Thursday, 11 February 2010

Ducking Stools

Ducking-stools and cucking-stools are chairs formerly used for punishment. They were both instruments of social humiliation and censure, primarily for the offense of scolding or back biting, and less often for sexual offences like having an illegitimate child or prostitution. They were technical devices which formed part of the wider method of law enforcement through social humiliation. A common alternative was a court order to recite one’s crimes or sins after Mass or in the market place on market day, or informal action such as a Skimmington ride.
They were usually of local manufacture with no standard design. Most were simply chairs into which the victim could be tied and exposed at her door or the site of her offence. Some were on wheels like a tumbrel that could be dragged around the parish. Some were put on poles so that they could be plunged into water, hence "ducking" stool. The equivalents for men were the stocks, although these were not gender specific.
There does seem to have been a difference in usage between a ducking stool and a cucking stool. Although both were primarily forms of public exposure and humiliation, the cucking stool seems to have involved no water, with the victim raised up in the air on show.

The Ducking Stool at Leominster, last used in 1809
(The contributor of this photograph is John Phillips)
The ducking-stool was a strongly made wooden armchair (the surviving specimens are of oak) in which the victim was seated, an iron band being placed around her so that she should not fall out during her immersion. The earliest record of the use of such is towards the beginning of the 17th century, with the term being first attested in English in 1597. It was used both in Europe and in the English colonies of North America.
Usually the chair was fastened to a long wooden beam fixed as a seesaw on the edge of a pond or river. Sometimes, however, the ducking-stool was not a fixture but was mounted on a pair of wooden wheels so that it could be wheeled through the streets, and at the river-edge was hung by a chain from the end of a beam. In sentencing a woman the magistrates ordered the number of duckings she should have. Yet another type of ducking-stool was called a tumbrel. It was a chair on two wheels with two long shafts fixed to the axles. This was pushed into the pond and then the shafts released, thus tipping the chair up backwards. Sometimes the punishment proved fatal, the unfortunate women dying of shock.
The last recorded cases are those of a Mrs. Ganble at Plymouth (1808); Jenny Pipes, a notorious scold (1809), and Sarah Leeke (1817), both of Leominster. In the last case the water in the pond was so low that the victim was merely wheeled round the town in the chair.
Tumbrels (other definitions)
A tumbrel, or tumbril was a tipcart—usually used for carrying dung, sand, stones and so forth—which transported condemned prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution - called un tombereau in French.
Use in identifying witches
In medieval times, ducking was seen as a foolproof way to establish whether a suspect was a witch. The ducking stools were first used for this purpose but ducking was later inflicted without the chair. In this instance the victim's right thumb was bound to left toe. A rope was attached to her waist and the "witch" was thrown into a river or deep pond. If the "witch" floated it was deemed that she was in league with the devil, rejecting the "baptismal water". If the "witch" drowned she was deemed innocent. This particular method of ducking was also inflicted on men accused of witchcraft.
Ducking stools have appeared occasionally in film and television, such as in Babes in Toyland, and Doctor Who (The Highlanders, Episode 3). A variant appears in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where a suspected witch has her weight compared to that of a duck in a parody of medieval witchcraft tests; the woman is found to indeed weigh the same as a duck, thus proving her to be a witch, to which she responds, "it's a fair cop" (British English working class idiom for a justified arrest or conviction; Americans might say "You got me fair and square").