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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. Digging into the cases often reveals that they formed part of ongoing neighborhood disputes. We see this in the single prosecution for witchcraft which is recorded in the Oxford Quarter Sessions minutes. This was in 1620 and concerned Dorothy Rogers, who had been accused of a felony which is not mentioned and from which she was discharged. During the same Session a subsequent accusation of suspected witchcraft was brought to the court’s attention.[7] This case was dismissed because the magistrates recognised that the accusation was probably due to a conflict between Dorothy Rogers and Joan Egby who may have informed against her.[8]

Rather than taking a punitive approach, the magistrates appear to have been more concerned with resolving these disputes and restoring community harmony through enforcing reconciliation. This is apparent in the case of Johan Norland and his wife, who had uttered abusive speeches against Katherine Clyne. Consequently, the Norlands asked for forgiveness in open court.[9] The session minutes record that both parties agreed to this course of action, and the magistrates exhorted them ‘to live in unity as their neighbours shall approve of their Christian piety and increase of friendshipp’.[10] From this quote it is apparent that the magistrates wanted to reinforce the need for these two parties to mutually agree to keep the peace and act as good neighbours.

Oxford's rebuilt town hall, on the site where Quarter Sessions trials used to take place.

Women were not passive agents in many of these disputes and were able to participate in the legal process in Oxford. Women themselves brought some of the cases that the justices considered, as in the case brought by Jane Hore and Mary Veazie.[11] Due to their complaint to the court in 1619, Frances Shepherd was committed to three days in prison as she was indicted by statute for having two husbands, until the issue could be resolved. Hence, the justices wanted to resolve this petition but realised that the complaint was serious enough to warrant Frances Shepherd to be committed.[12]

Additionally, women also were actively involved in ensuring the reduction of community strife. This is apparent in a petition presented in 1640 to the university’s vice-chancellor by the parishioners of St. Mary Magdalen asking him to address the disorder associated with the alehouse run by Anne Joyne. The petition was signed by various women and is possibly part of an ongoing campaign by the parish women rather than the authorities. Anne Joyne had also been sued in 1638 in the archdeacon’s court for calling Elizabeth Bannister a ‘mouldy jade’. This was an insult used predominately against women and meant worn out and worthless.

In short, while there might have been a focus on gender and, on occasions, a disparity in the treatment received, this needs to be balanced against many cases that involved a threat to civic order, and prosecutions of women were rare. Although historians such as David Underdown have argued that early modern England witnessed a crisis in gender order, this does not seem to have been the experience of Oxford.[13] Instead, magistrates prioritised the need to resolve community disputes and restore community harmony. While it was accepted (as Martin Ingram argues) that England was a patriarchal society and women were often subordinate, the prosecution of scolds and witches did not lead to a campaign to disempower them further.[14] Instead, the justices recognised that a punitive approach was not always effective if they were to ensure public order. Thus, negotiation was needed, and this involved the active participation of women.

Written by Amy Moore


References [1] Oxford History Centre, Council Book A, 1528-92 OCA1/1/A1/1, p. 213. [2] OHC, Council Book A, 1528-92 OCA1/1/A1/1, p. 213. [3] The Oxford Quarter Sessions were held at the guildhall which was part of the town hall. The Quarter sessions were made up of the local Justices of the Peace (often called magistrates) which included both the mayor and aldermen from the city corporation and the various Fellows from the university including the vice-chancellor. This was due to the fact that both their charters gave them the right to sit as a magistrate. The membership also included both the town and university’s legal representatives. [4] Martin Ingram, "Scolding Women Cucked or Washed”: A Crisis in Gender Relations in Early Modern England?’ in Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England ed. Jennifer Kermode and Garthine Walker (University of North Carolina Press, 1994), p.49. [5] Ingram, "Scolding Women Cucked or Washed”, p. 51. [6] London, British Library, Crime and Punishment in Elizabethan England [ accessed 25 May 2022] [7] OHC, Order Book, 1614-38 QS/C/A2/1 (0.5.9), p. 115. [8] OHC, Order Book, 1614-38 QS/C/A2/1 (0.5.9), p.115 and p. 120. [9] Oxford History Centre, Order Book, 1614-38 QS/C/A2/1 1624 (0.5.9), p. 197. [10] OHC, Order Book, 1614-38 QS/C/A2/1 1624 (0.5.9), p. 197. [11] OHC, Order Book, 1614-38 QS/C/A2/1 1624 (0.5.9), p. 197. [12] OHC, Oxford Order Book, 1614-38 QS/C/A2/1 (0.5.9), p. 88. [13] David Underdown,’ ‘The Taming of the Scold; the Enforcement of Patriarchal Authority in Early Modern England’ in Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, ed. Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 120. [14] Ingram, "Scolding Women Cucked or Washed’’, p. 48.

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