Scolds, Lies and Innocence
October 15, 2012 1 Comment
This post draws heavily from Lynda E. Boose’s excellent article Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman’s Unruly Member. It is highly recommended.
In brief, the ‘scold’s bridle‘ was a torture device used in a kind of para-legal disciplining ritual to physically silence and publicly shame women who had fallen afoul of social norms and been declared a ‘scold’.
A 1675 legal summary:
A Scold in a legal sense is a troublesome and angry woman, who by her brawling and wrangling amongst her Neighbours doth break the publick Peace, and beget, cherish and increase publick Discord.
Lynda E. Boose speculates that “a ‘scold’ was, in essence, any woman who verbally resisted or flouted authority publicly and stubbornly enough to challenge the underlying dictum of male rule”.
In addition to it’s obvious importance for the history of patriarchal violence, the idea of the ‘scold’ (or ‘shrew’) is an important one in the history of public order policing; a vaguely defined categorization which leaves the (exclusively male) constabulary plenty of scope to apply it to any situation at their own discretion for the sake protecting the abstract notion of public order. This role is demonstrated in many sources, including the homily Agaynst strife and contention (1547), in which Hugh Latimer declares that ‘contention’ (speaking out of turn, being argumentative or disruptive, etc) is “…much hurtfull to the society of a common wealth, [and] in all well ordered cities, these common brawlers and scoulders be punished with a notable kinde of paine…”
There is only one known written account by a woman who was subjected to the scold’s bridle; by Dorothy Waugh, who had been verbally abusive to the Mayor of Carlisle:
…whereby they tare my Clothes to put on their bridle as they called it, which was a stone weight of Iron by the relation of their own Generation, & three barrs of Iron to come over my face, and a peece of it was put in my mouth, which was so unreasonable big a 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; And the Mayor said he would make me an Example. … Afterwards it was taken off and they kept me in prison for a little season, and after a while the Mayor came up againe and caused it to be put on againe, and sent me out of the Citty with it on, and gave me very vile and unsavoury words, which were not fit to proceed out of any mans mouth, and charged the Officer to whip me out of the Towne, from Constable to Constable to send me, till I came to my owne home, when as they had not anything to lay to my Charge.
The emphasis is mine, and variations on that phrase are repeated throughout the rest of her statement: the male authority figures conducting this quasi-legal abuse were not able to lay a legitimate charge against her. The punishment was not for transgression of a specific, codified law, but of a socially understood (and viciously policed) public order which prevented women from speaking disrespectfully to men.
Dorothy Waugh’s statement was published in a Quaker tract, The Lambs Defence against Lyes (1656), which was “set forth for no other end, but to clear the innocent from the back-biters, and to undeceive the simple”.
* * *
That was all a long time ago. And yet… it resonates uncomfortably with the current political terrain. In 2012 volume one of a new journal of materialist feminism was published in the United States. The journal is called LIES:
Everything we say will be used against us. Every claim on or lament against society that we write will be received in the same way as accounts of rape – as lies. We don’t care anymore. As soon as we stop resisting the charge we can turn around and face the others that have not accused us, those we should have been talking to the whole time. We name this journal after the shame we no longer feel and commemorate all these outcast comrades: the witches, crones, hysterics, spinsters, she-wolves, oracles, and misfits – our fellow travellers.
This list of ‘outcast comrades’ implicitly includes the ‘scolds’ and ‘shrews’ who were so brutally silenced in former centuries. What is important about this introduction is that it can be read as a repudiation of texts like The Lambs Defence against Lyes and the (still dominant) logic that produces them. It represents a serious attempt not merely to evade the violences of our socialisation but to disrupt and destroy the value systems and rhetorics that (re)produce them. The Lambs Defence against Lyes is an apologia. LIES is not.
This idea is best of expressed in one of LIES‘ most powerful essays, Jackie Wang’s Against Innocence: Race, Gender and the Politics of Safety (page 145). The intersection of race and gender is explicitly relevant: even as use of the scold’s bridle against the unruly wives it had been developed for declined in Britain, it was taken up and applied to slaves (regardless of gender) in America, collapsing any artificial notion of a divide between histories of torture & silencing that we may have.
The main thrust of Against Innocence is a rejection of common arguments against racist or misogynist violence which focus on specific instances of that violence where the victim is non-threatening, non-criminal etc. Wang cites the way that Troy Davis‘s innocence, rather than his basic right to live, dominated campaigns for him to be spared the death penalty as an example of this, along with discussing the notion of ‘victim blaming’ in cases of sexual assault (it is a theme I clumsily touched on some time ago with regards to those who would allow abortion only in cases of impregnation by rape, constructing an image of innocent victim as the only deserving recipient of sympathy, support, etc).
Ultimately, our appeals to innocence demarcate who is killable and rapable, even if we are trying to strategically use such appeals to protest violence committed against one of our comrades.
This is something to consider as the police construct an image of Mark Duggan as a dangerous criminal, as though that would somehow justify his killing and invalidate all the accusations of police racism that were brought into sharp focus by the 2011 riots. Just as it is unappealing to many engaged in mainstream discourse to openly defend someone who is not innocent, it is a tempting form of argument to highlight that innocence when it is present. Wang comprehensively demonstrates how emphasising the innocence of victims (and only talking about victims who can be presented as innocent) reinforces the systems of violence that produce victims in the first place.
With the benefit of several century’s hindsight, we can see that Dorothy Waugh’s insistence that no charge could be laid against her is irrelevant; even if she had been guilty of scolding or shrewishness there was no justification for the abuse she experienced. That law, such as it was, was merely a mechanism for the disciplining and control of female bodies with the ultimate view of maintaining (an inherently oppressive) public order. We should not shy away from reaching the same conclusions when faced with the policing of Black, female, trans* and otherwise abused bodies today. There are violences being committed, and they are justified by construing their victims as not innocent.
The insistence on innocence results in a refusal to hear those labeled guilty or defined by the State as “criminals”. When we rely on appeals to innocence, we foreclose a form of resistance that is outside the limits of law, and instead ally ourselves with the State.
Constructing this resistance is urgent. We must listen to those who tell us lies; lies not because what is said is untrue, but because those who say it are dismissed as liars before they open their mouths. We should hear lyes, and with them we should break the publick Peace, and beget, cherish and increase publick Discord.