Schandmaskes: masks of shame

In Europe the Mask of Shame, known in Germany as the Schandmaske, was a punishment used to moderate social misbehaviour. Being padlocked into a mask that by design revealed the shortcomings of the miscreant forced to wear it, would have been a strong disincentive to any behaviour that might incur the disapprobation of neighbours and community.

Grotesquely elongated tongues indicated tell-tales or gossips. Exaggerated ears and spectacles warned of nosy persons who heard and saw everything. The masks are often demonic in appearance, which might indicate an ill-disposed nature. Others take the form of animals, such as dogs and pigs.

The idea was fairly straight forward; to expose and to punish by ridicule. If the number and diversity of surviving Schandmaskes is anything to go by, then from the middle ages to the eighteenth century the punishment was relatively commonplace in mainland Europe. As well as being used against gossips, it was a punishment for women accused of hen-pecking their husbands. (In Britain there was the similar tradition of the ‘scold’s bridle, examples of which show that the wearer’s tongue was ‘stilled’ by an internal plate that forcibly held it down.)

Though the barbarity of the Schandmaske tradition repels modern sensibilities, the smithing-skills of the makers can’t be denied. While it’s not possible to separate form from what we know to have been the function of these masks, in design terms alone they are incredibly imaginative and visually arresting.

23 thoughts on “Schandmaskes: masks of shame

  1. Pingback: the Beasts of Glimmerglass | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

      • yes, but in a good way. I’m less creeped out than intrigued. Although the “scolds bit “was upsetting primarily I believe ( aside from the brutality and inherent misogyny) was that they lacked aesthetic value. The masks you posted are beautiful, disturbing ,perverse,etc., but still visually engaging, and some possess a humor, albeit a mean spirited humor.
        So again, thanks.

  2. A fascinating post, thank you, I’ve never before come across these objects. I guess at least some of these horrors can be reclaimed for different purposes now, as sculptures in their own right, for performance and to inspire all kinds of creative acrivity and we can remember the unfortunate ones who were forced to wear them. Some would like great in the garden with plants growing through the holes

      • As gay men, I bet you and I would have been made to wear them, Phil. Not a nice thought.

        It seems to me that the imposing of these masks as punishments, ostensibly to shame members of the community who stepped out of line, would have been an open invitation to all sorts of abuse. No doubt the masks were inflicted as a means to avenge real and imagined slights. I can see the potential for harming ‘outsiders’, those who were feared because they were different. It doesn’t bear thinking about too much.

        Man has an endless capacity for cruelty, and that masks could be turned into instruments of torture, is a fearsome example of malign ingenuity.

        • Yes, this post has given me much food for thought, Clive; even though we don’t use anything as barbaric as the shame masks in society now, the stigma attached to a number of minorities is alive and well and I guess more than a few people are walking around feeling like they are wearing one anyway – these images are so powerful and upsetting , even with the masks isolated, against a plain background

  3. Yes, compelling. It illuminates so much. What a strong, disturbing symbol.

    And one feels so for the unfortunate ones who had some neurological or mental defect and were “problems” and no doubt subjected to these things.

    It looks as though some of these instruments could cause accident and death, and lead to dangerous forms of hazing, human nature being what it is. And can you imagine vomiting in a scold’s bridle–you might choke to death. Surely they wouldn’t fit well and would frequently tear a tongue.

    I had to look a bit more… Interesting that people can’t even comment on these things without become angry at one another.

    • One can only imagine the abuses of authority and power that such masks must have licensed. And clearly they would have been dangerous to wear, in ways I don’t even like to think about.

  4. If the mask covers the majority of the face you might not recognise the wearer, so that might have been a mixed blessing??

    I had seen scolds bridles in a chamber of horrors before,
    but these masks seem so much more ‘schadenfreude’ in their execution.

    • Peter, it’s true that some of the masks cover the face completely, though within communities and neighbourhoods, I’m pretty sure the identities of the wearers wouldn’t be protected by that. Everyone would know who was being humiliated, and why.

      The ‘scold’s bridle’ is effectively an instrument of torture, with the tongue-depressor designed for maximum discomfort. The Schandmaskes by contrast, though less intrusive than the bridles, would certainly have amounted to a merciless punishment in terms of stripping wearers of any sense of dignity or ease within their communities.

      • Yes, completely brutal, oppressive and very very horrible. It creeps me out no end looking at them, especially the realism modelled into the 3rd from last mask with its cold impassive gaze.

  5. These are amazing. The streets must have looked odd, peopled by strange iron faced demons and pig people. Has anyone ever extrapolated this idea into a horror film, I’m sure they have!

    • Some of the masks are a good deal stranger than these, but for clarity I limited myself to posting images with plain backgrounds. However I’ll keep looking, and update as necessary.

      A horror film, yes! I recall Barbara Steele in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday came to grief in an iron torture mask. You can see a picture of it HERE.

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