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Ship's Surgeons as Barbers Page Menu:    1      2      3      4      5      6      7       Next>>

The Ship's Surgeon as BARBER-Surgeon, Page 1

Captain Teach, Commonly Called Blackbeard
Artist: Joseph Nicholls
Blackbeard - Not a Subject for the Barber
From The General History of the Pirates,
op.202 (1736)

"...so our Heroe, Captain Teach, assumed the Cognomen of Black-beard, from that large Quantity of Hair, which, like a frightful Meteor, covered his whole Face, and frightened America more than any Comet that has appeared there a long Time.

This Beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length; as to Breadth, it came up to his Eyes..." (Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates, 3rd Ed., p. 87-8)

Edward Teach's nickname sprouted from his facial hair, which 'he suffered [allowed] to grow of an extravagant length.' It may seem odd to begin an article on barbers with one of the hairiest pirates from the golden age of piracy, but I wanted to make a point. He went out of his way to grow a large beard,1 suggesting that this was not only notable, but unusual.

In fact, the fashion at this time was generally for men to be clean-shaven. This most likely includes sailors as we shall see. One of the services typically provided by the ship's surgeon, his assistants or surgeon's mates was that of barbering. A 17th c. Barber Shaving
A Barber Shaving from Encyclopedie
des Sciences et Metiers Vol. 7,
p. 115, by Denis Diderot (1769)

This was due in part to their ownership of and familiarity with expensive tools such as razors, scissors and other sharp objects and in part to tradition.

All English sea-surgeons during the golden age of piracy would have been members of the Company of Barber-Surgeons of London as established in a Charter granted by Henry VIII. The history of surgery is closely tied to that of barbering and members of the two guilds which existed before they were combined in 1540 engaged in many similar tasks including bloodletting, tooth-drawing and bone-setting.

With this in mind, let's look at the barbering role of the barber-surgeon at sea. We'll begin with the look at the history of the barbers and surgeon's guilds, how they were combined and what their impact was upon the sea-surgeon. Next we'll look at the prevalence of shaving and barbering amongst sailors along with the sea-surgeon's role as barber to the men. As noted, the barbers had their own specific sets of tools, so we'll take a detailed look at them. Finally we'll discuss the proper way to shave with straight-razors from this period.

1 Thanks to pirate historian Ed Fox for pointing this out on the Authentic Pirate Living History Facebook page on July 18, 2013;

The Barber-Surgeon's Guild

By the Constantine the African Examining Urine
The Religious Performed Medicine Before It
Became a Lay Profession. Here Constantine
The African Examines Patient's Urine to
Diagnose Health Problems

golden age of piracy, barbers and surgeons had been linked for centuries, thanks in large part to their relationship within the guild system. To truly understand why the ship's surgeons were tasked with barbering, it is helpful to look into the history of the Company of Barber-Surgeons which was active throughout the entirety of the golden age.

Before there were surgeons in Europe, people relied on the religious orders for medical treatment. This role began to shift from the clergy to the lay people In the middle ages. The 16th Canon of the First Lateren Council published in 1123 directs monks to "completely abstain from public visitations of the sick". The Fourth Lateren Council further codified this prohibition in 1215, stating that "a subdeacon, deacon or priest [may not] practise the art of surgery, which involves cauterizing and making incisions"2. It is widely thought that the priests taught the people who came in to shave and cut their hair. This was done because their barbers were,

"accustomed to the use of the razor [so] they were called upon to carry out any surgical treatment which involved cutting the skin, at first probably doing this under the supervision of the priests. From the monasteries the knowledge of surgery gradually spread to barbers outside and particularly in time of war there was a demand for barbers with experience in the treatment of wounds to accompany the armies. Their services were also required at Tournaments where severe wounds were often inflicted so that they were called upon to serve the Norman barons who were establishing their castles throughout the country. By the early thirteenth century at least surgeons were appointed to the King's household."3

A Barber-Surgeon's guild was formed at some point prior to 1300. This guild took apprentices and taught them their trade through lectures, dissections, and demonstrations, examining and licensing people to practise in the city where the guild existed.4

In 1421 Parliament decreed surgeons had to be licenced as Masters of the Art through college training.5 A 14th Century Barber Shop
Artist: Jost Amman
A 16th Century Barber Shop (1586)

This led to the creation of two organizations in London - The Company of Barbers (which went from being a guild to a company, adopting the name Barber-Surgeon's Company in 14626) and the Fellowship (or Guild) of Surgeons.7

Each organization claimed the right to perform surgery and did so. The ordinances of the Barber-Surgeon's Company from 1410 proclaimed that the barbers could "'without the scrutiny of any person or persons of any other craft or trade, under any other name whatsoever other than the trade or craft of the said Barbers, either as to shaving, making incision, blood letting, or any other matters pertaining to the act of Barbery or of Surgery'"8. The Fellowship of Surgeons, on the other hand, was "a small and more select body, whose members practised surgery only."9

This naturally led to a rivalry between the two organizations over who had the right to perform surgery. Bernard Wolf Weinberger explains that during the Tudor period, "there was a wide gulf and continual feuds between the practitioners of medicine and surgery, each section of the profession being jealous and suspicious of the other; each watching narrowly for any infringement of its particular privileges, and each bitter against the quacks and pretenders in its own particular sphere."10

1 First Latern Council (1215), EWTN Global Catholic Network, gathered 11/12/13;2 Fourth Latern Council (1215), EWTN Global Catholic Network, gathered 11/3/13; 3 Jessie Dobson & Robert Milnes Walker, Barbers and Barber-Surgeons of London, p. 7; 4 Elizabeth Bennion, Antique Medical Instruments, p. 4; 5 Dobson & Walker, ibid.; 6 Bennion, p. 4-5; 7 Dobson & Walker, p. 9; 8 Dobson & Walker, p. 14; 9 Dobson & Walker, p. 24; 10 Weinberger, Bernhard Wolf, An Introduction to the History of Dentistry, Volume 1, p. 235

The Barber-Surgeon's Company

Despite their rivalry, the Barber-Surgeon's Company and the Fellowship of Guild of Surgeons agreed in 1493 to "close cooperation between the two bodies so far as the licensing of surgeons was concerned."1 This was done to try and make sure that people practicing surgery were properly trained for the role. It paved the way for the union of the two guilds in 1540.2

Henry VIII and the Barber-Surgeons
Artist: Hans Holbien the Younger
Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons in 1540
The union benefitted both organizations; the number of members of the Company far exceeded that of the Guild while the prestige of the Guild surpassed that of the Company. A charter was granted to the newly combined organization by King Henry VIII, christening it as the Company of Barber-Surgeons.

The charter explained that it was "very expedient and needful to provide for men expert in the science of physic and surgery, for the health of man's body, when infirmities and sickness shall happen, for the due exercise and maintenance whereof good and necessary acts be already made and provided."3 The scope of the act encompassed London and one mile beyond. It also ordered that no "surgeon was to practise barbery and no barber could practise surgery except the drawing of teeth."4

This alliance still had its problems. The barbers were used to practicing surgery and they continued to do so in London, where the edict held force. Outside of London, the regional guilds didn't follow the rule.5 Physicians and surgeons were a luxury for the common people, Surgeon Barbers
Artist: David Teniers the Younger
Barbers Performing Surgery (17th Century)
who sought cheaper alternatives such as barbers and quacks for problems such as the pox.6

While the barbers wanted to do surgery, the surgeons had little interest in barbering, so it was unlikely that they would be called upon for infringement on the rights of the barbers.

Rory McCredie explains,

By the [English] Civil War, the Surgeons and the Barbers were at best ignoring or at worst fighting one another. The [overall] standard of surgery was better, but the Surgeon looked down upon the Barbers as poor cousins and as a millstone. The Barbers thought themselves betrayed by the Surgeons of the Barbers’ Company and pushed to one side by the Surgeons of the Fellowship. It was not a happy Guild. The Surgeons tried to break away from the Barbers again and again until in 1745 they separated.5

Signs that a rift in the company begin appearing since 1643. A group of surgeons petitioned the king for permission to found a separate company in 1684.6 Yet, even though the two groups in the Company were at odds with one other, they were still a unified group until twenty years after the end of the golden age of piracy.

1,2 Jessie Dobson & Robert Milnes Walker, Barbers and Barber-Surgeons of London, p. 31; 3 Dobson & Walker, p. 33; 4 Dobson & Walker, p. 34; 5 Andrew Wear, Knowledge & Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680, p. 23; 6 Wear, p. 267; 7 Rory W. McCreadie, The Barber Surgeon's Mate of the 16th and 17th Century, p. 23; 8 John J. Keevil, Medicine and the Navy 1200-1900: Volume II – 1640-1714, p. 153-4

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