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blog History for Fantasy Writers: Barber Surgeons

Discussion in 'Research' started by skip.knox, Jan 21, 2018.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Skip Knox submitted a new blog post:

    History for Fantasy Writers: Barber Surgeons
    by E.L. Skip Knox


    One of the more interesting trades in the Middle Ages was that of a barber, sometimes also called a barber-surgeon. You can tell just from the title that we're dealing with more than just trimming hair.

    Barbers did cut hair, of course. The word itself comes from the Latin word for beard (barba), and barbers had not only to know how to cut but also how to cut in the current style. Merely cutting hair (facial or head) was regarded as simple work, appropriate for a journeyman. Surgery belonged to the masters.


    A master barber's most frequent surgical task was to set broken bones. He had in his shop an array of alarming-looking instruments for this. The other frequent surgical task was to treat wounds, usually by cauterizing them. The instruments for doing this looked nearly as grim, as you can see by these illustrations.

    Because of his experience in these areas, the master barber could expect to find himself drafted as a field surgeon in the town's militia. There he extracted arrows, sewed up wounds, and so on. If necessary, he could also perform amputations.

    The position of barber was tainted socially because he worked with blood. Anyone who worked with or around blood (butchers, for example, or executioners) could not be regarded as fully honorable. I shall write about what "honorable" meant in a...
    Continue reading the Original Blog Post.
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  2. Black Dragon

    Black Dragon Staff Administrator

    My father told me that when he was a little boy his grandfather (an immigrant from Italy) dreamed of my dad becoming a barber. In my great grandfather's native city barbers were esteemed, and (from what my father was told) did more than just cutting hair. Apparently being a barber was still a high-status position in early 20th century Italy.
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  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    That's interesting, Black Dragon. Very generally, trades that had to do with blood were not in the upper echelon, but my knowledge of that comes more from Germany. Also, by the 19thc, barbering and surgery had been pretty definitively separated.

    Again to speak in broad generalizations, the status of the trade was influenced by the status of the customer, as well as by the materials. So, for example, a goldsmith would have high status partly because of the material, partly because of the skill involved, but not least because his customers were all wealthy.

    With barbers, they at least did not deal with the poorest of society, who for the most part cut their own hair, so that may have played into the position of esteem held by barbers in Italy. And maybe elsewhere. My knowledge of this stuff tends to trickle away to nothing around 1700.
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  4. Russ

    Russ Istar

    Barbers were also immortalized in the fantastic Barber's Song from the musical version of Man of La Mancha

    Another great article SK. Keep up the amazing work.
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  5. ALB2012

    ALB2012 Maester

    It certainly used to comprise of more than cutting hair. Today that is why surgeons have the title 'Mr' or 'Mrs 'and not 'Doctor'. They are, of course, doctors but this harks back to the days of Barber-Surgeons.

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