This is a mini-blog post that resulted from a question from Paul, a Blue Badge guide from Canterbury who asked whether their ducking stool was ever used for really swimming witches. The question was whether the stools would ever have been really used to duck witches…
The answer is yes… but not when they were being charged with witchcraft…
I came across a bit of stuff about Ducking/Cucking stools when I was researching my book on the accusers in witchcraft (out next year #shamelessselfpromotion…)
The long and short of it is that because of the who witches were in the community (i.e. very often inappropriate and antisocial women, many of whom were widowed) you might find women who were later tried for witchcraft being cucked (being fastened in the seat and dunked in the water) but the crime they were being punished for wasn’t witchcraft, it was probably any one of a number of social misdemeanors: widows who brewed ale adulterating their product, being rowdy, inappropriate, gossiping, cuckolding your husband (strangely ‘cuck’ doesn’t seem to have been sort for cuckold, or if it was, the usage had changed by the time cucking stools were common to be euphemistic for the act of punishing the person by the use of the stool).
A Piece of Legal Folklore?
Some historians now belive that the cucking stools were rarely, if ever used. Just as some now believe that scolds’ bridles were a matter of judicial folklore and not used. Personally I’m not convinced, as we have plenty of evidence that cucking stools were built and maintained at great expense, and while there are some who would argue that (somehow) this solid, traceable financial data proves cucking stools DIDN’T exist, it’s a far shorter stretch to belive that it’s evidence for their use and existance, although it’s possible their use wasn’t as common as we might think.
Cucking should also be distinguished from the practise of ‘swimming’ witches, where the women would also be put to the water. Swimming witches was only ever semi-legal (there’s a Norfolk case where the judge threatens to throw the whole thing out because members of the local community have ‘swum’ suspects), like the other anti-witchcraft folk traditions like scratching, where a witch would be scratched on the face hard enough to draw blood, allegedly cancelling any curses that she had cast upon the scratcher.
In the case of the swimming of witches, it’s a far more brutal process than cucking. A scold or adulterer of ale who is cucked still represents an asset to the community, whereas the witch is negative space: her usefulness is over and she now represents a malignant force to be excised. In contrast, the cucked woman (men are rarely, if ever cucked, and the ones who are introduced to the stool seem to be strapped into it and paraded around the community rather than actually dunked into the water) is a figure to be embarrassed slightly discomforted, and thus brought back into line so that she can continue her profitable role in the community.
So while the cucked woman is safely strapped into a chair and dunked in the water, the witch is just roped around the chest under the armpits (some weren’t even secured that much, they were chased downriver by their accusers and dragged out with sticks) and thrown bodily into the mail flow of the water. Whereas the cucked woman will be made uncomfortable and humiliated, the witch will almost certainly suffer real physical hurt and risk drowning.