The Barber: Surgeon, Haircutter, Bloodletter

The character Sweeney Todd, made the dark side of the barber’s chair famous through his blood lust. Few might know that there is an element of truth to the relationship between barber and blood. Men- read on if you dare.

A common fixture of a traditional barber shop is the barber’s pole: A white vertical cylinder, with a red, and sometimes blue, helix. It has been in existence since the Middle Ages; a beacon to let the public know that the barber surgeon resides within. The top of the barber’s sign is a symbol of the bowl that would hold leeches, and the bottom was the basin that would receive the blood.  Intrigued?

What did the barber surgeon do?  He could cut your hair, perform surgery, extract a tooth or (wait for it) perform bloodletting. In the Council of Tours of 1163, clerics were forbidden to shed blood, this is characterized by the Latin, “Ecclesia abhorret a sanguine”- the church abhors the shedding of blood.  Overnight the profession of surgery was turned over to the laity, or the common people. And the barber flourished.

Bloodletting-usually with medical leeches, is a process of extracting blood from the body, used from the time of pharaohs of Egypt, has only lost favour in our society in the last century.  Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, wrote on it during his life around 380 B.C.E. It was believed that we are a balance of humors- or liquids, when we have too much of one thing, we become sick either mentally or physically.  Medical leeches can drink about 10 times their body weight (or a teaspoon) were employed on a person’s body, to assist a person in regaining their health.

The Company of Barbers was created in 1308 in England.  As late as 1540, under the reign of King Henry VIII, the Barber’s Guild Hall was the place of public dissections. It was mandatory if you were a surgeon to attend these quarterly events.

It wasn’t until 1800 that the Company of Surgeons reached autonomy from the Barbers Guild. Less than a decade later Sweeney Todd was born on the pages for mass consumption in 1846, to remind his audience of the historical relationship between a barber and blood.

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2 Responses to The Barber: Surgeon, Haircutter, Bloodletter

  1. Mike DeWolfe says:

    This is a super cool summary! I used to go to a barbershop named Sweeney Todd’s when I was a kid and I never made the connection to the story until much later. I find this whole history to be really fascinating.

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