Skip To Content

    11 Messed-Up Ways Women Were Punished Through History

    Justice for strumpets and scolds.

    1. Women who nagged or gossiped had metal spikes forced into their mouths., A woman wearing a "witch's bridle" / Universal History Archive / Getty Images

    The Scold's Bridle was an iron cage for a woman's face, used to punish "scolds" – women who nagged, gossiped, talked back, or just talked too much. The bridle would be locked on to your head, and a protruding piece of metal covered in spikes would be forced inside your mouth. Every time you moved your tongue, the spikes would lacerate it.

    Sometimes the bridled woman was chained to a hook by the fireplace in her home until she learned her lesson. Or she might be led through town wearing the mask to increase her humiliation.

    2. Bickering women would be locked together in the Shrew's Fiddle.

    Twitter: @theclinkprison

    This was a type of yoke, a wooden restraint used to punish brawling women and scolds. A woman might be made to wear one alone, perhaps walking up and down for two hours as punishment, or she might be locked up with the woman she was fighting with.

    3. Women accused of sexual misconduct would be humilated in a "cucking stool".

    This punishment was a means of humiliation. Both men and women were put in the cucking stool, but it was a particularly popular punishment for women accused of being scolds or harlots. You would be strapped to a wooden chair without a seat – often a commode, or toilet – and then either forced to sit outside your own house, or paraded through the town.

    According to writer William Borlase, it was a "seat of infamy, where strumpets and scolds, with bare feet and head, were condemned to abide the derision of those that passed by".

    4. Or the justice system would take it one step further and strap her into a "ducking stool".

    The ducking stool was a cucking stool with knobs on: It was attached to long beams of wood, which hinged on an axel. The chair was then suspended over a river or pond, with the scold or strumpet strapped into it, then dunked as many times as her punishment dictated, “to cool her immoderate heat,” as the French writer Francois Maximilien Misson put it. In some cases, women would be ducked so many times they died.

    If jarring females kindle strife,
    Give language foul, or lug the coif;
    If noisy dames should once begin
    To drive the house with horrid din,
    Away, you cry, you’ll grace the stool,
    We’ll teach you how your tongue to rule.

    – Benjamin West, 1780

    5. Gossipy women might be locked up by the neck and left outside to the mercy of the crowd.

    The thewe was a type of pillory (similar to stocks) specifically for women. The woman would be chained to a post by her neck as punishment for her crime, although, unlike men, her hands weren't tied up. Common crimes included annoying your neighbours by talking too much or having sex outside of marriage.

    In 1777, Ann Morrow was accused of impersonating a man and marrying another woman. She was put in the pillory, and an angry crowd blinded her by stoning.

    6. A woman accused of sleeping around might be locked into a Drunkard's Cloak.

    Also known as the barrell pillory, this device was used to punish men for crimes like theft, drunkenness, and disorder. But women were also put in the Drunkard's Cloak.

    One man reported seeing a barrel in Delft, Holland: "a weighty vessel of wood, not unlike a butter-churn, which the adventurous woman that hath two husbands at one time is to wear on her shoulders, her head peeping out at the top only, and so led about the town, as a penance for her incontinence."

    7. A woman who had an affair might have her nose cut off.

    The mutilation or removal of a woman’s nose was a punishment for sexually promiscuous women, which continued through the Middle Ages. By disfiguring a woman’s face, the dangerous power of her beauty was eliminated. Cnut’s law of 1018 dictated that a woman accused of adultery would have her nose and ears cut off as punishment. Comparatively, an adulterous man was simply made to pay a fine.

    8. Bossy wives were humiliated with a walk of shame.

    The walk of shame, known as a skimmington or "rough music", was a traditional punishment for harlotry, or being a "termagant" – an overbearing wife. Women were made to walk barefoot through the town or city, sometimes dressed only in their petticoat. The streets were filthy, and sharp with rough stones. Jeering crowds lined up to stare, and minstrels, banging basins and pans, would accompany the procession, adding to the woman's humilation.

    Sometimes the skimmingtons were delivered by the townsfolk rather than the courts. The accused might be dragged from their bed at night, and paraded through the town with the crowd shouting, "A whore, a whore".

    9. Prostitutes or brothel-keepers would be branded with a hot iron and banished from the town.

    Magnolia Box

    This was a popular punishment during the 16th century. Lady Low, who ran a brothel in Aberdeen, was branded with a hot iron on both cheeks by a hangman and made to wear a paper crown, before being banished from the city. She was warned she would be drowned in a sack if she ever returned.

    10. Women accused of theft or witchcraft would be drowned.

    From Anglo-Saxon times to the 17th century, drowning was a common punishment for women accused of theft. It was also the cause of death in "witch dipping", where witch hunters would test to see if a woman was a witch by whether she floated or sank.

    Drowning as a basic civil punishment was actually considered a lenient sentence compared to some of the more brutal methods of execution available, like for instance...

    11. Women who committed treason, witchcraft, or heresy were burnt to death.

    Getty Images

    This was part of the classic witch hunters' repertoire, especially in Scotland. Women accused of withcraft, and communing with the devil, would be burnt. But it was also a common punishment for treason or heresy. A woman might have her limbs covered in tar, as well being made to wear a tar-soaked dress and bonnet. She would then be tied up by the neck on a barrel, the fire lit, and she would be simultaenously burnt and hung in a blazing inferno.

    Or they wouldn't bother to hang her, instead placing "faggots" (bundles of twigs) around her feet so she would be consumed in a sheet of fire and burnt alive.