Badge of shame

A badge of shame, also a symbol of shame, mark of shame or stigma,[1] is typically a distinctive symbol required to be worn by a specific group or an individual for the purpose of public humiliation, ostracism or persecution.

The term is also used metaphorically, especially in a pejorative sense, to characterize something associated with a person or group as shameful.[2]

In England, under the Poor Act 1697, paupers in receipt of parish relief were required to wear a badge of blue or red cloth on the shoulder of the right sleeve in an open and visible manner, in order to discourage people from collecting relief unless they were desperate, as while many would be willing to collect relief, few would be willing to do so if required to wear the "shameful" mark of the poor in public.[3]

The yellow badge that Jews were required to wear in parts of Europe during the Middle Ages,[4] and later in Nazi Germany and German-occupied Europe, was effectively a badge of shame, as well as identification.[5] Other identifying marks may include making shamed people go barefoot.

The biblical "Mark of Cain" can be interpreted as synonymous with a badge of shame.[6][7][8][9]



Punitive depilation of men, especially burning off pubic hair, was intended as a mark of shame in ancient Mediterranean cultures where male body hair was valued.[10] Women who committed adultery have also been forced to wear specific icons or marks, or had their hair shorn, as a badge of shame.[11] Many women who fraternized with the occupiers in German-occupied Europe had their heads shaved by angry mobs of their peers after liberation by the Allies of World War II.[12]

During World War II, the Nazis also used head shaving as a mark of shame to punish Germans like the youthful non-conformists known as the Edelweiss Pirates.[13]


In Ancient Rome, both men and women originally wore the toga, but over time matrons adopted the stola as the preferred form of dress, while prostitutes retained the toga. Later, under the Lex Julia, women convicted of prostitution were forced to wear a toga muliebris, as the prostitute's badge of shame.[14]

At the beginning of the 13th century, Pope Innocent III prohibited Christians from causing Jews bodily harm, but supported their segregation in society. On at least one occasion he likened this to the fate of Cain described in the Book of Genesis, writing to the Count of Nevers:

The Lord made Cain a wanderer and a fugitive over the earth, but set a mark upon him,... as wanderers must [the Jews] remain upon the earth, until their countenance be filled with shame...


After Innocent III later presided over the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215,[16] the council adopted canon 68, requiring Jews (and Muslims) to dress distinctively to prevent interfaith relations.[17]

This canon was largely ignored by the secular governments of Europe until 1269 when King Louis IX of France, later Saint Louis, was persuaded to decree that French Jews must wear a round yellow badge on their breast and back.[18][19] After the Albigensian Crusade ended in 1229, the subsequent Papal inquisition of Pope Gregory IX imposed the ecclesiastical penance of the Cathar yellow cross as a badge of shame to be worn by the remaining repentant Cathars convicted of heresy.[20]

In colonial New England during the 17th and 18th centuries, courts required people convicted of sexual immorality to wear the letter "A" or letters "AD" for adultery and the letter "I" for incest on their clothing.[21]

Striped prison uniforms were commonly used in the 19th century, as a way to instantly mark an escaping convict. Modern orange prison uniforms serve the same purpose, only with a highly visible bright color to make it difficult to hide. Stripes were adopted as simple one-color uniforms could easily be dyed to another color; dying a striped uniform cannot hide the stripes. They were temporarily abolished in the United States early in the 20th century because their use as a badge of shame was considered undesirable as they were causing constant embarrassment and exasperation to the prisoners.[22] They came back to usage as the public viewpoint changed. In many of today's jails and prisons in the United States the inmates are forced to wear striped prison uniforms. A prominent example is Maricopa County Jail under the administration of Joe Arpaio, where black and white stripes are used. Another predominantly used color scheme consists of orange and white stripes. A person wearing this kind of clothing is distinctly marked and can unmistakably be identified as a prison inmate from a far distance, which allows citizens to instantly identify escapees and notify the authorities.


Societies have marked people directly in the practice generally known as being "branded a criminal". Criminals and slaves have been marked with tattoos.[23] Sexual immorality in colonial New England was also punished by human branding with a hot iron, by having the marks burned into the skin of the face or forehead for all to see.[21]

The practice of human branding with visible marks on the face had been firmly established by King Edward VI of England under the 1547 Statute of Vagabonds, which specified the burning of the letter "S" on the cheek or forehead of an escaped slave, and the letter "F" for "fraymaker" on the cheek of a church brawler.[24]

James Nayler, an English Quaker convicted of blasphemy in 1656, was famously branded with a "B" on his forehead.[24] The practice of human branding was abolished in England by 1829.[24] It continued in the United States until at least 1864, during the American Civil War, when the faces of some deserters from the Union Army were branded with the letter "D" as a mark of shame that was intended to discourage others from deserting.[25] Runaway slaves could be branded with an "R" for "runaway", which had the effect of ensuring he or she was watched closely and often prejudiced against by any subsequent owners and overseers.


In old-fashioned French schoolrooms, misbehaving students were sent to sit in a corner of the room wearing a sign that said "Âne", meaning donkey, and were forced to wear a jester's cap with donkey's ears, sometimes conical in shape, known as a "bonnet d'âne", meaning "donkey's cap". In traditional British and American schoolrooms, the tall conical "dunce cap", often marked with the letter "D", was used as the badge of shame for disfavored students.[26][27] The dunce cap is no longer used in modern education. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, individuals accused of being counter-revolutionaries were publicly humiliated by being forced to wear dunce caps with their "crimes" written on them.[28]


In former times prisoners were routinely divested of large parts of their clothing and hereby left with usually covered body parts exposed. This was primarily done to visually earmark the captive individuals so onlookers could distinguish their status upon first sight. It also had a symbolistic connotation in those divesting prisoners of their clothes meant divesting them of their rights and social status.
Notably taking away the footwear of an unfree person and thereby forcing him or her to remain in bare feet has been used for visibly marking captives, prisoners and slaves in almost every culture. This customary practice is still commonplace in prisons of many countries.

As shoes in their various appearances have been worn throughout all social classes since earliest human history, forcibly presenting a person to the public in bare feet is a common method to showcase a person's loss of status or absence of rights. As bare feet are a highly noticeable visual attribute in almost every social situation, this particular form of appearance often incidentally raises suspicion or disdain among bystanders.

It also serves to dishearten prisoners and frustrate attempts of escape. The ability to walk or run quickly is hereby often drastically reduced. As the feet are the only body part with near permanent contact to the environment, their lack of protection can have a victimizing effect and make the person feel physically defeated, helpless or vulnerable which adds to the shaming effect.

Wearing shoes is a low-level and natural manifestation of civil rights and liberties, which cannot be revoked from free citizens of any culture under normal circumstances. Even when suffering neediness in ancient history, simple forms of footwear were handmade from available materials, while today simple shoes are sufficiently inexpensive to be purchased in practically every part of the world.
Forcing a subdued person to go barefoot is therefore used to showcase his or her deprivation of the most basic rights and natural liberties. It hereby displays the subjugation of the person under individuals with sufficient authority to impose and enforce certain living conditions. By abiding it also establishes that the person does not have the self-determination, means or power to resist.
Forcing individuals to remain barefoot against their will is, therefore, a common method to display and exercise authority and showcase the flagrant disproportion of power usually found in situations of imprisonment. Exploiting the effects it is often used to intimidate captives or prisoners and cut their self-confidence.


Presenting a prisoner to the public in restraints (such as handcuffs, shackles, chains or similar devices) has always served as a method of shaming the person as well. In addition to their practical use of preventing movement and escape, they are usually uncomfortable to wear and often lock the body in unnatural positions. Especially restraining the hands of a captive behind his or her back is perceived as particularly shameful, as it renders the person practically defenceless and showcases his or her physical defeat to onlookers. The effect is often multiplied by combining means of marking people such as the use of prison uniforms or similar clothing like penitential garbs and the exposure of bare feet.

Other meanings

Nazi concentration camp badges of shame were triangular and color-coded to classify prisoners by reason for detention,[29] and Jews wore two triangles in the shape of the six-pointed Star of David. These symbols, intended by the Nazis to be marks of shame, had opposite meanings after World War II: the triangle symbols were used on memorials to those killed in the concentration camps,[29] the pink triangle that homosexual prisoners were required to wear became a symbol of gay pride,[30] and the Zionists' Star of David, also co-opted for the Nazi version of the yellow badge, was subsequently featured prominently on the flag of Israel.[31][32][33][34]

Conversely, symbols intended to have positive connotations can have unintended consequences. After World War I, the U.S. War Department awarded gold chevrons to soldiers serving in the combat zones in Europe. The silver chevrons awarded for honorable domestic service in support of the war effort were instead considered a badge of shame by many recipients.[35][36]

In April 1945 the government of Czechoslovakia ordered the expropriation, denaturalisation and ensuing deportation of all Czechoslovaks of Magyar or German native language. In May 1945 Czechoslovaks of German native language had to wear white or yellow armbands with a capital N, for Němec (German), printed on. The armbands were to be worn on the outside clothes until finally, the government had deported all its citizens of German native language, by 1947.[37]

More recently, in 2007, the Bangkok, Thailand police switched to punitive pink armbands adorned with the cute Hello Kitty cartoon character when the tartan armbands that had been intended to be worn as a badge of shame for minor infractions were instead treated as collectibles by offending officers forced to wear them, creating a perverse incentive.[38] The revised scheme, however, was also soon abandoned.[39]

Fictional works

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic 1850 romance novel The Scarlet Letter, set in 17th century Puritan Boston, the lead character Hester Prynne is led from the town prison with the scarlet letter "A" on her breast. The scarlet letter "A" represents the act of adultery that she had committed and it is to be a symbol of her sin for all to see. Originally intended as a badge of shame, it would later take on different meanings as her fictional life progressed in the story.[40]

The 1916 silent film The Yellow Passport, starring Clara Kimball Young, was also known as The Badge of Shame when it was reissued in 1917.[41][42]

In the 2006 film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) is seen using as a fireplace poker, a branding iron with the letter "P" that he used to impart the "pirate's brand" seen on the right forearm of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).[43] According to the backstory, Sparrow was branded a pirate by Beckett for refusing to transport slaves for the East India Trading Company.[44]

In the film Inglourious Basterds the protagonists carve swastikas into the foreheads of surviving German soldiers, to make their malfeasance known to all in the future.

See also


  1. stigma. The American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Company. (accessed: January 13, 2008).
  2. Hinshaw, S. (2006). Mark of Shame: Stigma of Mental Illness and an Agenda for Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Incorporated. ISBN 978-0-19-530844-0.
  3. "Dependency, Shame and Belonging: Badging the Deserving Poor, c. 1550–1750*" (PDF).
  4. "Jewish History 1250–1259 : 1257 Badge Of Shame (Italy)". The History of the Jewish People. Jewish Agency. Archived from the original on 3 November 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-06. ...the badge of shame was imposed locally and infrequently in Italy until the Bull of Pope Alexander IV enforced it on all papal states.
  5. D'Ancona, Jacob (2003). The City Of Light. New York: Citadel. pp. 23–24. ISBN 0-8065-2463-4. But the wearing of a badge or outward sign — whose effect, intended or otherwise, successful or not, was to shame and to make vulnerable as well as to distinguish the wearer...
  6. Feinsilber, Mike; Webber, Elizabeth (1999). Merriam-Webster's dictionary of allusions. Springfield, Mass: Merriam-Webster. p. 95. ISBN 0-87779-628-9. As the term [mark of Cain] is used today, the idea of a protective mark has been lost; only the negative sense of a mark of shame or criminality remains.
  7. R. Swinburne Clymer. Rosicrucian Fraternity in America. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. p. 207. ISBN 0-7661-3019-3. Did we not say that when Mr. Lewis wrote his first history of A.M.O.R.C. that he also wrote his confession, placing on it the badge of shame—the mark of Cain—that revealed its real purpose and spurious nature?
  8. Clayton Kendall (2007). What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?: And Rebuttal To: Eve, Did She or Didn't She?. New York: Vantage Press. p. 122. ISBN 0-533-15291-7. In light of this horror, some of the more ardent rulers and princes of this 'Christian' church-related this [yellow] badge of shame to the mark of Cain as Christ killers...
  9. Maclean, Marie (1994). "9. 'Better to reign in Hell...'". The name of the mother: writing illegitimacy. New York: Routledge. p. 164. doi:10.2307/3734056. ISBN 0-415-10686-9. The work of Jean Genet, poet, playwright and novelist (1910–86) and Violette Leduc, innovator in prose narrative (1907–72) reverts to the ancient traditions of bastardy as excess, a badge of shame and evil, a latter-day mark of Cain, which at the same time distinguishes the bastard from the herd and confers a sort of perverse and even grandiose power.
  10. Trexler, Richard C. (1995). Sex and conquest: gendered violence, political order, and the European conquest of the Americas. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-8482-0. Other sexual punishments left a temporary mark of shame on the body. Perhaps the most important of these was depilation, especially the burning off of anal and pubic hair.
  11. Winterman, Denise (2007-02-20). "Mark of a woman". BBC News Magazine. Archived from the original on 7 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-06. Historically a shaven head has also always had meaning – and in a woman's case, mostly negative. It has been used as a badge of shame, often linked to sexual promiscuity.
  12. Eva Simonsen; Kjersti Ericsson (2005). Children of World War II: The Hidden Enemy Legacy. Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers. p. 157. ISBN 1-84520-207-4. After the Occupation, Dutch women and girls who had consorted with the Germans were accused of treason. It was known before the war was over that they would be punished by having their heads shaved.
  13. "BBC - h2g2 - Youth Resistance in Wartime Germany". BBC. Retrieved 2008-01-12.
  14. McGinn, Thomas A. (1998). Prostitution, sexuality, and the law in ancient Rome. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. p. 340. ISBN 0-19-508785-2. ...through conviction under the law was cast as a prostitute, most visibly through imposition of the label of the toga, the prostitute's badge of shame.
  15. Flannery, Edward H. (2004). The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Antisemitism (Stimulus Books). New York, NY: Paulist Press. p. 103. ISBN 0-8091-4324-0.
  16. Adams, Maurianne (2000). Readings for diversity and social justice. New York: Routledge. p. 147. ISBN 0-415-92633-5. Pope Innocent III, the most power of the medieval popes, presided over the fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and had the bishops decree that non-Christians must wear distinctive garments.
  17. Halsall, Paul (February 1996). "Lateran IV: Canon 68 - on Jews". Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University. Retrieved 2008-01-12. ...we decree that such Jews ... shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress...
  18. Gilmore, George C.; Jackson, Samuel Macauley; Sherman, Charles Neil. "Israel, History of". Volume VI: Innocents-Liudger. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia Of Religious Thought. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. p. 59. ISBN 1-4286-3180-1. In 1269 Louis IX. required all Jews to wear a badge of yellow on breast and back...
  19. Jacques Le Goff (2006). The Birth of Europe (Making of Europe). Wiley-Blackwell. p. 85. ISBN 1-4051-5682-1. Most secular governments chose to ignore that decision, although in 1269, at the end of his life, Saint Louis was obliged, apparently against his will, to observe it.
  20. Duffy, Eamon (2006). "What About the Inquisition?". Faith Of Our Fathers: Reflections On Catholic Traditions (Continuum Icons). Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 159. ISBN 0-8264-7665-1. Suspects found guilty of heresy had ecclesiastical penances imposed on them, which might include the wearing of a badge of shame.
  21. Howard, George P. A History of Matrimonial Institutions: Chiefly in England and the United States, With an Introductory Analysis of the Literature and the Theories of. Fred B Rothman & Co. pp. 169–178. ISBN 0-8377-2180-6.
  22. Pratt, John Clark (2002). Punishment and civilization: penal tolerance and intolerance in modern society. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage. p. 76. ISBN 0-7619-4753-1. The distinctive prison stripes were abolished in 1904. ...stripes had come to be looked upon as a badge of shame and were a constant humiliation and irritant to many prisoners' (Report of the New York (State) Prison Department, 1904: 22)
  23. Sayer, Melissa (2007-06-17). "Tattoos : AKA: Getting inked". The Surgery. BBC. Archived from the original on 21 January 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-13. For thousands of years, people have been getting tattoos.... Others were branded a criminal or slave with tattoos.
  24. Andrews, William L. (2006). Bygone Punishments. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. p. 138. ISBN 1-4254-9141-3. In the reign of Edward VI. was passed the famous Statute of Vagabonds, authorising the branding with hot iron
  25. Abdullah, Syed, MD (March 2001). "William Chester Minor, M.D.: The Brilliance of a Tortured Mind" (PDF). The Synapse. West Hudson Psychiatric Society branch of the American Psychiatric Association. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2004-12-25. Retrieved 2008-01-13. The branding was sometimes done over the cheek so that the would-be deserter carried a visible mark of shame on his face forever.
  26. Bulliet, Richard W. (2005). Hunters, herders, and hamburgers: the past and future of human-animal relationships. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 169. ISBN 0-231-13076-7. In old-fashioned schoolrooms in France, teachers made misbehaving students sit in the corner wearing a sign saying Âne, or ass, and a cap with donkey's ears ... Their naughty British and American counterparts wore a tall conical dunce cap, a term probably borrowed from French "cap d'âne." which means "ass's head.
  27. Walker, Barbara G. (1988). The woman's dictionary of symbols and sacred objects. San Francisco: Harper & Row. p. 83. ISBN 0-06-250923-3. ...the "dunce cap" placed as a badge of shame on the heads of children who had failed to learn their lessons.
  28. Lawson, Alastair. "Rare Chinese Cultural Revolution photos on display," BBC News, Saturday, October 13, 2012. Retrieved April 23, 2018
  29. Hayes, Peter (1991). Lessons and legacies. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 0-8101-1666-9. The 1947 plaque, which simply names the victims and the event, depicts a row of triangle badges, which had been used in the concentration camps to designate categories of prisoners according to the reason for their imprisonment. This badge of shame, which was unmistakably linked to the Nazi camps, was now used as a badge of honor.
  30. Seifert, D. (2003). "Between Silence and License: The Representation of the National Socialist Persecution of Homosexuality in Anglo-American Fiction and Film". History & Memory. 15 (2): 94–129. doi:10.1353/ham.2003.0012. Retrieved 2007-11-11. ...the pink triangle, which had been the designation for concentration camp inmates incarcerated under Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code, became one of the most widespread symbols of the new gay liberation movement.
  31. "Star of David". The University of Rochester. 2005-04-27. Archived from the original on 22 December 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-10. The Star of David was used by the Nazis as a "badge of shame" every Jew had to wear prior to deportation and mass murder. Expressing the feelings of hope and re-assurance, the State of Israel in 1948 placed the sign on its flag.
  32. Bulka, Reuven P. (2002). Modern folk Judaism: the reality and the challenge. New York: Ktav Publishing House. p. 47. ISBN 0-88125-783-4. The Star of David, imprinted on the flag of Israel,... The Nazis made it a badge of shame, and we reestablished it as a badge of honor.
  33. Trepp, Leo (2001). A history of the Jewish experience: Book 1, Torah and history: Book 2, Torah, mitzvot, and Jewish thought. New York: Behrman House. p. 508. ISBN 0-87441-672-8. Intended to be the Jews' badge of shame, the Jews transformed it into a badge of honor and affirmation. It has acquired a new significance and flows proudly as the flag of Israel.
  34. Ma, Sheng-mei (2000). The deathly embrace: orientalism and Asian American identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. xvi. ISBN 0-8166-3711-3. In a different context, the Star of David, once used by the Nazis to signal vermin to be exterminated, adorns the national flag of Israel.
  35. Keene, Jennifer D. (2001). Doughboys, the Great War, and the remaking of America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 59. ISBN 0-8018-7446-7. After the war, the War Department awarded silver chevrons for each six months of army service in the United States. The silver chevron intended to recognize honorable stateside service, became instead a badge of shame to those who wore it.
  36. Keene, Jennifer D. (2006). World War I (The Greenwood Press Daily Life Through History Series). Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. p. 131. ISBN 0-313-33181-2. Soldiers who never made it overseas were eventually given silver chevrons, which many saw as a badge of shame. In a poem published by The Stars and Stripes, one soldier imagined the ideal homecoming for a soldier with a silver chevron: 'But, my darling, don't you bleat. No one thinks you had cold feet; You had to do as you were told; Silver stripes instead of gold.'
  37. Beneš, Zdeněk; Kural, Václav. Facing History: The Evolution of Czech-German Relations in the Czech Provinces, 1848-1948. Gallery for the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic. p. 218. ISBN 9788086010649.
  38. Myndans, Seth (2007-08-25). "Cute Kitty Is Pink Badge of Shame in Bangkok". The New York Times. Archived from the original on May 12, 2011. Retrieved 2007-11-06. It is the pink armband of shame for wayward police officers, as cute as it can be, with a Hello Kitty face and a pair of linked hearts.
  39. "Thai police too macho for Hello Kitty armbands – World Blog". Archived from the original on 2012-05-08. Retrieved 2013-12-06.
  40. Bercovitch, Sacvan (Spring 1988). "The A-Politics of Ambiguity in The Scarlet Letter". New Literary History. 19 (3): 629–654. doi:10.2307/469093. JSTOR 469093.
  41. "The Yellow Passport (1916)". The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2007-11-06.
  42. "Clara Kimball Young – Silent Film Star". Archived from the original on 13 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-06.
  43. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006): Partial film transcription". Archived from the original on 11 January 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-13.
  44. "Black Pearl 101". Walt Disney Pictures. Archived from the original on 2007-05-27. Retrieved 2007-05-31.

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