Archive for February, 2011



Medieval Barbers- Taking care of more than just haircuts

By: The Scribe on February, 2011

These days, if you see a red and white (or red, white and blue) barber pole, you know that it means a haircut and, possibly, a shave as well. But in the middle ages, the pole meant something completely different. Barbers were often tasked with performing surgery or treating the ill just as often as they were involved in the care of someone’s hair or beard.

An illustration of a medieval dental treatmentBarbers have been practicing their trade for many years. Early razors made of bronze have been found that date back to 3500 BCE. In some cultures, care of the hair was a religious matter. A barber was able to prevent certain evil spirits from entering a person’s body through their hair. Before shaving became common, men still needed to have their beards trimmed and cared for and barbers would perform these functions. It was not uncommon for a barber shop to be set up in a public market and they often became social gathering places as well as places to have their hair tended.

In modern medicine, physicians often diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries. This was not the case in medieval times. Physicians were more scholarly than they were practical and it was as much an individual’s ability to debate and lecture that made them a physician as it was any general ability at medicine.

The way that illnesses and injuries were treated was also very different. While people were studying anatomy and various illnesses themselves, it was also believed that illnesses were sent as a punishment from God. If patients performed penance or went on a pilgrimage it was believed that they would get better. Prayer was believed to be as valuable as herbs and other medicines when it came to helping a person recover from illness.

Barbers often concerned themselves with the practical side of treating illness and left the spiritual aspects to the priests and monks. They often performed procedures ranging from leeching and dentistry right up to surgical procedures such as amputations, hernia repairs and gallstone operations. Surgery was a nightmarish affair because up until the discovery of anesthetic, operations were performed on conscious patients. Procedures needed to be performed as quickly as possible so that patients did not die from blood loss or pain.

In order to show that he had set up shop, a barber would place a red and white stripedA US barber pole in front of a barber shop pole out in front of their shop. This tradition carries through today although in the USA, the pole has red and blue stripes. The pole actually refers to the barber’s dual roles of medicine and hair care. The red strip refers to the surgery aspect of the trade and the white refers to the process of caring for someone’s hair.

If you look at an original barber pole, you will see that there is a wash basin at the top. This was usually made of brass and represented a container where leeches would be kept. There is also a second basin at the bottom of the pole which represents the container which would catch any blood that was produced during treatment.



What do Monkeys, Coffee and A Crypt of Italian Mummies have in common?

By: The Scribe on February, 2011

You may be wondering what monkeys, coffee and a crypt of Italian monkeys could possibly have in common. The answer is the Capuchin monks. This order of Catholic friars has been in existence since the year 1520 CE. An offshoot of the Franciscan order, the Capuchin monks have had a long and interesting history. A Capuchin monkey

The order came into being thanks to Matteo da Bascio, an Italian Friar. He felt that the Franciscan order was not holding true to the vision of St. Francis, the saint from whom the order had taken their name. The order believed in extreme poverty and members of the Capuchin order dedicated themselves to leading simple, austere lives. Although it was understood that items such as food, clothing and shelter were necessary to maintain life, it was believed that these items should be obtained through begging and that the order should not own any belongings. This rule held true for both the friars themselves and the congregation that they ministered to.

The Capuchins believed in extensive prayer. In fact, members of the order were required to pray privately for two hours each day in addition to the regular prayers that were said as a group. Fasting and discipline were also performed regularly.

It wouldn’t seem as though a simple and quiet order would upset the Church but certain members of the order did. As a result, they were forbidden the right to preach and were suspected of heresy. At one point, the order was forced to seek sanctuary from members of another order, the Camaldolese monks. They showed their gratitude and adopted parts of that order’s uniform. The Capuchins are known for wearing hoods and growing beards. Capuchin monkeys look like they are wearing the hood and beard of the order and have been named for it. Because of the way it looks, the beverage cappuccino was also named for the monks.

The most famous Capuchin church would have to be Santa Maria della Concezione which was commissioned in 1626 CE. It is located in Palermo, Italy. While the church is beautiful, what lies underneath actually attracts the most attention from tourists and locals. Underneath the church is a system of catacombs that have been converted into a massive ossuary or crypt.

These catacombs have the ability to naturally preserve the bodies of the deceased. The friars originally began burying members of their order there but the catacombs were later used to bury regular people as well. Many of the bodies are dressed in their burial clothes and positioned in chairs or other furniture. It was not uncommon for families to visit the bodies of their deceased relatives so that they could pray together on special occasions.

Rosalia Lombardo, interred in the 1920'sThere are over 8000 mummies of men, women and children placed in the catacombs. Although friars were no longer entombed there after 1871 but regular citizens and famous people were entombed there as recently as the 1920’s.

The most recent threat to the catacombs came in the 1940’s. Allied bombs actually struck the monastery and many of the mummies were damaged or destroyed as a result.



The History of Valentine’s Day- A Modern Day Celebration with Ancient Roots

By: The Scribe on February, 2011

Today is Valentine’s Day and millions of people will be buying chocolates and other gifts to show their love for each other. Although it seems like this day is simply a tool of the greeting card companies, the truth is that this day has a long history that dates back to the year 496 CE. It was then that Pope Gelasius I chose to establish a day to celebrate love and affection between companions.

Pope Gelasius, the creator of Valentine's DayThe day itself was named after an early Christian martyr who was buried on February 14th. There have been several stories about the identity of Saint Valentine, the man for whom the day was named. One version of Saint Valentine’s history says that he was a priest during the reign of Claudius II. Claudius was not an Emperor that was positively disposed towards Christians. Saint Valentine was caught and imprisoned because he was aiding Christians and allowing them to escape imprisonment and torture.

Another version has Saint Valentine marrying Roman soldiers in secret. Emperor Claudius had decreed that soldiers needed to remain single because he believed that they would make better soldiers if they remained unwed. When Saint Valentine was caught performing marriages, he was put to death.

Another belief is that Saint Valentine’s Day was established as a way to turn worship away from the celebration of Lupercalia. This was a fertility rite that was performed at the beginning of February. In the Roman calendar, Spring began at the beginning of February. Lupercalia involved the ritual slaughter of two goats and a dog. The skins were removed and cut into strips. These would be used to strike girls and young women as a way of increasing their fertility for the coming year.Geoffrey Chaucer

While the day was dedicated to love by Pope Gelasius, it was not the romantic love that is celebrated today. The celebration of romantic love on Valentine’s Day did not begin until the Middle Ages. It was the writer Geoffrey Chaucer and not the greeting card companies that shifted the focus from friendly love to romantic or passionate love. It was during the fourteenth century that Chaucer and his friends began to popularize this concept.

The first written Valentine cards and greetings did not appear until after 1400 but the day was not popular until the seventeenth century. Once it caught on, however, it was not long until it became common for friends and lovers alike to exchange cards and small gifts. These started out as written letters but as printing methods improved, the hand written greetings rapidly changed to ready-made cards. These started to be produced en masse in the 1840’s.

Now, some individuals go to great lengths to celebrate this day. It is no longer known as Saint Valentine’s Day after being removed from the Catholic calendar of saints in 1969. Although many people are tired of being gifted with mass-produced boxes of chocolates and mass-produced greeting cards it is likely that they would still prefer these items to being struck with bloody strips of goat skin.



How Cooking Changed The Face Of The Earth- The Spice Trade

By: The Scribe on February, 2011

In modern times when we need to add a touch of cinnamon or ginger to our cooking it is easy to do so. Even if we do not have any in the house, we can simply run to the local grocery store and buy them there. The most expensive spices are still fairly affordable when compared to other ingredients. But this was not always the case. Spices were hard to get and, in some cases, were so expensive that they were actually worth their weight in gold.Some of the many spices available today

Certain spices have been in high demand since Roman times. Adding spices to food helped to disguise the taste of food that may have been improperly stored or which may have been suffering due to a lack of refrigeration. They were added to just about everything including the beverages. In the ancient world, spices such as turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and cardamom were used for commerce as well as cooking. Traders would travel thousands of miles over land and sea with their precious cargo and were able to sell it at a massive profit. They brought other things with them as well. Ebony, silk and textiles were transported along with incense, hemp, opium and other drugs.

Spices were transported over both land and sea. A major system of land- and sea-based trade routes became known as the Silk Road. It allowed traders to bring goods from various parts of Asia to buyers in Europe, the Mediterranean and even certain parts of Northern Africa. Along with physical goods, traders also brought with them the learning and knowledge that flourished in the areas where the trade goods came from. In some cases, they also brought disease with them as well. The bubonic plague was one disease that travelled along the Silk Road along with the traders. Traders were moving along parts of the Silk Road as early as 114 BCE. The full Silk Road is approximately 4000 miles long.

Because the trade routes were often long and treacherous, explorers set out to try and find faster and safer routes to bring the spices to the eager crowds in Europe. It was these attempts to find new spice routes that changed the map of the world in a major way. When black pepper became popular in Europe, traders began to travel around the Cape of Good Hope to obtain it. This was an extremely dangerous route and many sailors lost their lives on the voyage.A map of the Spice Road

In an attempt to find shorter routes to Asia and the source of spices and other trade goods, explorers set out and ultimately discovered the American continent. The first discovery of the American continent by explorers looking for trade routes took place in 1492, when Christopher Columbus discovered The Bahamas. A Portuguese navigator by the name of Pedro Alvares Cabral discovered Brazil eight years later.

Much of the discovery and colonization that would shape the map of the world took place due to the search for spices and other exotic goods. One wonders how the world would have been different without them.



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