Curator's Choice: The Scold's Thew - a medieval punishment for women only at Ipswich Museum

By Anton Roberts, Learning Museum Trainee at Colchester + Ipswich Museums | 15 November 2016

Curator's Choice: Take a closer look at the Scold's Threw - a cruel punishment reserved for "troublesome" women during the Medieval period

a photo of a wooden chair with an iron rod and chain attached to it
© Colchester
The use of Scold’s Thewe or Ducking Chair was a common punishment in England. It is extremely rare however, to find one now, especially in a complete state. It was used to punish women who made trouble with their neighbours and who had no property of their own.

Surprisingly, it has nothing whatsoever to do with either witchcraft or nagging a husband, which it has been commonly mistaken for. Nowadays, we have the public shaming of Jeremy Kyle instead.

Anyway, the full punishment was to be paraded around the town in a cart wearing only their shift, sometimes with an ox tongue hung about them with a scolds bridle on. They would then be raised up and ‘ducked’ into the river of Ipswich. Nice! At least they were allowed to sit down, and not ducked hanging upside down. How considerate.

The laws of Ipswich as set down in French and English in 1200 state: “Women that are common scolds amongst their neighbours and will not control their wicked tongues from speaking out against people should be punished by the thewe, or, if they have enough money let them pay a heavy fine”.

As well as humiliating and nearly drowning the poor, the law also took money from the more wealthy. To me, it sounds like the school bully who will dunk your head in a toilet if you don’t give them your lunch money.

a photo of a wooden chair with an iron attachment
© Colchester + Ipswich Museum Service
The French were also known to use the chair as a punishment tool. The Norman French word for scolding is “conquiner”, so they are sometimes called Cucking, as well as Ducking Chairs. Only three exist today, and they can be found In Ipswich, Leominister and Canterbury.

Fortunately for women, the last known use of this punishment in England was in 1817. So don’t worry, you’re safe from the ox tongue. The Scold’s Thewe was rediscovered in Ipswich in the 1830’s, when the old custom house was being demolished.

Today people can rant or talk bad of their neighbours through social media - often with no punishment at all.

The Scold’s Thewe at Ipswich Museum is on display in the Victorian gallery, where you can also find a range of other punishment objects.


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