What Do These Torture Methods Say About Outspoken Women In The Past?

What Do These Torture Methods Say About Outspoken Women In The Past?

By: Andrea Mejía -

Can we learn something about the way opinionated or "angry" women were tortured in the past?

For better or for worse, people like to get creative, and the best example of the worst uses for creativity lies in the thousands of torture methods that have been invented throughout history. That’s what came to my mind when I went with a friend to an exhibition of historical instruments for torture that was being held in my city. She asked me to go with her because she thought the topic was really disturbing, but she had to go to do an assignment for her history class. In the end, the exhibition wasn’t as gory as we thought it would be. It was actually the detailed descriptions of the stomach-churning methods of torture used by the Spanish Inquisition, as well as other countries, what shocked us the most.


As we took a leap back in time through the corridors of this exhibition, seeing the worst forms of human ingenuity in methods to torture people, to the point that death seemed to be the only relief, there was one particular section devoted to punishments for “small” crimes. Under the golden light of a lamp, on a white pedestal, there was a strange metal mask that didn’t cover the face fully. In fact, it seemed more like a face cage than a mask, with a metal bar that was meant to go into the mouth. Intrigued by its shape, I read the label next to it. It was a “Scold’s bridle,” a torture and humiliation method used for women who were “too riotous” or “too contentious”– which was another way of saying for “women who talk too much”–. What caught my attention was that, unlike other torture methods, this one was only intended for women.

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Of course, this wasn’t the only one. As my friend and I explored the “small” crimes section further, I realized that many of these gems of human perversity were used on women who “talked too much,” were “too bossy,” or were accused of witchcraft because they were too argumentative with the men of the town. Moreover, they were meant to be seen in public because, at least until the nineteenth century, it was believed that public humiliation was the best way to stop people from committing a crime. All of this left me wondering, was being an outspoken woman a crime back in the day? Let’s take a look at some of these methods to find out.

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As for the Scold’s bridle, the first records of this method go back to sixteenth-century Scotland, where it was often used on women who “scolded others too much” (in other words, when they confronted their husbands too much) or were charged for witchcraft for causing “public riots.” To stop women from “scolding,” “nagging,” or inciting public outrage with their words, this face cage included a bar that would go inside the mouth, so they wouldn’t talk. When husbands and neighbors –the ones who often accused the women– felt the bar wasn’t enough, they would add spikes, so they wouldn’t even be able to move their tongue if they didn’t want to cut it, or chains to keep them quiet at home. This method was very popular for some time. Also, keep in mind that, between the sixteenth and nineteenth century, this method was also used on slaves in the United States for the same reasons. 

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Now, talking about the US, in the seventeenth century another method to keep “contentious” women and “scolds” silent was the ducking stool, a method that consisted of a chair attached to a pole that would be dunked into lakes or rivers several times. In the seventeenth century, it was believed that the sin of wrath manifested itself through the tongue or the sinner’s words. According to professor Graeme Newman’s book, The Punishment Response, the main purpose of this punishment was to literally “cool” the woman’s anger and tongue with water. I don't know whether the method proved to be effective, but I can't help but think of this as a twisted way of silencing women for centuries.

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It seems that speaking too much was a crime in the past, since there were lots of ways to punish women who "bothered" people with their words. Sometimes it would make Inquisitors recur to methods that would sometimes lead to death, such as the “Pear of anguish.” This gruesome method consisted of a metal pear that was inserted in any orifice of the body and opened with a stem. While this punishment was usually reserved for prostitutes, “sodomites,” and women who'd had abortions, it was also inserted in the mouths of witches and "scolds" to stop them from speaking. While the method itself didn’t kill them, it would injure their mouths and jaws and made them more prone to die from infections, since, as you can imagine, the pear wasn’t very clean.



I decided to mention only these three methods because they’re enough for us to get an idea of how wrong it was back in the day for a woman to be outspoken or express their discomfort or anger. Nonetheless, there were far more ways to punish the same crimes. While looking at these torture methods at the museum or while reading about them, it’s tempting to just remain disgusted by them and thank our lucky stars for being born in this age and not in the Middle Ages, where we could be accused of witchcraft because our neighbor disliked us for being “too bossy” or being outspoken about our anger. However, in an ideal scenario, looking at this parade of torture methods won’t be just a way to satiate our morbid curiosity about the worst side of humanity. Maybe we just have to take a look around and see whether we’ve changed at all as a society. Is expressing yourself still a crime, especially if you’re a woman? It’s up to you to decide. At least, nowadays, if I say what I think, I won’t have a cage put on my head, but I don’t know if everyone around me will be okay with me having an opinion.



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