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Barbi-tonsoribus: Something for the weekend, sir

01:00 Fri 18th Jan 2002 |

Q. Nothing to do with Barbie and Ken, then

A. Nope. As the title suggests, this is something to do with hairdressing. Barbie and Ken are not being implicated in this old profession.

Q. So, a barber

A. And much more. This Latin term was introduced in the 14th century, and it referred to what later became known as barber-surgeons. In the Middle Ages and earlier barbers not only gave your barnet a makeover but they would lance your boils, bleed you and even cut off your limbs if you so required.

Q. How did this come about

A. The practice seems to have started when barbers would visit monasteries to cut the tonsures for the monks and while there perform minor 'surgical' operations - surgeon literally means 'hand work'. This obviously had plenty of cash-pulling potential, there not being many proper doctors about, so the service began to offered to the population at large.

They were pretty low down in the social pecking order, and were frequently ridiculed by poets and playwrights as money-grabbing charlatans, as you didn't really need much in the way of qualifications to set yourself up in the job and were unlikely to be sued in the event of an operation going wrong.

Q. Any examples

A. John Gay's Fable of the Goat Without a Beard (1727) describes a barber's 'tonsorial parlour' thus:

His pole with pewter basins hung,

Black rotten teeth in order strung,

Did well his threefold trade explain,

Who shav'd, drew teeth and breathed a vein.

Q. So, not exactly the high-powered specialists of today.

A. Indeed not. Next time you're treated to the bedside manner of a high-handed sawbones, you now have the information to remind him/her of their profession's humble past.

Q. What other professions have we lost over the years

A. Well, we don't hear much about 'bird-swindlers' these days. The term was coined in the 19th century for purveyors of exotic birds, which, on closer inspection - and after having parted with considerable sums - were revealed to be common birds trimmed, dyed and generally disguised. (Which isn't to say that such activities no longer go on, by the way.)

Then there was the 'rattoner', a 14th-century rat-catcher, and the 'eggler', a 17th-century term for a purveyor of eggs and related products, such as birds' nests. An eggler's business was 'eggling', part of which consisted of collecting the produce of 'egg beds' (a quaint Scottish term for 'the ovaries of a fowl').

Q. Any famous egglers

A. St Simon of Cyrene - a bystander in the crowd watching Christ's procession to Calvary who, in a fit of unmitigated altruism offered to carry the cross - was an eggler by trade. There was a medieval Gnostic sect who believed that Simon actually exchanged bodies with Christ and endured the Crucifixion in his place. After he was returned to his own body he found that his eggs had been fantastically decorated, thus giving rise to the practice of painting eggs at Easter.

See also the answerbank articles on Gnostics and egg-related phrases

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

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