Barber (playing card), c. 1455

Of Witches, Barber-surgeons and Healers


In late medieval and early modern times, magic, alchemy and the veneration of the saints were an integral part of everyday life, and mystical ideas pervaded all echelons of society, from the emperor himself down to the humble gatherer of herbs. Even the Church itself adopted profane elements in its dogmas, using traditional elements of popular belief to cement faith. This was white magic and therefore tolerated, while its counterpart, black magic, was not. In witch trials, women in particular were accused of being in league with the devil, and of using their alleged demonic powers against the community. Frequently, female herb-gatherers, midwives and others skilled in the art of healing found themselves hauled before the courts on similar charges. Magic was also predominant in general medical practice, and a combination of traditional herbalism, manual skills and anatomical knowledge served as the basis of the services offered by barber-surgeons, healers and quacks. Academically qualified physicians active in everyday medical practice were still few and far between.

Read more