Honor, brotherhood, and the corporate ethos of London's Barber-Surgeons' Company, 1570-1640

J Hist Med Allied Sci. 2009 Jul;64(3):300-32. doi: 10.1093/jhmas/jrp005. Epub 2009 Mar 18.


As the largest and most civically active body of medical practitioners in the late Tudor and early Stuart period, surgeons played a vital role in London's urban landscape, but remained precariously vulnerable to abasement due to the regular contact with death and disease necessitated by their work. Based on an analysis of guild records, printed surgical manuals, and conduct literature, this study explores the emergent corporate ethos of London's Barber-Surgeons' Company and addresses the identity formation of surgeons in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries. By implementing codes of conduct and uniform standards of practice, punishing transgressions of propriety, and developing legislation to limit the activities of unlicensed and foreign practitioners, Company officers ardently sought social and occupational legitimacy within a milieu characterized by a tremendous emphasis on status and hierarchy. Rooted in methodology drawn from the social history of medicine and cultural anthropology, this study argues that in response to the persistent stigma associated with their work and London's increasingly prevalent culture of credit, surgeons, like other artisanal groups, sought to enhance their social legitimacy and occupational respectability by manipulating contemporary social rituals, reinforcing the honorable associations of their work, and preserving the veneer of brotherhood and camaraderie.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Barber Surgeons / history*
  • Ceremonial Behavior
  • Clinical Competence / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Clinical Competence / standards
  • Culture
  • Ethics, Medical / history*
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 17th Century
  • London
  • Prejudice*
  • Societies, Medical / history*