Perhaps the best description of medieval barbers comes from an inscription on a 16th-century woodcut by German artist Jost Amman, presented in the first person from a man practicing the trade: "I am called everywhere, I can make many healing salves, I can cure new wounds, also fractures and chronic afflictions, Syphilis, Cataract, Gangrene, pull teeth, shave, wash and cut hair, I also like to bleed."
It’s like the weirdest Tinder profile ever, right?
Barbers in the Middle Ages were excellent multi-taskers. It’s true: a lot of surgery in the Middle Ages was done by so-called barber-surgeons, a medieval precursor to the old dude with the combs in the blue water down the street. But they did a whole lot more than just cut people open. The list below features some of the surprising - and often disgusting - things that medieval barbers did besides just cut hair.
Shaving with Beer Foam
A document from 1499 detailing the affairs of “The Gild of Barbers” of Oxford mentions “ale-baisters,” an obscure term that initially stumped the editors of the tome Records of Mediæval Oxford (1912). Research revealed that the lowest class of medieval barbers couldn’t afford a plentiful supply of shaving soap, so they sometimes turned to “froth of ale” for “basting” their patients' faces instead. That’s right: beer foam as shaving foam. Why hasn’t Axe or Old Spice picked up on this idea? Beer foam in an aerosol can - it’s genius.
Removing Kidney Stones in Public
This brings new meaning to the term “operating theater." Instead of university-educated physicians, lowly barbers in the Middle Ages were tasked with removing kidney stones, and they often did it with an audience watching. Traveling from town to town with a special “lithotomy” table in tow, talented barbers would perform the simple procedure in just a few minutes, in public, in order to help advertise their services. Some “barbers” were just showmen, looking to make a quick buck. These so-called “stonecutters” were heavily fined if their “procedure” didn’t go according to plan.
Making Wax Organs and Limbs
A lot of medieval barbers doubled as - get your Friends jokes ready - chandlers, which is just another name for candle-maker (according to Bing). This seems odd until you learn that chandlers and barbers both used a ton of wax: barbers used it as a “base” in ointments, and chandlers obviously had a great need for it in their candle-making. Sometimes barbers practiced a strange procedure where they would “treat” a patient by using the wax to make a model of their diseased organs. They would then “present” the wax organ at a shrine in an effort to call upon the divine to ease their patient's suffering. Alternatively, they would make a limb-shaped candle and burn it at a shrine for patients with arm or leg issues (such as gangrene).
Cleaning Teeth with Nitric Acid
Barbers doubled as dentists in the Middle Ages, and some of their techniques were both shockingly modern and primitive. To start, the barber would scrape your teeth using toothpicks and scraps of cloth. So far, so good. But to whiten the teeth, the barber would use something called aqua fortis (“strong water”). That’s damn good branding, right? It sounds healthy, but aqua fortis is actually highly corrosive nitric acid. It did the job - one historian says teeth were known to be “considerably whiter” after - but only because it ate away at the enamel, essentially destroying the tooth from the outside in.