By Katherine Pym
Back in the day, monks were barber-surgeons. They took care of all men's needs, from spiritual to physical. They groomed men and performed surgery on them. It was a monopoly.
But in 1163 at the Council of Tours, Pope Alexander III declared clergy getting their hands bloody was contrary to healing souls, and they were therefore banned from the practice. Enter the lay person where the profession of Barbery combined the services of grooming and doctoring.
Barbers let passersby know they'd leech or perform surgery by putting a bowl of blood in their windows, but in 1307 an Ordinance forbade that little advertisement. Accumulated blood must be privately taken to the River Thames and dumped into its waters. If not, barbers were fined 2 shillings by the sheriff. Not to be outdone, barbers continued to advertise with red rags in the window.
The next year in 1308, the barber guild was formed. The first master of Barber's Company was Richard le Barber. In 1462, the guild received a royal charter by King Edward IV.
In 1540, the guild's title was changed to Barber-Surgeon, and disputes erupted. Finally, King Henry VIII enacted: "No person using any shaving or barbery in London shall occupy any surgery, letting of blood, or other matter, except of drawing teeth."
This law was not followed or enforced. Barbers often performed surgical procedures. They would barber in one part of their shop, and on the other do surgery, and surgeons--to make extra coin--practiced barbery.
The barber had long hours. King Henry VI issued an edict : "No barber open his shop to shave any man after 10 o'clock at night from Easter to Michaelmas, or 9 o'clock from Michaelmas to Easter, except it be any stranger or any worthy man of the town that hath need : whoever doeth to the contrary to pay one thousand tiles to the Guildhall."
Well, to cut that edict to a nubbin, it meant anyone with a coin could be barbered whenever he wanted, which included Sundays and holy days. Barbers traipsed around town all days, from sun up to sundown and beyond. Pepys was often barbered on Sunday mornings before he went to church, or late at night before he went to bed.
From Visible World published in 1658, and considered the first illustrated schoolbook, the barber in his shop would "cutteth off the hair and the beard with a pair of sizzars or shaveth with a razor which he taketh out of his case. And he washeth one over a bason with suds running out of a laver and also with sope and wipeth him."
The barber's shop was a world onto itself. Gallants met there to be barbered or sewn together after suffering sword wounds. Carbuncles would be lanced and drained, and medicines dispersed. Those waiting played musical instruments and gossiped. The barbershop was where men went to learn current events or the latest scandals.
Once in the chair, their beards were starched and their hair trimmed. In "Quip for an Upstart Courtier published in 1592. It related that the courtier sat down in the throne of a chair, and the barber, after saluting him : 'Sir, will you have your worship's hair cut after the Italian manner, short and round, and then frounst with the curling irons to make it look like a half-moon in a mist ; or like a Spaniard, long at the ears and curled like to the two ends of an old cast periwig ; or will you be Frenchified with a love-lock down to your shoulders...'"
After the barber finished with the hair, he'd attack the the beard. There were several ways to fashion the facial hair. Beards and mustaches could be formed into the Roman T, a stiletto-beard, soldier or spade beard, bishops beard, or the well known Vandyke. You could have the "court cut, and country cut." You could look fierce to your enemy or friendly to the ladies.
Some barbershops created a veritable spa environment. Their nose and ear hairs were snipped. They'd foam and wash the patron's beard, dab it with fragrant waters, and anoint his closed eyes, then pull a rotten tooth.
Or should the barber have pulled the tooth, first?
For more reading on London 1660's (and one French Revolution novel), please see:
Resource: At the Sign of the Barber's Pole, Studies in Hirsute History by William Andrews, Cottingham, Yorkshire, J.R. Tutin, 1904