Q&A: Were ducking stools ever used as punishment for crimes other than witchcraft during the Middle Ages?

The story of the ducking stool 
is complex and confusing, and subject to various local usages from Anglo-Saxon times right up to the early 
19th century... 

This Q&A was first published in the October 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

Illustration by Glen McBeth.

Illustration by Glen McBeth.


The story of the ducking stool 
is complex and confusing, and subject to various local usages from Anglo-Saxon times right up to the early 
19th century. 

The confusion is partly over the use of the ‘cucking stool’, a chair to which people – men and women – were tied and put on public display as a form of humiliation for various offences against the peace of the community (drunkenness, gossip), sexual offences or dishonest trading. Its use was common in the Middle Ages but its victims were not generally immersed into water; it was more like the pillory or the stocks. 

While in some places women (and some men) were ducked on stools in order to establish whether or not they were witches, the more common means of identifying them was to throw them into the water with a rope attached to see whether or not they floated (guilty) or sank (not guilty). 

The ‘ducking’ stool, involving water, may not have appeared until Tudor times, though its use was widespread through England, Scotland and colonial America by the 17th century and it didn’t fall out of use completely until the early 19th.

By then it was long recognised 
as a punishment almost exclusively 
for women for a range of minor offences, most of which might be characterised as not behaving as a dutiful maid or wife were expected to. Often the sentence was for being a ‘common scold’. 

One memorable fable surrounds the final use of Bristol’s ducking stool in the early 1700s, though we don’t know how true it is. The mayor, Edmund Mountjoy, widely known to be hen-pecked, was out for a walk one evening when he came across a woman berating her own husband, so he ordered that she be ducked. Mistress Blake – we don’t know her full name – endured her punishment, but on emerging from the water ridiculed Mountjoy in front of the crowd for ducking another man’s wife because he didn’t have the courage to duck his own. 

She then sued him for assault, and won. Mountjoy’s fellow city fathers enjoyed a season of fun at his expense by inviting him to dinners at which the menu always included … ‘cold duck’. 

Because of this (the story goes), Bristol’s ducking stool fell into disuse, and was later bought by an enterprising huckster who turned it into dozens of snuff boxes, claiming that they would protect buyers from nagging and hen-pecking wives. 

Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist.

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