21 January 2009

Professions: The Barber-Surgeon

By Lisa Yarde

For centuries, if a man wanted his hair trimmed or his beard shaved, he went to the barber, as we do today. But if he needed a minor operation performed, such as bloodletting or cupping, a boil lanced, leeches applied, or just to have a pesky tooth pulled, he went off to the barber too. In 1215 when Pope Innocent III declared that it was a mortal sin for monks to shed blood, in their traditional practice as healers, he paved the way for the development of barber-surgeons.

To enter the trade of a barber-surgeon, like most skilled labor, required an apprenticeship. The apprentice gained his training usually in seven years. Typically, a young man's parents paid his master to take him on and learn all the basics. Here's an example of a medieval contract between a barber and his apprentice:

April the thirteenth, in the year of the Lord 1248.

I, William, barber of Sestri, in good faith and without equivocation, place my self in your service and engage myself to work for you, Armand the barber, making my home with you, for learning the art or craft of barbering for a period of two years, at the salary or wage of forty solidi in the mixed money now current in Marseilles, promising to be faithful to you in all things, not to rob you, or take anything away from you, and not to leave you for a greater or less wage for any reason whatsoever, and to give you in good faith whatever money I am able to take, to tell you the truth, and to bear faith to you in all that I do.

I also promise to reimburse you for all expenses you incur on my behalf; and I promise to do all these things by agreement, and under pledge of one hundred solidi in royal crowns, the pledge being forfeited when the agreement is broken. For greater security I swear upon the Holy Gospels, touching them with my hand. And I pledge all my goods, etc., and renounce the benefit of all laws, etc.

And, I, the said Armand, admit all the foregoing, and promise by this agreement to give to you, the said William, forty solidi every year as your wage, and to provide for you, in sickness or in health, food and clothing for two complete years.

Pledging all my goods, etc., renouncing the benefit of all laws, etc.
The training of a would-be barber consisted of preparing unguents and salves. Knives and razors were important tools, but barbers also required lancets, bone saws, drills and bowls for bleeding. He learned some basic medical knowledge, in particular the location of major veins and arteries. He knew how to cut open a vein in the arm to release diseased blood or poor humors from the body, and more importantly, how to control and stop bleeding. In addition, his master trained him to extract loose, painful teeth, lance boils, draw diseases associated with excess blood to the surface through cupping, and apply leeches to suck blood from a patient.

The red and white pole seen outside modern barbershops is an emblem of the trade. It traditionally refers to the blood and bandages associated with a barber's work. The original pole had two brass basins, one at the top where leeches were kept, and the other where blood collected. The barber's patient gripped the blood-reddened staff wrapped in a white bandage which twisted around its length.

In many cities across medieval Europe, barbers formed professional guilds, regulating their wages. By 1462, the Worship Company of Barbers incorporated in London under the provisions of a royal charter. Located at Barber-Surgeons' Hall, Monkwell Square on Wood Street, it is one of the oldest surviving trade associations in the world, with records dating back to 1308. In time, the rivalries between barbers and surgeons who underwent formal training meant that by the 1800's, barbers concentrated on cutting hair while their counterparts provided wound care and healing.