The scold’s bridle was an instrument of punishment used almost exclusively on women whose language was considered to be unacceptable, either by scolding too frequently or excessive gossiping. It consisted of an iron frame around the head with a sharp metal gag to restrain the tongue, and was known as a brank, or more usually branks, in Scotland. The large nose and grotesque ears were intended to further humiliate the wearer as she was paraded in public.
The word scold was used as a legal term to describe women, and very occasionally men, “who disturbed their neighbours’ peace with loud quarrelling, gossiping, slanderous speech or brawling”. The repression of what was considered to be “disruptive speech” began in late medieval England with the Statutes of Westminster in 1275, which prohibited the defamation of the king or his magnates; by the late 14th century it had been extended to anyone accused of “rabble rousing through troublesome speech”.
Although it was never legal to punish scolds by the use of bridles, the devices were nevertheless employed by magistrates in England and Scotland during the 16th and 17th centuries. One of the earliest recorded uses of the scold’s bridle occurred in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1567, when Bessie Tailiefeir was accused of slandering Baillie Thomas Hunter by claiming that he was using false measures.
The crime of being a “common scold” remained an offence in England and Wales until the passage of the Criminal Law Act 1967.