In England in medieval
times there were three categories of the medical profession, the physician
, the surgeon
and the barber
. In addition to these, the apothecary
, the herbalist
and the hedge witch
dispensed pharmaceutical remedies
which may or may not have been very helpful!
Physicians were educated men who had undergone some formal training and hence were expensive and beyond the means of the average man-in-the-street. Physicians considered surgery as far too lowly a task to be undertaken and concerned themselves with diagnosing illness by looking at the outside of the body and the urine. Surgeons and barbers concerned themselves with more invasive techniques.
Surgeons were a slightly less revered group than physicians and the lowest level of all was the barber, who not only cut hair but also performed minor surgery such as pulling teeth, setting fractures, lancing boils and blood letting, more often than not using the same equipment for both. The tools of the trade included razors, hand operated drills, bone saws, forceps and extractors for removing teeth. Since bouts of the plague seriously reduced the numbers of practising surgeons, the Guild of Surgeons in England joined forces with the Barbers in order to create a more powerful group, authorised by Henry VIII - The Great Company of Barbers and Surgeons. This group was to remain until 1745 when the Company of Surgeons decided to exclude barber-surgeons to their membership and surgery became a much more respectable and professional practice.
The barber's pole, can still be seen outside traditional barber shops today. It is a long staff with red and white stripes spiralling from top to bottom, and there is a ball on its end. Its origin stems from the days of the barber-surgeon when it was used to advertise the practice of blood letting. The patient would grip the pole to make the vein stand out, then leeches would be applied and the blood would be collected in bandages and then squeezed into a bowl. The bloody bandages were hung to dry on the pole, and would twirl around it in the breeze, hence the red stripes, and the bowl is symbolised by the ball at the end.