“You’re only as good as your last haircut” – Fran Lebowitz
A bad haircut can ruin your week, but you can’t always blame the barber. Unless he’s bald. Then he hates you for your hair and can’t be trusted. Nevertheless, when you pointed at the picture of Russell Crowe and said “I want that”, you’re really just asking the poor fellow to perform miracles. Stranger things have certainly happened, but if one seeks the preternatural assistance of the universe in making a fashion statement, it is no doubt advisable to cast a few bones, chat up the oracle, or consult the stars as to a propitious day for a trim. Luckily, the tonsorial trades in the Western world have historically had a close association with astrology.
Around the 15th Century, the printing industry was really revving up, but apart from the Gutenberg Bible, a few prophetic works of medieval doom and gloom, and a smattering of imperial propaganda, bestsellers were few and far between. Your average astrologer on the other hand had a renewed appreciation for publicity, and consequently there was an explosion of annual calendars, prognosticating pamphlets, and astrological handbooks designed to help you align your daily life with the occult forces that determined your fate. Astrology and medicine were still closely linked, and it just so happens that in the late 15th Century, a barber was just as likely to give you a nice, close shave as to be your surgeon or dentist. Thus there was an important practical relationship between the nascent publishing industry and barbers.
Since the main purpose of calendars had to do with astrological medicine, it is no surprise that physicians ranked among the most common early producers. Often these men held appointed posts as city physicians. By the late fifteenth century many local councils had made it a standard practice to name at least one official physicus, who served as an overseer to the city’s various health workers such as surgeons, barbers, and midwives. The responsibilities of the position typically included providing medical diagnoses and prescriptions, helping to establish and enforce sanitary regulations, and making forensic judgments. With the swift multiplication of competing calendars for the same year, conflicting calculations and predictions led local governments to impose regulations about which one medical practitioners were to follow. Thus especially in the larger cities, an appointed physician was assigned to issue a sanctioned calendar in order to supply regular guidance to local barbers and citizens in the correct timing and administration of various treatments (Barnes, 2015, p34-35).
The 12-15th Century was the Golden Age of the city of Bruges in West Flanders (modern day Belgium), sitting as it did at the crossroads of the Hanseatic League trade routes. Business was booming as it was a haven for merchant capitalists and traders, and saw rise to the first stock exchange. Bankers, artists, and a variety of important personages flocked to Bruges seeking their fortune, inspiration, adventure, or tasty spices imported from the Levant. All these folks eventually needed haircuts, even if it was the Dark Ages and bangs were still popular.
The doctrine that the heavenly bodies, and particularly the signs of the zodiac, exert an influence on the human frame, was held throughout the Middle Ages, and was especially favoured by the Arabist school of medicine…Astrological calendars were compiled to show the proper days and seasons in which alone medicine could be given or venesection performed, and these were sometimes confirmed by the decrees of town councils, as at Bruges, where the barbers were forbidden to shave or bleed persons on the days marked dangerous (Withington, 1894, p251).
Now, the Council of Bruges weren’t pulling these dates out of a hat. That would just be crazy. You could go in for some mustache waxing and leave with a mohawk if the stars were out of alignment. And in an age where people routinely fought duels to the death and burned witches over trivialities, such carefree attitudes would be inadvisable. No, the town fathers of Bruges were smarter than that. They consulted an expert in the personage of a sagacious local doctor and astrologist (and published author) named Peter van Bruhesen.
In 1550, a certain Peter van Bruhesen, a Flemish doctor, published at Bruges a perpetual calendar, in which were indicated, with the utmost care and “according to the principles of judicial astrology,” the days on which one might with safety bathe, be bled, shave, etc., and those days on which such operations were attended with danger. His book, we are assured, produced the greatest commotion in Bruges, and made such an impression on the public mind that the authorities of the city officially prohibited all the barbers within their jurisdiction from pursuing their calling on any of the days marked as unpropitious by the learned doctor (St. Lawrence, 1891, p23).
Controversy erupted as barbers and surgeons scrambled to find alternative astrological almanacs that would support their preferred hours of operation. I mean, they would have had to change their signs. Which meant finding someone who was literate.
The work caused offence to a certain magistrate of Bruges who plied the tonsorial trade, with the result that there appeared against Bruhesen’s volume another Grand and Perpetual Almanac, with the flippant subtitle A Scourge for Empirics and Charlatans. This squib was published by a rival medico, Francois Rapaert, but Peter Haschaerts, a surgeon, and a protagonist of astrological science, warmly defended Bruhesen in his Astrological Buckler (Spence, 1920, p80).
Confusion no doubt reigned for some time in 15th Century Bruges, as one could not be sure whether the fates favored a given day for visiting a stylist. Dye jobs bled. Trims became amputations. Self-images were devastated. You think I exaggerate? Au contraire, mon frère. After 1500, Bruges went into rapid decline. Historians often attribute this to the progressive silting of the Zwin Channel and the rise of Antwerp, but none have explored the possibility that it was sheer embarrassment. In our modern, enlightened world, we pretend to sneer at astrology and vanity, imagining there are more important existential conundrums to be concerned with, but as Lily Tomlin observed, “If truth is beauty, how come no one has their hair done in a library?”
Barnes, Robin B. Astrology and the Reformation. London: Oxford University Press, 2015.
St. Lawrence, Julian. “Lucky and Unlucky Days”. Peterson’s Magazine v99-100. Philadelphia, PA: C.J. Peterson, 1891.
Spence, Lewis, 1874-1955. An Encyclopædia of Occultism: a Compendium of Information On the Occult Sciences, Occult Personalities, Psychic Science, Magic, Demonology, Spiritism And Mysticism. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1920.
Withington, E. T. Medical History From the Earliest Times: a Popular History of the Healing Art. London: The Scientific Press, Ltd., 1894.