The Rise of the Barber-Surgeon: A Tale of Two Professions' Marriage and Divorce

Note: This article is purposely written with sentences you may have to read a few times. For the theme of math. Honoring the chicken and the egg. And math. Mostly math. Or a literary puzzle! If you don't like math.

Also, there's a game at the end. If you don't like reading articles, even fun ones, skip to play :)

Chicken or Egg?

Ok, ya’ll. There’s a ginormous elephant in the room, and it would be awfully silly of me to ignore it. Here’s a little equation that doesn’t exactly follow PEMDAS but might provide some heartwarming sizzles to those who miss math class. And for those who never unearthed the joy in mathematics, well, just skip over what I’m about to say.

1 barber-surgeon = (1 barber + 1 surgeon) all in 1 human

Or if you don’t like that, try

1 barber-surgeon = 1 human titled barber-surgeon = 1 barber skillset + 1 surgeon skillset

I don’t know about you, but my eyes are beginning to water, for the equation is just too breathtakingly beautiful!

All this to say, in the most impressive of impressivenesses, the “Rise of the Barber-Surgeon”, the History in the Making, the… Did surgeons become barbers or did barbers become surgeons? A little “chicken or the egg” for this evening.

I’m going to give you just one moment to take a guess. Go for it! (No, “I don’t know” is not a valid response.)


Answer: We believe barbers became surgeons.

“HOW????” you exclaim with the heaviest of curiosities.

Oh, I’m most thrilled you’re thrilled. So deeply excited you’re excited. I won’t waste a second!

Within Europe, historians believe Barber-Surgeons were first recognized in 1000 AD. Now listen closely. We’re going to chat about a wee bit before 1000 AD because we have to show how we got there. Yeah? SO - Right now is before 1000 AD. There are only barbers.

Well, here we are before 1000 AD. (Yes, I repeated that. It just sounded more fairytale-ish ;) We’re in Europe. There are many, many monasteries because religion is kind of a big deal at this point in time - not just for the few but for the many. (Thank you for admiring my play on “many” - you’re too kind!)

The monks live in monasteries. Monasteries are FOR the monks. And the monks have this consensus that their heads must be shaved. That, of course, ought to be done carefully. Thus, they have two choices: have a fellow monk do the shaving or recruit a professional barber. Both options were popular, which means enough people used barbers to become a trend. Thus, the “Barber-Surgeon”.

Ok, ok!! Yes, there’s more.

Recap: We’re in Europe before 1000 AD with the monks who live in monasteries, and their heads are shaved by (sometimes) barbers.

Continuing on: When you imagine a barber, what do you think about? I think of scissors. Precision. An unearthly hair resistance to humidity. And guess what surgeons need? High-caliber scissor control and precision.

Well, the monks whom the barbers shaved were surgeons too. They did a lot of bloodletting because that was all the rage back then. But the monks needed some assistance. AND whom do you go to when you requireth assistance with surgery? Your barber!

So we have the monk who studies medicine and the barber who has as much hand control as soccer players do their feet, and Viola! Teamwork!

Eventually, the barbers got really good at what they did. In fact, so amazing that they took the position from the very people who offered it to them. (Yes, I'm referring to the monks.) Oh, but don't blame the barbers so much! After all, a 1163 papal decree forbade monks from shedding blood. The pope didn’t say barbers couldn’t… THAT’s how we got the barber-surgeon. Barber: Hero or Backstabber? As the lollipop commercials claims, the world may never know...

Fun Fact You Can Know: There’s more to this whole plot, like who could practice what because “this procedure was considered dirty” and “this was considered holy” and yada yada yada. Of course, add on different classes, getting work… But we won’t go overboard today. Message us in the comments if you crave Part II of this article.

More to Learn. Still? Still.

Yup. We’re not done. Again. I gave you a brief overview of how Barber-Surgeons came about, but I didn’t talk about how they became official (think Verified on TikTok), when they went back to chicken + egg, etc. Confused? Intrigued? Readeth on!

Becoming a Barber

When did barbers come about? No one knows! Truly, we haven’t the foggiest. YET in the midst of that fog, there is… some light.

5000 BC - The Ancient Egyptian upper-class peeps order their slaves to make their wigs and shave their noble bodies. Eventually, some of these “hairdressers” become barbers.

Other Ancients - Various places have similar stories. In Ancient Greece, for example, barbers become some of the most respected citizens. The Romans hang at the barber shop for hours.

1096 - In France, Barber-Surgeons first officially organize. They also establish the first formal surgery school in Paris.

1308 - The world’s oldest barber organization, London’s “Worshipful Company of Barbers”, is founded.

1300s - Barbers-Surgeons start splitting into barbers or surgeons.

1416 - Barbers are no longer allowed to care for someone deathly ill (except under certain circumstances).

1450 - Parliament joins the Guild of Surgeons with the Barbers Company. Barbers are restricted in what they could do. The board of governors regulates the surgeons and Barber-Surgeons - *tiffing* off the surgeons. The barbers are clearly the favorites. That said, Henry VIII, Charles II, and Queen Anne richly rewarded Barber-Surgeons.

Shakespeare’s Time - Barber-Surgeons are still a thing, but the two expertises are quite separated.

MISC - Major changes come into play in the 1700s. But that’s after Shakespeare’s time. You only get to hear about that by special request.

Game: Visual Detective!

How well will your eyes help you answer the questions?? Go to the very end of this article to see if you were right!

1. Below depicts a lecture at Barber Surgeons' Hall in what century?

2. This is Ambroise Paré, a most famous barber-surgeon. In what century did he work?

3. Let's shake things up for a second. The following depicts the Barber-Surgeons Guild of __________ in the 17th Century. Hint: It's a location.

4. Fill in the artwork's title: "A ______ Treating a Patient's Foot and a _____ Shaving a Man".

5. No more questions! At the end of our Shaving Series, we'll write up a blog with JUST games JUST for you! Stay tuned!!

Written by Mariela Rivero

Edited by Laura Yumi Snell

Game Answers

  1. 16th Century

  2. 16th Century

  3. Amsterdam

  4. Surgeon, Barber

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