My intent is to allow the reader to walk down the lanes of old London (before it burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1666) and feel as if you are actually there. You can smell and touch the nuances of London. You'll know what it's like to work your way through the City and its the conflicting laws where religion played in important part of everyday life. So sit back and enjoy the ride.

Oh, and then there's my French Revolution novel.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Barber-Surgeons Guild

Well, my story of The Barbers has published, and dedicated to my good friends across the pond, Jim & Sue Barber. I figured Jim's ancestors were barbers, and that my friends would like to know what their forefathers did for a living, but first, I needed to do a bit of research. I wanted factual data without it being textbook, but had no idea the amount of research it would take, or how unbelievable the health practices were at the time. 

In order for the reader to accept some of what I wrote, I included an example of my resources at the end of it under the heading: Afterward. I reckoned no one would believe me otherwise. Most of the texts were published in the 17th century, which is apropos due to the fact The Barbers takes place in 1663. Only two sources were published after 1663, one in 1667 and one in 1904 around which this blog is centered.  

Now, for a bit of history…
King Henry VIII & the Company of Barber-Surgeons 1540
In the old days, prior to King Henry VIII, barbers/surgeons shared job descriptions. They both sheared hair, made wigs, shaved faces, trimmed beards, bled, cleaned wounds, and healed the sick. The guild was then known as the Barber’s Company.

In 1540, King Henry changed it to the Company of Barber-Surgeons, and new rules applied. Barbers could only barber and pull teeth, while surgeons did everything else, but these laws were not often followed. Barbers continued to ply their surgical skills, and surgeons snipped mustachios and hair. It filled their coffers with extra money.  

In Early Modern England records indicate a few women barbered and did ‘pyhsik’ (doctoring). These women where allowed into the guild through their fathers or a male relative to apprentice and subsequently go into trade. They could do almost everything a male surgeon could, except see a male dissection, which would cause their womanly desires to flare. They could not witness a female dissection either. This would expose the men digging about in a female’s lower anatomy, trying control a woman’s breeding.

Women became barbers or surgeons, but rarely, if ever, could they be licensed. There is reference to a couple of women licensed to ply their surgical skills, but she could only practice seven miles outside the City limits. (Seven miles outside London seems important, for open Roman Catholicism was included in this distance limit.)

Female barbers were more accepted in the 17th century, their hands considered calm under pressure. They could shave a man very nicely whilst in a coach rumbling along a cobbled lane.
Pulling teeth

Barbers had long days. During the reign of Henry VI, an edict was cast down that “’…no barber open his shop to shave any man from 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 (what? Isn’t this contradictory, or does it apply to the less wealthy?): whoever doeth to the contrary to pay one thousand tiles to the Guildhall.’”   

Early barbershops had red rags lining their windows, to show they could let blood, and inside rotten teeth were strung on a string. This meant the barber could shave, draw teeth, and “breath’d a vein” (bleed someone). In the 17th century, while customers waited for his barber’s expertise, he strummed a gittern (early guitar).

There were certain things a potential customer could not say or do while in the barbershop, or he’d be forced to pay a forfeit. Examples of offences: a customer handling a razor or fiddling with the barber’s tools, speak of cutting throats, or call hair-powder flour.
Here’s a story re: barber-surgeons.

A duke entered a small barbershop to find the barber not in. He regarded the young apprentice and said, "Can you shave without cutting?" The apprentice said, "Aye," and the duke sat in the chair. After a few pleasantries, the duke patted his brace of pistols and said, "Of course, if you cut me, I shall shoot you dead." The youth thought a moment, then nodded. "I'm not afraid, sir." In quick strokes the lad pleased the duke by shaving him very well. The duke stroked his clean jaw. "Why were you not afraid, then?" With a shrug, the lad answered, "Before you could draw your pistol, I would cut your throat."

Ha! Well said.

For more reading on the barber/surgeons, please see my new release, The Barbers, now on amazon worldwide. Not very expensive, either. 

I want to thank the following for the quotes and information found in this blog: Andrews, William. At the sign of the barber's pole, Studies in Hirsute History. Cottingham, Yorkshire J.R. Tutin 1904


  1. Very interesting, Katherine! There are still plenty of people around who consider women "naturally weak" and unable to grasp the more challenging subjects, like science and math--and surgery. I've had the latter, and have always been glad/proud that talented women with skillful (and small!) hands have done the work. I look forward to picking up this novel!

  2. The Barbers fired my imagination and I grabbed it. Am thoroughly enjoying it. The research that goes into writing a historical novel always amazes me. Kudos to the author.

  3. So interesting Katherine, and a book with so much information too. Good luck with it. I'm sure a great many people will want to read it.

  4. Fascinating, Katherine. I'm always impressed by the research that goes into sparking a story. I look forward to reading The Barbers.

  5. Hi Katherine,
    An interesting and informative post.



  6. Katherine, thanks for sharing this intriguing post. My grandfather was a barber, but of course, he was a contemporary in comparison to your characters.

  7. Thanks all for your comments. The research was interesting, and provocative. If I could time travel, I'd go back to the 17th century until I needed the loo, a shower, a dentist, and a doctor. I'd let a 17th century cut my hair, though.

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