Early barbers were more than just cutters of hair and shavers of beards; they were our first HMOs. It was not long into the first millennium (The Art and Science of Barbering sets it at A.D. 110) that barbers expanded their practice into surgery. The doctors of the Dark Ages were the monks and priests; they were the most learned people so the job fell to them and they used barbers as their assistants. Today it may seem barbaric to have a barber perform surgery but at the time it must have seemed like a good idea. In fact it was allowed to continue for almost 1,700 years. It’s not a bad idea if you think about it: barbers had the tools (sharp pointy instruments), they knew human anatomy (they still have to study it in barber college today) and people didn’t know all that much about surgery anyway.
Barbers in A.D. 110 were not removing gall bladders and performing nose jobs. They were pulling teeth, letting blood and burning skin. And cutting hair. Long before Dr. Joseph Lister discovered the importance of sanitary surgery, barbers were concerned with having a clean shop. (Mayberry’s Floyd wasn’t the first prissy barber.) It was important to their customers; it was important to them. France even sanctioned a barber’s school of surgery in 1096. Soon after that barber-surgeons flourished in France and Germany. Andrews notes, “It is clear that in all parts of the civilized world, in bygone times, the barber acted as a kind of surgeon, or, to state his position more precisely, he practiced phlebotomy, the dressing of wounds, etc.” From the twelfth century on barbers pretty much had the field to themselves. Up until then the clergy had cared for a person’s soul and body, going so far as to practice medicine and surgery. Barbers frequently assisted monks in surgical procedures. But in 1163 Pope Alexander III in the Edict of Tours forbade clergy from surgery because it involved shedding blood, which the Pope felt was incompatible with the functions of the clergy. The clergy, however, were allowed to continue dispensing medicine. A parallel class of doctor-surgeons began to arise at about this time. Freed to cut and bleed, barbers were soon acting as obnoxiously as personal injury lawyers in TV ads, going so far as to display containers of blood in their windows to advertise their bloodletting skills. It got so wide open that in 1307 London passed an ordinance requiring barbers to dispose of all that let-blood by having it ”privately carried into the Thames under the pain of paying two shillings to the use of the Sheriffs.”
Despite these nominal restrictions, barbers were riding high. The next year, 1308, Richard le Barber was named the first master of the Barber’s Company and sworn in at the Guildhall in London. In 1462, at the instigation of Edward IV, barbers were incorporated and given a Royal Charter. In 1540, the group was renamed the Company of Barber-Surgeons. Barbers and surgeons were united in one guild. Neither was exactly ecstatic about this, particularly the surgeons. They thought barbers were quacks – pretty strong stuff from guys for whom bloodletting was the height of civilized medical care. So during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) Parliament passed a new law: “No person using any shaving or barbery in London shall occupy any surgery, letting of blood, or other matter, except of drawing teeth.” Barbers could still be dentists but no longer could they be one-stop shopping for the shaggy, sick and afflicted.
Barbers continued their quackery in what TV weathermen now call outlying areas but the end was in sight. Even with their diminished duties, barbers were still men of social import. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603), according to Andrews, “The rich families from the country thought it no disgrace… take rooms above some barber’s shop.” Can you imagine her namesake, the current Queen Elizabeth, taking a holiday and putting up for the night above a barbershop?
Andrews says barbershops of the sixteenth century had their music. “A gittern, or guitar, lay on the counter and this was played by a customer to pass away the time until his turn came to have his hair trimmed, his beard starched, his mustachios curled and his love-locks tied up.”
Even then barbers were trying to sell their customers up, not letting them settle for a simple trim but encouraging a stylish (and more expensive) ‘do. The English writer Robert Greene’s allegory ‘A Quip for an Upstart Courtier’, published in 1592, gives us a glimpse into a barber’s chair-side sales technique. A nobleman sits in the chair and the barber begins: “Sir, will you have your worship’s hair cut after the Italian manner, short and round and then frounst with the curling irons to make it look like a half-moon in a mist; or like a Spaniard, long at the ears and curled like the two ends of an old cast periwig; or will you be Frenchified with a love-lock down to your shoulders, whereon you may wear your mistress’s favour? The English cut is base and gentlemen scorn it; novelty is dainty. Speak the word, sir, my scissors are ready to execute your worship’s will.”
A customer at that time would spend a couple of hours having his hair combed and dressed and frounst. Then the barber would address the noble’s beard. Would his lordship “have his peak cut short and sharp and amiable like an inamorata, or a broad pendent like a spade, to be amorous as lover or terrible as a warrior and soldier; whether he will have his crates cut low like a juniper bush, or his subercles taken away with a razor; if it be his pleasure to have his appendices primed, or his moustachios fostered to turn about his ears like vine tendrils, fierce and curling, or cut down to the lip with the Italian lash – and with every question a snip of the scissors and a bow?”
As you can see barbers then, as now, were nothing if not talky. Comenii Orbis Sensualium Pictus, known in the English-speaking world as The Visible World, was the first illustrated schoolbook and reveals that in 1658 the barber was still a surgeon in many parts of the globe. Accompanying an illustration of a barber drawing blood is this caption: ”The Barber in the Barbers shop, cutteth off the hair and the Beard with a pair of Sizurs or shaveth with a Razor which he taketh out of his Case. And he washeth one over a Bason, with Suds running out of a Laver and also with Sope and wipeth him with a Towel, combeth him with a Comb and curleth him with a Crisping Iron. Sometimes he cutteth a Vein with a Pen-knife, where the blood spirteth out.”