A Good Old-Fashioned Barber

Wound_Man

A medieval Wound Man

 

In last week’s post I looked at the handy medieval medical guide for aligning bodily weaknesses with astrological influences as represented in “Zodiac Man”. The “Wound Man” served a similar purpose in that he was a visual compendium for the sorts of traumatic injuries that medieval surgeons might have to treat.

The medieval surgeon was not, of course, anything like the surgeon of our modern world. In fact, the medieval surgeon was often the local barber because one of the main criterion for “entry” to the profession was to be good with a knife or other blade. A barber had ready access, too, to these blades and plenty of practice and skill in using them on the human body.

The barbers’ poles of today, with their red and white intermingling spirals, are direct reminders of the dual skills of the barber of previous days. Originally the red represented the blood that the barber would draw from the patient either as a direct result of the surgery or as a deliberate outcome of bloodletting. This was a common medieval practice which involved the cutting open of a vein to allow the release of what was regarded as “excess blood” in the bodily humours. The pole’s white-coloured spirals, then, stood for the bandages that were applied to stem the wound at the conclusion of the “treatment”.

In the days before anaesthetic, surgery required a steady hand and it was not unusual that the surgeon was a woman. Her more delicate hands made the removal of anything from haemorrhoids to cataracts seem a little more bearable to the hapless patient.

cataract surgery

Medieval surgery for cataract removal

Something to think about next time you’re at the hairdresser.

As Above So Below

zodiac-2

One of the most read sections in today’s magazines is the Horoscope. This suggests that even if we deny a belief in the direct influence of the stars and planets on our daily lives, we at least entertain the possibility that people of the same star sign might share some broad personality characteristics.

In the Middle Ages no such ambiguity existed. Everything in the world was understood to be connected to everything else in some way, and the idea of “as above, so below” held sway. What existed in the heavens above, existed in the world below. As everything, everywhere, was thought to be composed of various combinations of the four elements – earth, fire, water and air – when something moved or changed in the heavens above, human bodies reacted below. Medieval people had witnessed the effects on the phases of the moon on the Earth’s tides so why wouldn’t the body’s elements similarly respond? And respond even more markedly to the (apparent) movement of the stars and planets in the sky. The influences of the heavens above were believed to be particularly influential on the body’s health (or ill-health), with the different astrological phases influencing different parts of the body.

Thus, “Zodiac Man” was born as a handy guide to pinpointing general ailments and weaknesses in the body. Broadly, here is a summary of the correspondence between zodiac signs and those susceptible bodily parts and functions:

Aries – Head, eyes, adrenals

zodiac-1

Taurus – Neck, throat, shoulders, ears

Gemini – Lungs, nerves, arms, shoulders, fingers

Cancer – Chest wall, breasts

Leo – Heart, spine, upper back, spleen

Virgo – Abdomen, bowel, liver, gallbladder, pancreas

Libra – Lower back, buttocks, hips, kidneys, endocrines

Scorpio – Reproductive organs, pelvis, urinary bladder, rectum

Sagittarius – Thighs and lower legs

Capricorn – Knees; and bones and skin generally

Aquarius – Ankles, blood vessels generally

Pisces – Feet

So … thinking of your own star sign, do any of the weaknesses ring true? (Not that we believe such things today!)