“As you enter the small chamber, the chirurgeon approaches in his blood-stained apron. ‘Ahh, hello. Here for a bloodletting, are you? Yes, I can tell. You are looking particularly sanguine.'”
Last week, I blasted a word everyone knows: dungeon. This week, here’s a word nobody knows. Or at least, nobody is sure how to pronounce even if they do know it. There is a lot of debate about whether the ‘ch’ is hard or soft and how to say the word and I’ve seen everything from “KY-rer-jin” to “SIR urchin” (I kid you not). Thing is, this is the root for the modern word surgeon. But, back in the Middle Ages, most surgery was not performed by physicians. It was performed by barbers.
The earliest European surgical barbers were employed by monastaries. For reasons of hygiene and spirituality, monks were required to maintain tonsures – the little bald patch on top of their heads that you probably know from that one Daffy Duck cartoon. They were also required to undergo regular bloodletting. So, the monasteries employed barbers who would do the hair cutting and bloodletting as well as tooth extraction and other “medical procedures.” Noble families would also employ family barbers to perform the same functions. Barbers would also care for soldiers after battle and army units would sometimes bring trained barbers along with them.
As barbery became more and more widespread, the barbers came into conflict with the physicians of their times. In France, factional infighting among doctors at various institutions lead to some physicians referring patients to barbers rather than surgeons in secret, back-door deals. In Italy and England, the connection between barbers and surgery was gradually eroded by professional and guild politics that also planted the seeds for the split between medical doctors and surgical doctors that would eventually lead to the TV show, Scrubs, which I am sure is one of the prime reasons for the passage of the Statute Concerning Physicians and Pharmacists in Florence in 1349.
In England, when the surgical and barbery professions were merged, the barbers were required to identify themselves using blue barber poles while surgeons had to use red ones. Which leads to an interesting fun fact. The barber pole has been a traditional identifier of barber-surgeons for a long time, but it is actually an advertisement for bloodletting. The red stripes represent blood-soaked bandages, wrapped around a pole or stick that patients would squeeze to induce blood flow. Brass bowls at the top and the bottom represented the bowl of leeches and the bowl to catch spilled blood. So, when you go to get your haircut, that barber pole is warning you that they are probably going to cut you. Isn’t that humorous?
Something else that is humorous? Blood. Blood was one of the four bodily humors and humoristic theory was central to medicine in the Middle Ages. Next week, there might just be a fun word that leads to a discussion about humoristic theory. The discussion might include the phrase black bile. Which is also humorous.
Meanwhile, one wonders what sort of conflicts would occur between physicians, barber-chirurgeons, and priests with magical healing, doesn’t one? Imagine that scenario, add an unnatural plague, and see what sort of adventures you can creature for your heroes.
If you want to learn more about old-timey chirurgy, check out http://thechirurgeonsapprentice.com/ , a link helpfully supplied by Twitter friend @Gamercow , which has a list of interesting historical anecdotes about the history of surgery.