King's College London
Online Exhibitions
'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

The surgeon's craft

Opening depicting surgical instruments of use in treating battlefield woundsOpening depicting surgical instruments of use in treating battlefield woundsThe surgeon of Shakespeare’s England generally possessed a lower social and professional status than that enjoyed by the physician. Most surgeons were members of the Company of Barber Surgeons, founded in 1540 from the merger of the Barbers’ Company with the Guild of Surgeons. Despite their professional union, the respective roles of the two groups of members were strictly differentiated; no surgeon was permitted to cut hair and no barber to perform surgery. The only duty open to both groups was the extraction of teeth. 

The French royal surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510?-90) was probably the pre-eminent European surgical practitioner of his day and one who did much to raise the professional status of the role.  Like many of his fellow practitioners, he had honed his surgical skills on the battlefield. In a continent beset by war and where the violent settlement of personal quarrels was commonplace, trauma surgery was a skill in much demand, and Paré’s published works, shown here in their first English translation of 1634, contain much practical guidance on the treatment of wounds ‘made by gunshot, other fierie engeines, and all sorts of weapons.’ The opening reproduced here depicts surgical instruments of use in treating battlefield wounds.

Paré placed much emphasis on good bandaging of wounds to stem the flow of blood and support a fractured limb, and advocated the use of ligatures to seal a wound following amputation. Exposure to the air was deemed prejudicial to the healing of wounds, a belief reflected in Clifford’s lines in Henry VI, part II:

The air hath got into my deadly wounds,
And much effuse of blood doth make me faint.

In this exhibition


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