Throughout history, women have faced punishment that has ranged from mild to extreme. History maintained more rigid rules than we might recognize today for women’s behavior and roles, and a step out of line might call for a cruel punishment to remind women of their positions in society. Women accused of witchcraft threatened the orderliness of Christian societies, prostitutes or adulterers threatened the sanctity of marriage, and a woman deemed too loud might just be heard more than a man. Though many of the reasons for gendered punishment remained consistent—witchcraft, promiscuity, general unruly conduct—the instruments of punishment and torture throughout history varied.
Though scolding today may seem to be punishment enough, in 16th- and 17th-century England and Scotland a scold was a woman who disrupted the quiet of her neighborhood with gossip and slander. To tame the scold, an instrument of punishment was born. The scold’s bridle, also sometimes referred to as branks, was a punishment for women deemed too loud or rambunctious for societal norms. The scold’s bridle was as painful as it was humiliating. A masklike device often outfitted with horns and a mask with unsettling features, the scold’s bridle forced its wearer to have a sharp metal gag that would hold the tongue, literally silencing the wearer’s voice.
Shrew’s FiddleThe term shrew gained popularity in 16th- and 17th-century England, even loaning its name to William Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew. A shrew, not unlike a scold, was a boisterous and dominating woman who would not relegate herself to the roles society assigned to her. In medieval Germany and Austria, if a shrew dared to fall out of line, she might be met with the shrew’s fiddle. Though like a fiddle in its shape, the shrew’s fiddle’s resemblance to the vibrant-sounding instrument stopped there. With a large opening for the neck and two smaller openings for the wrists, the shrew’s fiddle locked its wearer’s head in place and restrained and immobilized her arms, which were essentially handcuffed in front of her face. Different variations of the shrew’s fiddle, not necessarily reserved for women, have been attested in Denmark, Japan, and Iran, and a Roman version was found in Germany.
Cucking and Ducking StoolsThe cucking and ducking stools made their appearance in English circles of punishment in the 13th century and 17th centuries, respectively. Though not reserved exclusively for women, these stools were most famously used as torture instruments for women accused of witchcraft, prostitution, and disorderly conduct in general. The cucking stool was a public instrument of torture that very closely resembled a toilet. Its wearer was forced to sit by restraint on the cucking stool and was paraded through town. As uncomfortable and humiliating as the cucking stool was, it paled in comparison to the life-threatening ducking stool. The person punished by the ducking stool was forced to sit restrained, but this chair had a heightened risk: it was attached to a wooden beam that could be lowered into water. The ducking stool sometimes caused drownings, with a not-so-bright side: a person who drowned from the ducking was thus proved innocent of witchcraft and absolved of the crime.
Drunkard’s CloakThe drunkard’s cloak was commonly used as a punishment for public drunkenness in 16th- and 17th-century England, though it was also adapted for promiscuous women. The name of the drunkard’s cloak provides a fairly rich image of its device, which is a wooden barrel—an empty beer cask—worn as a shirt, with one hole for the neck and two holes for the arms. This incredibly heavy barrel was painful as well as humiliating; its wearers were forced to parade through the streets of the town, hearing insults shaming their behavior.
Marking and Tattooing
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter famously marks its protagonist, Hester Prynne, with a red letter A for adultery after accusations about her behavior circulate. Hawthorne’s book is more than fiction: adulterers were really forced to mark their clothing to identify their crime, like Hester Prynne’s A or the letters AD as outlined by a Plymouth Colony law from 1658. Adulterers seen publicly without their letters were subject to public whipping and even further humiliation and social alienation.
Pricking and ScratchingAs a test from the infamous English and Scottish witch hunts, pricking was a more subtle, but still painful, form of punishment for women, as well as men, accused of witchcraft. In an effort to categorize witches who didn’t have any witch’s marks (usually unsightly blemishes or moles), a specially designed pricking needle made its way into the hands of witch hunters. These needles repeatedly pricked the flesh of the accused until it produced a result that wouldn’t bleed and was insensitive to pain, which fulfilled the criteria of a witch’s mark. Additionally, the pricked accused might also be scratched by the apparent possessed victim until the scratching drew blood. If the symptoms of possession improved, the scratch test could serve as confirmation of the accused being a witch.
AmputationThough it may not be as creative as the other instruments of torture on this list, amputation packed a painful—and permanent—punch. The body of an ancient Chinese woman—from about 3,000 years ago—has been found with amputated feet but in otherwise good health, and all signs point to an ancient Chinese punishment called yue, which was used for over 500 different offenses, including cheating and stealing. In ancient Egypt and the Byzantine Empire, a different type of amputation was common: nose amputation, called rhinotomy, which was a punishment for adulterous women, though it was also used as a punishment for various crimes in medieval and ancient times elsewhere. However, the adulterous man might escape with a less severe punishment, like a fine or beating.
Status degradation still persists today, and it has been used as a formal punishment throughout history. Under the Roman emperor Augustus, who reigned from 27 BCE to 14 CE, a woman guilty of adultery could lose several rights as a citizen and suffer a financial burden. Noblewomen in the kingdom of Korea during the Chosŏn dynasty faced a similar degradation of their societal status if they were found guilty of adultery or if they remarried. Adulteresses were stripped of many of their rights and privileges once they were demoted to low-born statuses, and the descendants of widows who remarried were barred from holding office. As serious as these punishments may seem, some high-status women who committed adultery in the Chosŏn dynasty faced an even graver punishment: death.