The barber surgeon was one of the most common medical practitioners of medieval Europe – generally charged with looking after soldiers during or after a battle. In this era, surgery was not generally conducted by physicians, but by barbers (who of course had a sharp-bladed razor as an indispensable tool of their profession). In the Middle Ages in Europe barbers would be expected to do anything from cutting hair to amputating limbs. Mortality of surgery at the time was quite high due to loss of blood and infection. Doctors of the Middle Ages thought that taking blood would help cure the patient of sickness so the barber would apply leeches to the patient. Physicians tended to be academics, working in universities, and mostly dealt with patients as an observer or a consultant. They considered surgery to be beneath them.
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), and be bled regularly. This created a market for barbers, because each monastery had to either train or hire a barber. These barbers 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.
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.
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 that were given a long academic robe who 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 acted pretentious. 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 own anatomical demonstration. In 1660, the barber-surgeons eventually recognized the physicians' dominance.
In Italy, Barbers were not as common. The Salerno medical school trained physicians to also 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.
Barbers in the British Isles in the Middle Ages
Formal recognition of their skills (in England at least) goes back to 1540, when the Fellowship of Surgeons (who existed as a distinct profession, but were still 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).
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 still 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 TV series Children of the Stones featured an enigmatic character described as a Barber-Surgeon (portrayed by Freddie Jones), who had been mysteriously crushed by a fallen stone in the fictional Milbury stone circle.
In the animated series The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, a recurring character named Dr. Barber is shown to offer both
In the musical Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote and his assistant Sancho Panza encounter a Barber-Surgeon, who boasts of his abilities to not only give a good shave, but bandage up any mishaps his straight razor might inflict.
The Turkish/Kurdish film Yol (1982) depicts a contemporary rural barber performing an emergency dental operation.
The TV series Saturday Night Live, episode 18 of season 3 featured a skit titled Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber with comedian/actor Steve Martin as the title character, Theodoric. Theodoric performs a number of bloodlettings and other procedures that produce less than ideal results leading him to question his practice: "Wait a minute. Perhaps she's right. Perhaps I've been wrong to blindly follow the medical traditions and superstitions of past centuries. Maybe we barbers should test these assumptions analytically, through experimentation and a 'scientific method'. Maybe this scientific method could be extended to other fields of learning: the natural sciences, art, architecture, navigation. Perhaps I could lead the way to a new age, an age of rebirth, a Renaissance! [ thinks for a minute ] Naaaaaahhh!"
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 also be used by individuals in peacetime.
The surnames 'Bader' and 'Bäder' come from Germanic origin, and refer to the occupation of barber surgeon, barber, or one who tends a bath house.
- 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
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- McGrew, Roderick (1985). Encyclopedia of Medical History. New York: McGraw Hill. pp. 30–31. ISBN 0070450870.
- 32 Henry VIII c. 42
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