Scolds, Witches, and Mouldy Jades: Women's Words on Trial

In 1579, the civic leaders of early modern Oxford, the city corporation, decided to purchase a cucking stool.[1] This cucking (AKA ducking) stool was a see-saw type mechanism and the corporation were keen to ensure it had wheels so that it could be transported between the different parishes. It was agreed that this stool would be used to punish the indecent behaviour of women who abused any person in the city with words.[2] This record highlights that in Oxford as in other places, women could potentially be punished for the words they used in public. Subsequently, at the 1615 Quarter Sessions, Kath Forrest and Elizabeth Slye were found guilty of ‘common strife and scolding’, and the magistrates ordered that they should be ‘well ducked’.[3] In the early seventeenth century to be a scold was to be someone who chided and brawled in public and had undertones of violence and uncontrolled rage.[4] This meant that the individual (especially if their offence was associated with common strife) was liable for prosecution and punishment as a nuisance for commonly disturbing neighbours by contentious behaviour.[5] According to the Oxford Quarter Session records between 1614-38, all those prosecuted for this offence and ducked were women.

Eighteenth-century illustration of a cucking stool in action.

Further examination of the Quarter Session records highlights that this was not the only offence for which women were prosecuted and for which they received gender-specific or gender-biased punishments. Other such offences included witchcraft, and another punishment used solely on women was carting, which was used for the offence of fornication and involved being carried through city in a cart or riding backwards on a horse with a placard describing the offence.[6] In the light of this, it is tempting to conclude that late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth century Oxford saw a concerted campaign to enforce what was believed to be the correct gender order.

Nonetheless, the use of gender-specific or gender-biased punishments was not especially common. Diggin