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Barber surgeon

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Franz Anton Maulbertsch's The Quack (c. 1785) shows barber surgeons at work.
Franz Anton Maulbertsch's The Quack (c. 1785) shows barber surgeons at work.
Bloodletting set of a barber surgeon, beginning of 19th century, Märkisches Museum Berlin
Bloodletting set of a barber surgeon, beginning of 19th century, Märkisches Museum Berlin

The barber surgeon, one of the most common European medical practitioners of the Middle Ages, was generally charged with caring for soldiers during and after battle. In this era, surgery was seldom conducted by physicians, but instead by barbers, who, in having razors indispensable to their trade, were called upon for numerous tasks ranging from cutting hair to amputating limbs.

In this period, surgical mortality was very high, due to blood loss and infection. Yet since doctors thought that blood letting treated illness, barbers also applied leeches. Meanwhile, physicians considered themselves to be above surgery.[1] Physicians mostly observed surgical patients and offered consulting, but otherwise often chose academia, working in universities, or chose residence in castles where they treated the wealthy.

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  • ✪ The Bloody History of the Barber Pole
  • ✪ Worst jobs in Middle Ages 02 The Barber Surgeon
  • ✪ The Barber Surgeons


Red and white striped, sometimes with a bit of blue, a barber pole twisting next to a small storefront signifies a place where men can get a haircut, a shave and a bit of masculine bonhomie. But this was not always the case. Back in the day, the red and white we associate with good grooming used to represent blood, bandages, leeches and pain. Barbers through History As long as people have been making razors, there have been barbers. In Egypt and other ancient cultures (as early as 3500 BC), barbers were often priests whose main job was to keep evil spirits from possessing people; they did this by trimming, styling and shaving off the hair through which demons liked to enter the body. This role morphed into something that much more closely resembles a modern day barber by the time of the Greeks in the 5th century BC. Setting up in an agora, the Greek barber styled hair, trimmed beards and encouraged gossip. In Rome, barbers were known as tonsores, and many well-groomed Romans made a stop at their shops part of their daily routine. Even in the somewhat misnamed “dark ages”, barbers were in demand. Many monks, like the Benedictines, embraced the tonsure, a hairstyle where the crown of the head is shaved with only a narrow ring of hair remaining. Barbers were employed to manage this grooming, and in addition, because of papal prohibitions, barbers were also responsible for conducting surgeries. Historically, the Roman Catholic Church believed that surgery violated the Holy Spirit’s temple (the human body). In line with this, several meetings of the church, including the Councils of Tours of 1163 and 1179 and the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, decreed that priests and monks, who had a long history of medical and surgical scholarship, were forbidden from performing surgeries. Although priests continued to conduct research and serve as physicians for the wealthy, they relied on the barbers for surgical procedures and bloodlettings. In addition to the wealthy, barbers also helped regular people. Lancing boils, setting breaks and amputating gangrenous limbs were common procedures; so, too, was trepanning, a process by which a hole was drilled into a person’s head to let out the evil forces that caused mental illness and epilepsy. Bladder obstructions were treated with catheters (sometimes inserted through an incision because the syphilis-wracked patient’s urethra was completely blocked), and kidney stones were removed with minor surgeries. But perhaps the procedure most commonly associated with barbers in the middle ages was bloodletting. Using a narrow blade, the barber would open a vein and allow the blood to pour down into a small brass bowl; by way of advertising, many barbers would display these bowls of blood in their shop windows so people would know they performed the service. During the procedure, the patient would grip a white rod to encourage blood flow, and white strips of bandage would be used to clean the patient. Dirty bandages were washed and hung to dry on the grasping rod outside of the shop. For those wounds too tender or hard to reach, rather than lancing and bloodletting, the barber would apply special leeches, known as Hirudo medicinals, which emitted a natural anesthetic and anti-coagulant while it sucked blood. These healthy, hungry leeches were typically kept on hand in a separate brass bowl. The Pole The famous pole is a study in semiotics. The white on the pole represents the bloodletting rod that was grasped by the patient during the procedure. The red stripes symbolize the bloodied bandages, often hung out to dry on the pole after they’d been cleaned as well as possible. As for the rest, things get a little murkier. It’s is thought that the brass ball at the top may represent the bowl of leeches, while the brass at the bottom evokes the bowl that catches the blood. For those poles that have a blue stripe added, many believe this represents veins. Of course, sometime in the middle ages, the profession of surgeon emerged, and afterward, surgeons and barbers competed for customers. To end the conflict, Parliament passed and King Henry VIII approved legislation that united both into the Barber-Surgeons’ Company in 1540. Subsequent legislation was passed that further required barbers and surgeons to specialize and distinguish between the two groups by either having a red and white pole (surgeons) or one that was blue and white (barbers). So from this, perhaps the blue simply originally represented traditional grooming services. Whatever the case, despite the distinction, in the United States particularly, barbers still tend to use white and red in their poles (usually spinning) as well as blue. Rather than have its origins wholly in the original meaning of the color scheme, this is thought to have more to do with the fact that the U.S. flag is, of course, colored red, white, and blue.


Middle Ages in Europe

Due to religious and sanitary monastic regulations, monks had to maintain their tonsure (the traditional baldness on the top of the head of Catholic monks). This created a market for barbers, because each monastery had to train or hire a barber. They would perform bloodletting and other minor surgeries like pulling teeth or creating ointments. The first barber surgeons to be recognized as such worked in monasteries around 1000 A.D.[1]

Because physicians performed surgery so rarely, the Middle Ages saw a proliferation of barbers, among other medical "paraprofessionals", including cataract couchers, herniotomists, lithotomists, midwives, and pig gelders. In 1254, Bruno di Longoburgo, a physician who wrote on surgery, was concerned about barbers performing phlebotomies and scarifications.[1]

Barbers in Paris and Italy

In Paris, disputes between doctors led to the widespread patronage of barbers. The College of St. Cosme had two levels of student doctors: doctors who were given a long academic robe were permitted to perform surgeries and doctors who were given a short robe and had to pass a special examination before being given that license. The short-robed doctors were bitter because the long-robed physicians behaved pretentiously.

The short-robed doctors of St. Cosme entered into an agreement with the barber surgeons of Paris that they would offer the barber surgeons secret lessons on human anatomy as long as they swore to be dependents and supporters of the short-robed physicians. This secret deal existed from around the time of the founding of St. Cosme in 1210 until 1499, when the group of surgeon barbers asked for their own cadaver to perform their anatomical demonstrations. In 1660, the barber surgeons eventually recognized the physicians' dominance.[1]

In Italy, barbers were not as common. The Salerno medical school trained physicians to be competent surgeons, as did the schools in Bologna and Padua. In Florence, physicians and surgeons were separated, but the Florentine Statute concerning the Art of Physicians and Pharmacists in 1349 gave barbers an inferior legal status compared to surgeons.[1]

Barbers in the British Isles in the Early Modern Period

Master John Banister's Anatomical Tables, with Figures. The paintings comprise a portrait of Banister delivering a visceral lecture at the Barber-Surgeons' Hall, Monkwell Street, London. c. 1580
Master John Banister's Anatomical Tables, with Figures. The paintings comprise a portrait of Banister delivering a visceral lecture at the Barber-Surgeons' Hall, Monkwell Street, London. c. 1580

Formal recognition of their skills (in England at least) goes back to 1540,[2] when the Fellowship of Surgeons (who existed as a distinct profession but were not "Doctors/Physicians" for reasons including that, as a trade, they were trained by apprenticeship rather than academically) merged with the Company of Barbers, a London livery company, to form the Company of Barber-Surgeons. However, the trade was gradually put under pressure by the medical profession and in 1745, the surgeons split from the Barbers' Company (which still exists) to form the Company of Surgeons. In 1800 a Royal Charter was granted to this company and the Royal College of Surgeons in London came into being (later it was renamed to cover all of England — equivalent colleges exist for Scotland and Ireland as well as many of the old UK colonies, e.g., Canada).[3]

Few traces of barbers' links with the surgical side of the medical profession remain. One is the traditional red and white barber's pole, or a modified instrument from a blacksmith, which is said to represent the blood and bandages associated with their older role. Another link is the British use of the title "Mr" rather than "Dr" by surgeons (when they become qualified as surgeons by, e.g., the award of an MRCS or FRCS diploma). This dates back to the days when surgeons did not have a university education (let alone a doctorate); this link with the past is retained despite the fact that all surgeons now have to gain a basic medical degree and doctorate (as well as undergoing several more years training in surgery). They no longer perform haircuts, a task the barbers have retained.


The barber surgeon - Watercolour,Ink
The barber surgeon - Watercolour,Ink

A barber surgeon was a person who could perform minor surgical procedures such as bloodletting, cupping therapy or pulling teeth. Barbers could also bathe, cut hair, shave or trim facial hair, and give enemas. The surgeon came with the army at war but could be used by individuals in peacetime.[4]

The surname 'Bader' comes from German and Jewish (Ashkenazic) origins and refers to the occupation of barber surgeon, barber, or one who tends a bath house.[5][6] The German verb 'baden' means to bathe, but when capitalized the surname 'Baden' is a geographical surname referring to the region of Baden-Württemberg in Germany.[7][8]

See also

Further reading

  • Gross, Dominik, 'Arnold Schlegel (1850–1924) and the Agony of the Barber-Surgeons as a Profession', Gesnerus – Swiss Journal of the History of Medicine and Sciences 53/1-2, 1996, pp. 67–86
  • Gross, Dominik, 'Marriage Strategies, Social prestige and Property of Barber-Surgeons in 19th-century Württemberg: An Evaluation of Marriage- and Probate Inventories', Historical Social Research 23/4, 1998, pp. 94–108
  • Dobson, Jesse; Milnes Walker, R. Barbers and Barber-Surgeons of London: A History of the Barbers' and Barber-Surgeons' Companies Oxford, 1980.


  1. ^ a b c d e McGrew, Roderick (1985). Encyclopedia of Medical History. New York: McGraw Hill. pp. 30–31. ISBN 0070450870.
  2. ^ 32 Henry VIII c. 42
  3. ^ Sven Med Tidskr. (2007). "From barber to surgeon- the process of professionalization". Svensk medicinhistorisk tidskrift. 11 (1): 69–87. PMID 18548946.
  4. ^ " -En webbplats om Uppland - Begrepp yrken & titlar". 10 February 2011. Archived from the original on 26 September 2013. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  5. ^ "The Origins and Meaning of Ashkenazic Last Names". Retrieved 2015-06-11.
  6. ^ "Bader Name Meaning & Bader Family History at".
  7. ^ "Surname Database: Baden Last Name Origin". The Internet Surname Database.
  8. ^ " - baden - Wörterbuch Englisch-Deutsch".

External links

Media related to Barber surgeon at Wikimedia Commons

This page was last edited on 8 April 2019, at 09:20
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