is a tendency to speak otherwise, to find through scoffing, irony, or coded speech a means of asserting freedom from those who seek to enforce their silence.

This object is rather terrifying evidence of a form of control based on gender. One can only imagine the circumstances of the many women who would have been forced to wear this particular headpiece and their resulting public humiliation. In contrast to the forced silence this object threatens to achieve, there is a time for swearing, cursing, and cantankerous speech, especially if it is in the face of oppression and inhumane control. There is a time for tongues to be let loose. As the novelist Arundhati Roy (2004) states: ‘There’s really no such thing as the “voiceless”. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard’.

 

References

Roy, Arundhati. 2004. ‘The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize Lecture, 4 November 2004’, www.sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=279 [accessed 5 September 2019]