Barber poles are red and white for a reason: blood and bandages in that order.
While you may have noticed that some barber shops sport red, white and blue, the same colour legacy stands, just that theirs have blue as an added representation for veins. Today, barber poles are simply a thematic novelty — pretty much erasing from public consciousness all but its documented connections to the grisly medicinal procedures of centuries past.
For better or for worse, medieval barbers had to be, and truly were, multi-talented.
The Bloody Barber
If the frescos from the Middle Ages are anything to go by, a knack for cosmetic appeal was the least important of all barber qualifications. According to dentists from the NW3-based RP Advanced Dental Centre, a medieval barber’s services would go above and beyond haircuts, simply because no one else was as good with a blade.
Serving as apprentices, barbers would assist monks in treating a number of maladies by way of bloodletting: the procedure that inspired the colours of the barber’s pole. Bloodletting involved draining a person’s blood in order to balance a person’s sanguine humour. This treatment method endured for nearly two thousand years, and is one of the most prominent medical procedures inspired by The Theory of the Four Humours.
A Defining Profession
Medieval barbers cut more than just hair and blood vessels. During wartimes, they would perform surgery; mostly amputations. Other procedures include hernia repairs and gallstone operations.
A barber could serve as pharmacist for a day, physician on the next and dentist on another, given that they have time to spare from cutting hair and denying evil spirits entry through people’s follicles.
Modern barbers are a less all-around lot, and it may be for the better. The barber’s pole appears to be the only remnant from a fortunately bygone time, never elevating itself; just merely, endlessly spinning in place.