Medieval hair styles differed greatly from those of our own time. However, a barber as we know him now was also called a barber in the Middle Ages, and used tools similar to those of barbers today. Medieval barbers, however, also served as surgeons. Therefore their tools often included items not used for cutting hair alone.
Medieval Barber's Tools
A medieval barber used razors, shears, combs and other tools a contemporary barber would recognize. During times of plague, however, many barbers also had to act as surgeons. Thus a barber's equipment included medical tools to pull teeth or perform surgery. Barbers also used tools like saws, drills, extractors, forceps, a variety of knives for amputations and other tools that punctured the skin to introduce medication or drain blood from the body.
Surgeons vs. Hair-Cutters
A medieval barber was usually a surgeon who cut hair because he had the appropriate razors and scissors, or a hair-cutter who had to double as a surgeon for the same reason. Based on which community he worked in, a barber might have to do more surgery because of a surplus of sick people, or not enough clients who needed a haircut.
Women and Hair Cutting
Just as barbers used whatever tools they had to cut hair or to do surgery, women might have used any hair-cutting tools at their disposal as well. Many popular medieval images of the story of Samson and Delilah show Delilah cutting Samson's hair with the same type of shears used to cut fabric or yarn. Other images show Delilah using a knife, which may also have been a common tool for cutting hair.
Because the medieval era had far less demanding hair styles than our own, and a trend toward longer hair, many of the tools used to cut hair weren't specifically for hair cutting. Hair styles differed from region to region, and often reflected social status. Whether women wore their hair loose or braided, it usually had to be long. Noblemen hardly ever cut their hair. Nuns represent one of the few groups of women who had shorter hair, although in their case it was hidden from view.
The vertical red and blue-striped pole that we still see spinning outside a traditional barbershop has its origins in the Middle Ages. During these centuries, only the wealthy and noble were literate. Signs advertised shops using symbols and pictures instead of text. The stripes signaled the act of blood-letting, a widely practiced medical procedure that barbers carried out because they had the tools to do so.
Originally from North Carolina, Heather Broeker studied journalism and advertising at the University of North Carolina. After graduation she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked for Fox Searchlight, Fox Reality and later as a writer and marketing director. Broeker now lives in Los Angeles and runs Head Over Heels, a writing and public relations company.