Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Barber's Pole

In medieval Europe, surgery was more of a craft than a science. In 1163, when the clergy (who were the "surgeons" of the time) were forbidden to participate in any activities involving bloodshed, their duties were passed to the barber, with his array of sharp tools.

The barbers became known as the "barber surgeons," and would regularly perform bloodletting, dental extractions, minor surgeries, amputations...and haircuts.

Image credit: T. Tauri
The barber's pole was often placed outside shops to signal that the barber there performed bloodletting services.

The red and white stripes represent bloody bandages wrapped around a staff – a staff that a patient would grip during a bloodletting procedure.  The top silver cap represents the basin that held leeches; the bottom silver cap represents the basin that would receive the blood of the patient.

It was only in the 18th century that the surgeons formally split from the barber and formed the "Company of Surgeons."