The Surgeons Page
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Medieval surgery was a hazardous occupation...

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a lthough generally more hazardous for the patient than the surgeon !

Our household surgeon, John Barber uses his tools of the trade to treat all injuries, however minor. Below are the tools he uses and also a couple of examples of them in action - warning, these are not for the faint hearted !

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First we have a special tool for pulling teeth, shown here in action. Barber tells us that during his education at the University of Padua, he was taught that removing teeth could take a patient's attention away from other ailments.   Albucasis, the Arab writer who influenced so much medieval surgical practice, instructed that the patientís head should be held between the knees to gain good purchase.

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And now the arrow spoons.   Also based on a design by Albucasis, the spoon allows an arrowhead to be drawn from a wound without causing further damage as the barbs rip out.  T he heads of war arrows were often not glued onto the shafts, but attached with warm beeswax. After the wax set, they would take normal handling, but once shot into something if the shaft was pulled, the head would come off.

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This is John Barber's pride and joy, the dreaded clyster. Here is the clyster being readied for use. Note the leather splash guard to protect the hands.

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The clyster cures many ills by allowing the administration of a variety of liquids internally. A pumping action is used, as shown above. The liquid is propelled into the patient through carefully punched holes and the end is polished and rounded for extra comfort.

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The tool of choice for bleeding is the fleam: a narrow, half-inch long blade which will penetrate just deep enough to open a vein, and leave a small wound which needed no further treatment.   The fleam has a channel cut in its handle so that one tool can both make the wound and hold it open.

 

The blood runs into a bowl, which is used to measure the amount of blood extracted. Master Barber has chosen to use a very small bowl of known capacity, so he can count the number of bowls to reach the target in bleeding the patient.

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Master Barber carries three cauterising irons, one button-shaped for penetrating wounds (such as bodkin arrows), one flat and barbed for barbed arrow-wounds, and one wedge-shaped, like a shipís prow, for wide wounds such as spear- or bill-scrapes. They are heated to red-heat in a charcoal brazier and used to burn the raw edges of the wounds.

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Master Barberís amputation knife is a wickedly curved implement.  The primary cut is made with the inner edge of the blade, working around the far side of the limb from the surgeon. The blade can make a cut to the bone through around 300ļ of the limb, and the sharp back edge of the blade can take the remaining strip out on the back-stroke. Master Barber can amputate his patientís leg in around 40 seconds, including cutting the bone.

 

Master Barber also carries a straight knife, usually only used for cutting away the patientís clothes or armour-straps, but which is also used in lesser operations.

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Master Barberís bone saw is an unashamed steal from a local forester: it is a lopping saw primarily used for tree-branches. The lopping saw has a convenient inward curve which keeps it in the wound. It has a disadvantage: if the flesh of the limb is allowed to press on the blade, the wider blade is harder to work in the wound. However, as long as the flesh is held back by his assistants, Master Barber has little trouble cutting through living bone with the lopping saw.

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To introduce medicines into wounds is pretty difficult, and often painful for the patient. The surgeon must open up the wound to its full depth and force the medicine (in the form of a paste, known as an electuary) into the deepest limit. The answer is this medicine spoon which can be inserted into quite small wounds and the medicine pushed down it.

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Barber-surgeons are called that for a good reason: people are reluctant to buy surgical treatment until they are desperately ill, and practitioners have to have something to pay their regular bills in between patients. The answer is to be a barber: it has the same requirement for knowledge of sharp implements. Master Barber has his comb and scissors for haircutting, small shears for clipping delicate hairs in the nose and ears, and a fine razor for shaving the patient.

 

Like his bleeding-bowl, the comb is made of horn: a beautiful and practical material often used for combs throughout the middle ages.

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Master Barber is played by Chris Felton, a twenty-year veteran re-enactor. He is available for talks, schools events, and film and TV appearances.   He has appeared in the Discovery Channelís programme on Richard I (a non-speaking part), and Tony Robinsonís ĎWorst Jobs In Historyí programme for Channel 4.   And of course, you can see him at Knights In Battleís usual shows....


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