barber shopThe History Of Barbering

In modern society, a barber is a person who cuts and styles hair. With this in mind, it may come as a surprise that historic barbers were not only individuals who cut hair; they were also the medicine men and priests of their communities. By 500 BC, barbers from the Eastern Hemisphere (Asia, Africa, and Europe) had become some of the most important and highly respected individuals of their communities.

Men of old were very superstitious and they were convinced that the hairs on the head allowed both good and bad spirits to enter the body. If a person was possessed by bad spirits, it was believed that only the barber had the ability to drive them out by cutting the hair. Barbers flourished anywhere there were great superstitions about hair.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do

Barbers became prominent figures in Greece in the fifth century BC. Rivalries existed among the men of Athens over the excellence of their beards. Barbers made an art of trimming beards, and the most prominent members of Greek society frequented their shops. Philosophers, poets, and statesmen traveled regularly to barber shops to discuss daily news, quickly making the shops headquarters for political, social, and sporting news. The art of barbering became such an important aspect of Greek society that a prominent citizen was defeated for office because his opponent's beard was more neatly trimmed.

In the third century BC, Alexander the Great led the Macedonians in a conquest of Asia. Several battles were lost, however, because the Persians forced the Macedonians to the ground by pulling their beards and then stabbing them. To prevent a continuation of this, Alexander ordered all of his soldiers to be clean-shaven. Civilians followed suit, and beards fell out of style.

Barbers were unknown in Rome until 296 BC, when Ticinius Mena traveled from Sicily and introduced the concept of shaving, and it soon became highly fashionable. Romans fell so in love with the art of barbering that frequently they would invest several hours a day in hairdressing, hair cutting, shaving, massaging, and manicuring. Barbers became such important figures that a statue was erected to commemorate the first to come to Rome. Eventually, Hadrian became the emperor. With a face covered with scars, he chose to grow a beard to cover his imperfections. As in contemporary society, the Roman people followed the lead of rulers and significant people and beards became fashionable again. With every change, barbers retained their importance.

Barbers as Bloodletters

During the first ten centuries of the Christian era, very few people were capable of reading or writing. Monks and priests were considered the most knowledgeable people of their time; consequently, they became the physicians of the dark ages. While most of the diseases would be easily cured today, they were often fatal then. "Bloodletting," or draining blood from a person's body, became the popular method for curing illness, and clergymen enlisted barbers to act as assistants. The clergy continued practicing medicine until 1163 when, at the Council of Tours, it was ruled that it was a sacrilege for clergy to draw blood from humans; thus barbers became the only individuals who would perform such an act.

Barber-surgeons began to thrive all across Europe. Both "common" people and royalty traveled to barbers to be shaved and receive a haircut and to have their illnesses treated. The barbers quickly expanded on their reputations as surgeons and began practicing dentistry -- perhaps to increase their income. Dentists of the time became so infuriated that kings and councils were forced to interfere, but the barbers continued practicing dentistry for several more centuries.

By the middle of the thirteenth century, the barbers of Paris, also known as the Brotherhoods of St. Cosmos and St. Domain, founded the first known school for surgical instruction for barbers. Eventually the school expanded and became the model for schools of surgery during the Middle Ages.

As the practice of surgery continued to develop, many barber-surgeons did not improve their techniques. Unskilled and uneducated barber-surgeons dominated their field, and postoperative infection became very common. The mayor and council of London took note in 1416, and an ordinance was passed "forbidding barbers from taking under their care any sick person in danger of death or maiming, unless within three days after being called in, they presented the patient to one of the masters of the Barber-Surgeon's Guild."

By 1450, parliament incorporated the Guild of Surgeons and the Barbers Company. Barbers were limited to shaving, hair cutting, toothdrawing, and bloodletting. Under this incorporation, a board of governors, consisting of two surgeons and two barbers, was created to oversee the awarding of diplomas to surgeons. Although surgeons resented the required barber signatures on their diplomas, barbers continued to be highly favored by the monarchy and had great power in society.

Splitting Hairs

The science of medicine rapidly advanced, and it became more difficult for barbers to acquire the skills being practiced by dentists and surgeons. The surgeons, who had always resented the relationship they shared with barbers, requested parliament to investigate the matter. The incorporation between surgeons and barbers was severed in England in June, 1745 by sanction of the king. Louis XIV took similar action in France and, by the end of the eighteenth century, virtually all European barbers had relinquished their right to perform surgery and dentistry except in communities where doctors and dentists could not be obtained.

Rossini's Barber

Figaro, the barber character in Rossini's opera, is very similar to historical barbers. In his introductory aria (Largo al factotum), Figaro sings, "Fortune assigned me its favorite star by far. I am respectable, highly acceptable, in any circle I feel at home. I am the king of lather and foam." Later in the aria he brags about having access to every house in town ("I, as a barber, have access to all houses, with my guitar as well as comb and scissors.") indicating that he is held in very high regard.

In Act III, Figaro visits Bartolo to give him a shave, but Bartolo tells Figaro he is too busy and asks Figaro to return at a different time. Figaro retorts, "I'm busy. I'm shaving all the officers of the regiment in town, even the colonel; the Countess of Andronica has called me to her house to do her hair; the Viscount of Bombe must have a wig with ringlets ... Look here; am I your barber or one of your servants?


Lebrecht, Norman. The Book of Musical Anecdotes. The Free Press: 1985.

Osborne, Richard. The Master Musicians: Rossini. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.: 1986.

"The Art of Barbering Through the Ages"

"The Bocelli Network: Barber of Seville"

The Barber Pole

The barber pole is a familiar symbol around the world, yet few people know that it symbolizes the medical activities many barbers once practiced. The red and white spiral stripes represent the bandage with which the barber wrapped the patient after bloodletting!


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