No Gossiping, Gluttony, Lying, or Eavesdropping! European Metal Masks Would Shame You into Good Behavior

No Gossiping, Gluttony, Lying, or Eavesdropping! European Metal Masks Would Shame You into Good Behavior

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Shame masks were a type of embarrassing punishment device used in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. As its name suggests, the shame mask was meant to humiliate the person who was forced to wear it. They were usually made of cold, unyielding metal, and the masks were created in various mortifying designs. Some of these masks are now displayed in museums, such as the ones in the Märkisches Museum, in Berlin.

The Spread of the Scold’s Bridle

The concept of the shame mask developed in Britain during the 16th century, when the device was known also as the ‘scold’s bridle’. During this time, the term ‘scold’ was used to describe a woman who was a gossip, a shrew, or bad-tempered. The ‘scold’s bridle’ was essentially a mask or cage made of metal that encased the head of the wearer, and it was attached to a locking iron muzzle. In order to prevent the woman from speaking, the device was also fitted with an iron curb that projected into her mouth and rested on the top of it. In some instances, the curb was studded with spikes, which inflicted pain on the woman if she tried to speak. 

Masks of shame that were used to humiliate women. (

Masks of shame that were used to humiliate women. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The use of this device later spread to other parts of Europe, most notably, perhaps, Germany, where they were known as Schandmaske. In addition, this device also travelled across the Atlantic when the Puritans set up their colonies in the New World. Incidentally, another instrument of punishment for scolds, in both Europe and the New World, was the ducking stool, where the offender (again, usually women) was placed on the seat of a long pole, and then ducked in a pond or river. The punishment was also administered to quarrelsome married couples (in which the pair would be tied back to back on the ducking end of the device), as well as bad tradesmen.

1885 Engraving of a scold's bridle and New England street scene.

1885 Engraving of a scold's bridle and New England street scene. ( Public Domain )

Punishing Behaviors Society Frowned Upon

Returning to the subject of shame masks, regardless of whether they were used in Europe or in the New World, they served as an instrument of punishment. Like the ‘scold’s bridle’, shame masks were used to punish a specific group of offenders. Shame masks were sometimes known as the ‘gossip’s bridle’ or the ‘gossiping girl’s bridle’. From these names, it can be said that shame masks were utilized to punish people, in particular women, who were found guilty of gossiping. Other offences said to have warranted the use of the shame mask include gluttony, eavesdropping, and lying.

A medieval "schandmaske", or mask of shame, in the Fortress Museum, Salzburg, Austria

A medieval "schandmaske", or mask of shame, in the Fortress Museum, Salzburg, Austria ( Public Domain )

Various Designs for Different Social “Crimes”

The majority of known shame masks are made of metal, which would have been tortuous when fitted tightly on the head of an offender. These masks also have different designs, which were meant to inflict further discomfort and / or humiliation, as well as to indicate the type of offence its wearer had committed. Some masks, for example, were shaped like the heads of certain animals. A cow-headed shame mask, for instance, meant that its wearer was lazy, whilst donkey-headed and rabbit-headed ones were used by fools and eavesdroppers respectively.

Other shame masks were designed with exaggerated facial features. Those made with long noses could be an indication that their wearers were guilty of lying, of being nosy, or of being proud and arrogant. Those guilty of gossiping, on the other hand, were forced to wear shame masks that had long tongues attached to them. The ‘creativity’ of the makers of these shame masks may even be said to have extended further. Some masks had a small bell attached on its top. The ringing of the bell was meant to announce the arrival of its wearer, thus drawing the attention of people, and inflicting humiliation on him / her. Other shame masks are said to have made whistling sounds whenever its wearer exhaled, thus amusing onlookers at his / her expense.

A man rings a bell to draw a crowd and humiliate the woman in the mask of shame even more.

A man rings a bell to draw a crowd and humiliate the woman in the mask of shame even more. ( Public Domain )

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