Figure 21

Figure 21: Examples of Scottish branks showing both styles. Top left: open-faced branks; bottom left: 3D shaped mouth piece (Both C2: Brechin, Angus). Top right: branks closed around the nose; bottom right: flat leaf-shaped mouth piece (both C6: Saint Andrews, Fife).

During the course of the project, two very similar styles of ecclesiastical branks were identified (Fig. 21). As illustrated above, the majority have a two-piece mouth bit extending from 55mm to 65mm into the mouth. Unlike the other artefacts, experimental trials of branks were not possible. However, testing the gag reflex with a sterile object, 55mm was found sufficient to cause watery eyes and gagging, the latter exacerbated by saliva unless the head was held down. The pressure of the branks in the mouth could potentially cause aching in the jaws and teeth and, in longer punishments, head and neck aches. It is also possible that the iron branks may also have had an unpleasant metallic taste. A third brank type was identified; however, due to later, civil origins (C9) and the fact that measured examples would not fit into the human mouth (C10 and C11), these examples are not discussed here. This decision was made on the basis that they do not match the criteria of ecclesiastical branks, which session record descriptions indicate could be worn on the head.

Such descriptions state, for example, that at Anstruther Wester branks were worn attached to the church exterior like jougs, then while on the penitent's stool (Graham 1996, 235). Elsewhere, punishments included holding the branks in the place of repentance or carrying them to the house of the injured party to apologise. On rare occasions, penitents were dragged though town wearing them (Harrison 1998). Originally non-gender specific, branks came to be reserved for women with reputations for loose tongues or loose morals (Graham 1996, 212; Harrison 1998, 114-18). During the 50 years from 1597 to 1648 that branking punishments were recorded in ecclesiastical cases in Stirling, branks were employed only 14 times but threatened 54 times (Harrison 1998, 116-17). The infrequency of use and alternative sentences not involving wear suggests branking was not principally physically abusive but shaming. This is evident in the fact that even many years later a woman could still be insulted by calling her a 'brankit' bitch or whore (Harrison 1998, 127-8). Such insults demonstrate that the branks and the sin for which they were punishment acted permanently upon a person's character and became part of their history. Likewise, each individual, their scandal and punishment would have become part of the artefact's history (Schneider 2006).

The branks' shaming qualities may have derived from a number of novel connections. The older meaning of branks is bridle: origins testified to by the amendment of dictionaries in 1559 to include branks as a punishment as well as an animal bridle (Harrison 1998, 115). Like the jougs, they may have been dehumanising or domesticating, as is suggested by Psalm 32: 'Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee' (Psalm 32)

Much is made of the connection between women and horses as objects to be managed and ridden under male dominion (cf. Hartwig 1982; Boose 1991). However, early gender non-specificity suggests that this connection, while it fuelled their capacity to shame once created, may have been a belated one. The need to create a bridle to punish or control the tongue could, therefore, relate to the fact that their emergence coincided perfectly with the Reformation itself. Preoccupation with gender politics and the branks' social consequences has left their ecclesiastical origins almost entirely unexplored to date. The Bible makes many references to the sinfulness of the tongue and its need to be bridled, e.g. Psalm 39: '1I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me' (Psalm 39).

The branks may have been a literal interpretation of the Bible made material in a physical representation of sin and the need to control it. That the branks were connected to the literality of Scottish Protestantism is evident in that their use indirectly relates to witch-hunting. Just as the material culture of discipline follows a very similar distribution to witchcraft trials, use of the branks increased dramatically in Stirling during the 17th century witch crazes. Furthermore, the branks went out of use in Stirling just five years before the last witch execution in Scotland, in 1727 (Harrison 1998). The vast majority of those branking cases, however, were not connected with witchcraft accusations, but with normal social offences such as slander and scolding (Harrison 1998, 122-5). The temporal correlation between the witch hunts and increased, seemingly unrelated, use of branks in Stirling suggests more subtle aspects of the deep fears about the dangerous, wild and sinful nature of women that underlay witch beliefs. Study of ecclesiastical records across the country presents a promising route to see how extensively this correlation was present across the country.

Boose attributes the fear of women to displaced apprehension about the vulnerable state of the 'body politic'. She posits that, due to their inherent penetrability, women represented a weakness point, an apprehension evident in a connection between mouth and vagina made explicitly clear by the exclusive employment of branks for sexual or verbal misconduct (1991, 195). That branking became gender specific, a physical artefact to control the female orifices, thus, could be interpreted as an iron barrier between sin and the communal body of Christ. It may be the artefact, therefore, which most clearly demonstrates the literal nature of Scottish Reformation: an artefact designed to directly manipulate objects of fear and keep sin out. That branks were never legalised in England and are not recorded at all until 1623 (Boose 1991, 196), suggests this concern, like concern over witches and church discipline in general (Hazlett 2003; Todd 2002), was lesser than in Scotland. Comparison with continental versions of branks shows that the continental forms are not 'bridles'. They do not typically depress the tongue, but are instead humorous or demonic masks, perhaps suggesting that they conveyed different narratives and played a different role in the performance of discipline.

Choose your own | The Body of Shame | Discipline Culture | Jougs


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