The Silence of Women

Women who spoke too angrily or too publicly were punished in cruel and unusual ways.

Jane Brox| an excerpt adapted from Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives| Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | Januray 2019 | 15 minutes (4,034 words)



What becometh a woman best, and first of all? Silence. What second? Silence. What third? Silence. What fourth? Silence. Yea, if a man should aske me till Domes daie I would still crie silence, silence.

Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique, 1560


For women, silence within the world of judicial punishment has its own complex history. It’s less recorded than that of men, and fragmented. Details must be teased out of obscurity and can be distorted by what is absent. Often, there are more questions than answers for punishment that amounts to silencing on top of silence, since women have long been expected to govern their tongue.

In colonial America this presumption of silence was reinforced by women’s subordinate place in society, and bolstered by centuries of English common law. No woman had the right to vote and once she married — in an age when most women married — she became subject to the law of coverture, which meant that she not only became dependent on her husband but, as William Blackstone in his eighteenth-century work, Commentaries on the Laws of England, explains: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing, and is therefore called in our law — French, a femme covert… under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture.”

One set of laws applied almost entirely to women, and was aimed specifically at muting their voices.

When it came to punishment in the colonies, however, the law could be as harsh for women as it was for men. Women, married or single, who committed crimes were hung, pilloried, whipped, branded. And for some offenses the law dealt more harshly with women than with men. In part because it was often difficult to name the father, women usually suffered the brunt of the consequences for giving birth to a bastard child, for which they could be fined and whipped. If a woman killed her husband, hanging wasn’t good enough. She could be gibbeted — a more severe punishment than a man received for killing his wife — for to kill a husband, as a slave his master, was deemed a greater crime. It upset the natural social order.

One set of laws applied almost entirely to women, and was aimed specifically at muting their voices: Women could be harshly punished and humiliated simply for talking too much or too publicly or in a tone of voice that seemed grating or nagging. They were labeled scolds or gossips and, unlike the crimes of theft, assault, or murder, no concrete measure defined their transgression. English law defined a scold as “a troublesome angry woman who, by her brawling and wrangling among her neighbors, doth break the public peace, and beget, cherish and increase public discord.” What evidence could be brought before the courts? To whom was she troublesome? What defined a breach of peace? And what constituted gossip? Imagine the streets on market day, where women stood in small clusters, their heads inclined towards one another in the lane, in the shadow of a cart. A hand at the mouth. Who was to say when a friendly whisper crossed over into malicious gossip? These were more than curious questions. Gossip itself could amplify the accusations. Even in the nineteenth century, gossip was defined as “not…of particular acts but common fame.” The vagaries of the law left room to unfairly accuse an enemy, or a woman who was odd, unpopular, or outspoken, which was no small thing. The punishment for the crime — brutal and feared — was meant to draw a crowd and publicly humiliate the accused.

In colonial towns and villages, the “engines of punishment” for gossips and scolds were varied and specific. Women might be gagged and placarded with a description of their crime, and made to stand in the market square. Their tongues might be fastened with a cleft stick. Commonly, they were sentenced to the ducking stool. Although on rare occasions a double stool might be used to punish married couples for incessant bickering, it was a punishment that was only infrequently used to punish men. In 1634, Thomas Hartley of Hungars Parish, Virginia, described what we would today call a water-based torture that was “given to one Betsey wife of John Tucker who by ye violence of her tongue has made his house and ye neighborhood uncomfortable.”

Hartley writes that she “was taken to ye pond… They had a machine for ye purpose yt belongs to ye parish, and which I was so told had been so used three times this Summer. It is a platform with 4 small rollers or wheels and two upright posts between which works a Lever by a Rope fastened to its shorter or heavier end. At ye end of ye longer arm is fixed a stool upon which sd Betsey was fastened by cords, her gown tied fast around her feete. The Machine was then moved up to ye edge of ye pond, ye Rope was slackened..and ye woman was allowed to go down under ye water for ye space of half a minute.” Betsey Tucker was ducked five times before she begged her persecutors to stop and agreed to “sin no more.” She then walked home in her wet clothes.

The punishment for being accused of spreading gossip and rumors had been even harsher in the English Midlands in the sixteenth century, and the craft of the village blacksmith was essential to this particular silencing. At the time, the sound of the blacksmith at his anvil was one of the loudest sounds made by a human hand. He was at his work daily, fashioning the ordinary tools and utensils for his village: hinges and clasps, knives and hoes, scythes and plows, shoes for the horses and oxen. Hearthside utensils: pokers, grates, pots, cauldrons, peals, spiders, frying pans, Dutch ovens.

For gossiping or any kind of public speaking out of turn a woman might be fitted with the bridle… She was then paraded through the streets to stand at the market cross or by the church.

Hard iron, softened by fire, turned into useful things with a flourish and a musical beat. Did his work sound any different as he forged a scold’s bridle? Every sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Midlands town seems to have had its version. Always there was a collar and strip of iron that arched back to front and splayed when it crossed the face so as to pass on either side of a woman’s nose. The iron might press down on her cheeks or against the sides of her nose, which made it difficult to take in more than a sip of air at a time. If a scold’s bridle left little room for breath, it left none for words. Usually another strip of iron attached to the collar and arched ear to ear over her head, and a bar — or two or three — crossed her face below her nose. Attached to one of the bars was a slab anywhere from one-and-one half to three inches long — a bit — to be inserted between her lips to hold down her tongue. The bit made it hard for her to swallow her saliva, and some bits were long enough to make a woman gag.

Sometimes the bit curved upward or downward. It could be smooth, but more often it was stippled with small spikes, or comprised of barbs. If a woman moved at all, the barbs would burrow into the roof of her mouth or into her tongue, and crying out in pain only made it worse. The women of the village of Stockport, England must have known it well, for the one in that town — its slab was two inches long — ended in a cylinder set with spikes upwards, downwards and backwards. A nettle that, however still a woman sat, cut her palate and tongue at the same time.

For gossiping or any kind of public speaking out of turn a woman might be fitted with the bridle, which was sometimes decorated with red and white cloth. She was then paraded through the streets to stand at the market cross or by the church. Quaker Dorothy Waugh has left one of the rare firsthand accounts of such punishment. In 1655 she was taken into custody for publicly preaching in the market of Carlisle, England. At the time, women were expected to remain silent in public — it would be more than a decade before Margaret Fells published her pamphlet Women Speaking Justified, which argues in favor of women publicly preaching. Waugh was bridled for three hours. “[T]hat which they called so was like a steele cap… which was a stone weight of Iron…& three barrs of Iron to come over my face, and a peece of it was put in my mouth, which was so unreasonable a big thing for that place as cannot be well-related, which was locked to my head, and so I stood their time with my hands bound behind me with the stone weight of Iron upon my head, and the bitt in my mouth to keep me from speaking.” The prison keep demanded that all who came to see her pay two pence, and the Mayor, intent on making an example of her, had her forced out of the city while she was still bridled, and had her whipped as she was driven from town to town, “from Constable to Constable…till I came to my owne home,” writes Waugh, “when as they had not anything to lay to my Charge.”

The mere threat of being bridled could be enough to mute a soul. There is an account of a woman who refused to walk bridled through her town, so she was wheeled in a barrow. It was said that for the rest of her life “she kept a quiet tongue.”

If ever a woman spoke too much or acted out of turn or disobeyed, a husband might send for the jailer to bring the scold’s bridle, which was then chained to the hook at the hearth and clamped around his wife’s head.

Bridling had its hidden side as well. Though Dorothy Waugh found refuge in her home, not every woman could depend upon home as a haven. Accounts in Cheshire, England describe an iron hook by the hearths right where a wife could always see it as she fed the smoky embers of her fire; as she stirred her cooking pots or spun her wool. If ever a woman spoke too much or acted out of turn or disobeyed, a husband might send for the jailer to bring the scold’s bridle, which was then chained to the hook at the hearth and clamped around his wife’s head.

In the American colonies, the ducking stool remained the favored punishment for scolds. Accounts of the use of the scold’s bridle for gossips are rare; less rare as a slave’s punishment for insubordination. Sometimes it also was used if a slave ate more food than was allotted: “I was very much affrighted at some things I saw,” writes Olaudah Equiano in his slave narrative as he recounts time in Virginia. “I had seen a black woman slave as I came through the house, who was cooking the dinner, and the poor creature was cruelly loaded with various kinds of iron machines; she had one particularly on her head, which locked her mouth so fast that she could scarcely speak, and could not eat or drink. I [was] much astonished and shocked at this contrivance, which I afterwards learned was called the iron muzzle.”

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Although a commitment to the religious life has always been a choice for some women — as far back as the fourth century women, too, joined desert communities in search of a more profound spiritual experience — up until modern times, the decision to enter a monastery was often made for women rather than by them, and the arrangement was usually a practical one. Most commonly, wealthy fathers sent daughters without marriage prospects to the convent. At times, even daughters in a position to marry might end up in a convent, since it was cheaper to dower a daughter to a monastery than to a husband. In a world where single women in particular had few choices, monastic life also offered an alternative for women who wanted to leave their marriages or avoid a marriage. Older women joined after having raised their children. And widows.

They entered a world in which they had little say. While almost all women brought bequests, legacies, and donations to the monastery, they had no control over the revenue. And convents, even those headed by powerful and prominent abbesses, were subject to rule by men: Women weren’t represented in the church hierarchy, and didn’t serve on the councils that determined the regulations for the monasteries, which profoundly affected their lives.

Perhaps no regulations were more consequential than those regarding enclosure, which has been valued for all monastics since the time of the Desert Fathers, who believed separation from the world helped to create an ideal spiritual space for devotion to God. But enclosure for men wasn’t absolute. Monks routinely traveled to tend to their holdings and carry on other financial obligations of the monastery. Enclosure for women, on the other hand, was deemed essential, and was imposed in a far more rigid way for them than for men.


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While keeping women securely behind walls might safeguard them against the possibility of being carried off, attacked, or raped, how women were viewed also played a considerable role in the insistence on strict enclosure. Women were considered unable to organize and govern themselves, and prone to moral weakness and sin. They were, it was believed, easily tempted by men, so the church councils regarded protecting their purity as paramount. Historian Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg notes: “As brides of Christ they were to be concealed from the world.” But women were also regarded as descendants of Eve, a temptation for men. Not for nothing was the Cistercian sign for the apple “by far the worst and most evil sign.”

As far back as the rule of Pachomius, men were forbidden to enter convents except under strict conditions: “And the female monks among them live on the other side of the river [Nile], and the men among them, opposite them on this side. And when a nun dies, her sisters, the nuns, wrap her in linen; and having wrapped her in, they bring her to the bank of the river, and the brethren cross over on a raft with palm branches and olive boughs, and bring her across with psalm-singing to themselves, and bury her in their burial-place. With the exception of priest and deacon alone, nobody crosses over into the women cloister, and this takes place on each Sabbath of the Christians.”

Under the strictest conditions, women religious couldn’t leave the monastery for any reason without permission from the bishop or the superior. It was a rule for which there were few exceptions: abbesses had to travel, members of the order became sick and needed outside attention. One early council regulation warns: “If a girl leaving her parents desires to renounce the world and enter the holy fold…she must never up to the time of her death, go out of the monastery, nor into the basilica where there is a door.” In some monasteries outside doors opened only to allow a newcomer in, or for the burial of a deceased nun, and the penalties for breaking enclosure could be severe. One bishop warned that if a woman, “at the Devil’s urging, like Eve expelled from Paradise, shall venture forth from the cloisters of her convent, as if from the Kingdom of Heaven itself, to visit this place and that, to be bustled and trodden under foot in the vile mud of our public streets, she shall be cut off from our communion and shall be stricken with the awful wound of anathema.”

Although already isolated from the world, as a further safeguard many women monastics were rarely permitted to be alone within their own monastery, especially in church, and novices were almost always required to be in the presence of older nuns. Even their visual world was narrowed and obscured. They saw the world beyond their walls only through the small openings and grilles meant to keep them separate, and the windows that did open could be shielded with a dark covering. Their male counterparts lived in a world of shadow and light; they, in a world of more shadow than light.

Enclosure for men wasn’t absolute. Monks routinely traveled…. Enclosure for women, on the other hand, was deemed essential, and was imposed in a far more rigid way.

While women could not leave their enclosure, priests — of necessity — entered convents since not even the most powerful abbess could celebrate Mass or hear confession. Yet, just as their view of the exterior world was narrowed and obscured, so was the ritual of the Mass, which they most often witnessed from behind a distant grille. In some convents the sisters could only view the Mass from a high window, and saw little more than the priest’s hands. So, the ritual was primarily heard. As historian Caroline Bruzelias remarks: “Christianity has always contained a tradition that especially blessed are those who can believe without seeing, touching, or tasting… [F]or women in religious life, that which was most holy often came only through the ear.” Strict enclosure was also meant to accentuate silence, and increase the opportunity to listen for the Word of God.

While church councils throughout the early Middle Ages imposed various degrees of enclosure for women, exacting rules were broadly asserted in 1298. In that year, Pope Boniface, concerned about heresies that might foment within the informal monastic world, and equally worried about outside influences on the monasteries, ordered strict enclosure for all women religious who’d taken solemn vows. His Periculoso, named after its first word — dangerous — was sweeping in its scope: “[N]uns collectively and individually, both at present and in future…in whatever part of the world they may be, ought henceforth to remain perpetually cloistered in their monasteries, so that none of them..shall or may for whatever reason or cause…have permission hereafter to leave their monasteries; and no persons, in any way disreputable, or even respectable, shall be allowed to enter or leave the same…so that [the nuns will] be able to serve God more freely, wholly separated from the public and worldly gaze, and occasions of lasciviousness having been removed, may most diligently safeguard their hearts and bodies in complete chastity.”

There were far fewer monasteries for women than men in the Middle Ages, and their monasteries, in general, were smaller and more obscure than men’s, though not always — any one monastery’s fortunes could shift with the times, and the living conditions for both monks and nuns were rarely stable. In a world of slow and difficult travel, with considerable distances between monasteries, and between the center of the church and its outposts, the rules set down by councils weren’t always uniformly followed, and not all orders embraced the restrictions or submitted to them willingly.

Especially as monasticism matured, urban convents could have a thriving and intricate relationship with their community, and women in the mendicant orders — who led lives of service — of necessity had a more fluid relationship with the surrounding community than cloistered orders. Their silence would not have been as extreme as that of the Cistercians or Benedictines; their observance of the liturgical hours, less elaborate. Historian Silvia Evangelisti notes: “Since the Middle Ages convents had played a fundamental public role within the cities. By praying and devoting their lives to divine perfection, the brides of Christ’ fulfilled a crucial intercessory function, and acted as mediators between Heaven and worldly society… The nuns’ intercessory role strengthened their social presence and connections with the city. For instance, the nuns took an active part in public processions and in the organization of public festivities, and they held public religious ceremonies in their convents’ churches.” Some tended the sick and poor within the community, and worshipped with the townspeople at services. Nuns copied manuscripts, or wove tapestries and made embroideries, which they sold in order to support themselves. They might also take in boarders: older single women who would be paying guests; young women seeking education and instruction.

The permeability between their convent life and the city around them became especially threatened after the Council of Trent, which convened in 1563, reasserted the rules for enclosure set down by Boniface, and went even further, subjecting to strict enclosure not only cloistered nuns who’d taken solemn vows, but all women religious in convents, including the mendicant orders. The effect on the lives of women religious was profound. For example, the nuns of the convent of Putrich in Munich were accustomed to attending religious services in in the city proper, and their place in the church was reserved for them with their own chairs. They sold their tapestries and embroidery beyond the walls of the convent, and they tended the sick and the poor of the city. When one of their sisters died, they customarily accompanied her body to the burial ground outside the convent.

Then, the reformers arrived: “Anno 1620 on the third of May, the day of the Holy Cross, there came hither an Italian Franciscan and ten others with him from Milan, so-called Reformati in wooden shoes,” wrote the convent’s gatekeeper of the approaching officials who would enforce their enclosure. The officials took the chairs out of the church in the city and brought them within the convent walls. They forbade the sisters to accompany their dead beyond the walls, and ordered the women to pray more frequently throughout the day, which took time away from their other activities.

Some of the sisters protested as they were able. Historian Ulrike Strasser notes that nearly a third of the women in the convent “refused altogether to learn and pray the breviary. These women, mainly of the older generation, and some of them in poor health, stubbornly clung to their customary way of doing things… It was a powerful way of claiming agency in a situation of meagre options.” But ultimately, the lives of the women within the walls of Pütrich changed radically. Likewise, the sisters in convents throughout Florence found their customary world upended by forced enclosure. They, too, were accustomed to going out into the city to visit the poor and tend the sick. Church officials not only called for their movement about the city to cease, they instructed that the grilles, windows, and gates facing the street were to be walled. Daylight could come only through windows with fixed dark glass. The entrance gates were to be locked from outside. The writing and receiving of letters was severely limited, as were visits from outsiders other than relatives.

Strict enclosure seemed untenable, not only for the sisters, but for the city as well, for the convents had become part of the social and economic fabric of Florence. And when the Pope directed the sisters to adhere to the tenets of enclosure, city authorities objected, citing it would compromise both the convent and the city. They urged that the sisters be allowed to continue to visit the sick and poor and practice medicine, and expressed fears that the number of professed religious would decline. The Pope refused their petitions, asserting that the church had to guard against the particular nature of women: “for there is no doubt that women must be governed and cannot govern themselves, and this is so evident that it requires no further persuasion.”

At the convent of Saint Catherine of Siena in Florence, the sisters protested the enforcement of strict enclosure, but in the end they were made to conform to the decree, “They resisted for nearly three months,” notes Silvia Evangelisti, “but…events turned definitively against them: ‘The 29 [August] we were ordered by the Reverend father…to wall the door of our church within five days; otherwise he was going to give us excommunication, and so this door was walled that day…and we were the first with our great sorrow.'”

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Jane Brox is the author of BrilliantClearing Land, Five Thousand Days Like This One, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Here and Nowhere Else, which received the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award. She lives in Maine.

Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky