Perhaps the best description of medieval barbers comes from an inscription on a 16th-century woodcut by German artist Jost Amman, presented in the first person from a man practicing the trade: “I am called everywhere, I can make many healing salves, I can cure new wounds, also fractures and chronic afflictions, Syphilis, Cataract, Gangrene, pull teeth, shave, wash and cut hair, I also like to bleed.”
It’s like the weirdest Tinder profile ever, right?
Barbers in the Middle Ages were excellent multi-taskers. It’s true: a lot of surgery in the Middle Ages was done by so-called barber-surgeons, a medieval precursor to the old dude with the combs in the blue water down the street. But they did a whole lot more than just cut people open. The list below features some of the surprising – and often disgusting – things that medieval barbers did besides just cut hair.
Pouring Boiling Oil Into Gunshot Wounds
Before famous French barber-surgeon Ambroise Paré realized how insane it was, medieval barbers used to pour boiling oil into gunshot wounds in order to cauterize them. At the Battle of Turin in 1536, Paré ran out of oil and was forced to improvise: he instead threw together a salve made with some egg yolks (sure), oil of roses (sounds lovely), and turpentine (paint thinner!). After a sleepless night on the battlefield, Paré awoke to discover that his salve, bizarre as it was, worked a whole lotbetter than the boiling oil:
I visited my patients, and beyond expectation, I found such as I had dressed with [the salve] only … to have had a good rest, and that their wounds were not inflamed, or tumified; but on the contrary the others that were burnt with the scalding oil were feverish, tormented with much pain, and the parts about their wounds were swollen. When I had many times tried this in diverse others … I thought that neither I nor any other should ever cauterize any wounded with gunshot.
Paré went on to advocate that medical practitioners should treat wounds gently, an innovation that, of course, survives to this day (sans turpentine).
Bloodletting to Cure Everything
Bloodletting – and the related practice of leeching – are what most people associate with medieval medical practices, so this one seems obvious. But did you know that medieval people thought bloodletting would fix everything? There’s a reason barbers practiced bloodletting more than anything else: there’s nothing it couldn’t make right, as one medieval medical textbook boasted:
[Bloodletting] … clears the mind, strengthens the memory, cleanses the guts, dries up the brain, warms the marrow, sharpens the hearing, curbs tears, promotes digestion, produces a musical voice [!], dispels sleeplessness, drives away anxiety, feeds the blood, rids it of poisonous matter and gives long life … It cures pains, fevers and various sicknesses, and makes the urine clear and clean.
In reality, bloodletting doesn’t do any of these things and can even prove fatal (just ask George Washington). That didn’t stop some physicians from recommending it for the treatment of pneumoniaas late as 1942.
Advertising with a Bowl of Blood
Medieval barbers looking to advertise their sweet bloodletting skills channeled their inner Don Drapers and decided to place bowls of human blood in their shop windows. The blood congealed and got all putrid, because that’s what blood does, so the disgusted people of London pushed for a law banning the nasty displays. In 1307, the law passed, with the following (sarcastic?) wording: “No barbers shall be so bold or so hardy as to put blood in their windows.”
The barbers were a bit miffed because they were also using the displays as a handy way of “recycling” unwanted blood. What were they supposed to do with it now? Lawmakers advised them to throw it into the river Thames instead, because this was 1307. What’s the worst thing that could happen?
How did barbers advertise after The Great Blood Bowl Ban of 1307? Some historians think this is when the practice of wrapping a bloody cloth around a pole outside the shop started, a grisly precursor to the wholesome image of a modern-day barber pole.
Shampooing with Stale Pee
It’s a fact that human urine has its uses as a cleansing agent, even if that fact makes most humans queasy these days. The Romans knew it; in fact, they even recycled their urine to help get their togas cleaner (the ammonia does wonders). Barbers in the Middle Ages knew it, too, and even used stale pee – known as lotium – as a shampoo for their clients. (No word on whether or not you could bring you own, locally-sourced pee from home.)
Shaving with Beer Foam
A document from 1499 detailing the affairs of “The Gild of Barbers” of Oxford mentions “ale-baisters,” an obscure term that initially stumped the editors of the tome Records of Mediæval Oxford (1912). Research revealed that the lowest class of medieval barbers couldn’t afford a plentiful supply of shaving soap, so they sometimes turned to “froth of ale” for “basting” their patients’ faces instead. That’s right: beer foam as shaving foam. Why hasn’t Axe or Old Spice picked up on this idea? Beer foam in an aerosol can – it’s genius.
Removing Kidney Stones in Public
This brings new meaning to the term “operating theater.” Instead of university-educated physicians, lowly barbers in the Middle Ages were tasked with removing kidney stones, and they often did it with an audience watching. Traveling from town to town with a special “lithotomy” table in tow, talented barbers would perform the simple procedure in just a few minutes, in public, in order to help advertise their services. Some “barbers” were just showmen, looking to make a quick buck. These so-called “stonecutters” were heavily fined if their “procedure” didn’t go according to plan.
Making Wax Organs and Limbs
A lot of medieval barbers doubled as – get your Friends jokes ready – chandlers, which is just another name for candle-maker (according to Bing). This seems odd until you learn that chandlers and barbers both used a ton of wax: barbers used it as a “base” in ointments, and chandlers obviously had a great need for it in their candle-making. Sometimes barbers practiced a strange procedure where they would “treat” a patient by using the wax to make a model of their diseased organs. They would then “present” the wax organ at a shrine in an effort to call upon the divine to ease their patient’s suffering. Alternatively, they would make a limb-shaped candle and burn it at a shrine for patients with arm or leg issues (such as gangrene).
Cleaning Teeth with Nitric Acid
Barbers doubled as dentists in the Middle Ages, and some of their techniques were both shockingly modern and primitive. To start, the barber would scrape your teeth using toothpicks and scraps of cloth. So far, so good. But to whiten the teeth, the barber would use something called aqua fortis (“strong water”). That’s damn good branding, right? It sounds healthy, but aqua fortis is actually highly corrosive nitric acid. It did the job – one historian says teeth were known to be “considerably whiter” after – but only because it ate away at the enamel, essentially destroying the tooth from the outside in.
Knocking Patients Out with a Poisoned Sponge
Barbers performing minor surgeries in the Middle Ages sometimes offered anesthetic in the form of something called a “soporific sponge.” It’s sort of like a primitive form of chloroform, made by soaking a sea sponge in a mix containing ingredients such as opium, hemlock, mandrake, ivy, hyoscyamine, and mulberry juice, among others. The sponge is supposed to totally dry out “in the sun during the dog-days until all the liquid is consumed.” When the barber needed to knock someone out, they “reconstituted” the sponge by dipping it in water and then placed it under the patient’s nose. (Some historians argue that the sponge’s contents were meant to be imbibed. That’s a stiff drink.)
Dissecting Bodies Under Orders
Barbers for a long stretch in the Middle Ages didn’t receive the same level of respect as university-educated physician-monks, so they often had to do the nasty grunt work. Blood-letting, kidney stone removal, tooth-pulling – the physicians and surgeons of the time didn’t want to do that kind of work (or with some procedures, like blood-letting, the Pope simply told them they couldn’t).
Dissection is another example: barbers were asked to do the actual work of dissection while a physician or anatomist told them what to do, step-by-step. Physician Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) helped change that when he argued, during his second-ever anatomical lecture, that the anatomist would be better served doing the work themselves. Vesalius simply took the knife away from the barber and never looked back. (The man was not messing around: he even stole the cadavers of executed criminals to practice on.)