Monday, November 24, 2014
Rough justice, or, Odd things in churches (8)
It’s time for another of my odd things in churches, and this one is particularly odd.
The ducking or cucking stool was an instrument of punishment, used in the Middle Ages and later, generally for to those who spread malicious rumours or tradespeople who gave short weight. The term ‘cucking stool’, literally ‘defecating stool’, refers to a chair, sometimes in the form of a commode, fitted with wheels and trundled around the town with the guilty person on board. The aim was to humiliate the malefactor, humiliation being a key part of punishment in the medieval and early modern periods (as with the use of stocks and pillories). A ducking stool took the punishment a step further by incorporating an arrangement of beams so that the person could be dunked in a river or lake.
The town where I live has a street called Duck Street because it was the site of the local ducking stool, which has long vanished. One place where a ducking stool can still be seen is Leominster Priory, where it is kept parked against a wall, looking as if it could easily be trundled out of the church to duck any criminal deemed to need the soggy treatment. According to the information displayed with the Leominster stool, it was last used in 1809, ‘when a woman, Jenny Pipes, alias Jane Curran, was ducked in one of the adjacent streams’.
The ducking stool was often used to punish women. Langland, in Piers Plowman, refers to it as a punishment for wyuen (women), and it is commonly written about as a way of dealing with ‘gossips’ and ‘common scolds’ and dousing the fire in their mouths. In the words of an old poem quoted on a poster next to the Leominster stool:
No brawling wives no furious wenches,
No fire so hot but water quenches.
A sexist punishment, then, in part at least. But I wouldn’t want to have been a butcher who gave gave short weight on the sides of meat.