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.
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.
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:
Osborne, Richard. The Master Musicians: Rossini. J. M. Dent & Sons
"The Art of Barbering Through the Ages" www.barberpole.com
"The Bocelli Network: Barber of Seville" www.bocelli.net
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!