On barber-surgeons

Until the 19th century, barbers performed a variety of tasks: basic surgery, wig manufacturing, dental extractions, bone fracture setting, bloodletting, manicure and pedicure, slave marking, tattoos, and, in some societies, they assisted midwives and performed circumcisions. Since the golden age of Egypt (when they had an active part in mummification and embalming processes) and up the Middle Ages, barbers performed some of the modern surgeon’s tasks.

In the beginning, personal barbers were slaves. Later, they became a caste. For some time they were errant practitioners, travelling from place to place and ringing a bell to draw attention; their services were usually solicited as a cheaper alternative to the services offered by the local medicine man.

Unlike the medicine man, the shaman and the magus, a barber surgeon used methods closer to modern medicine, as they examined the body in their attempt to heal, as opposed to relying on magic, reading in stars and religious practices—techniques based on a magic and symbolic interpretation of the signs and symptoms of the body, within an equation involving the relation between the spirit and the body, in order to achieve the healing.

In the 12th century monks who offered medical services no longer had the right to perform bloodletting, which thus became the task of the barber along with surgery, dental extractions and treating war wounds. The study of medicine and anatomy became institutionalized in the secular universities in Europe only in the 12th -13th centuries, marking a difference between the surgeons who studied anatomy and the barber-surgeons; the two guilds co-existed for centuries. In London, 13th century, barber-surgeons who performed bloodletting put bowls of blood on the windowsills of their shops, while those who pulled teeth hanged teeth beads to signal the services they offered. In France and England, barbers lost their legal right to perform surgery only in the 18th century. Dental services began to be regarded as a separate niche only when they disappeared from the wide list of services offered by the barber-surgeons.

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