In Europe, barbers replaced monks as community dentists
During the earlier part of the Middle Ages, monks served as community dentists. This made perfect sense since they were usually the most educated men in the community, plus they offered the guarantee of divine protection, or at least the chance to get the Last Rites if a simple tooth extraction went bad (which was not unheard of). However, a Papal Decree issued at the start of the 12th century ruled that monks could no longer practice dentistry. As such, the role passed onto barbers, who would traditionally help monks with most dental procedures.
The fact that barbers usually used the same tools for cutting hair and beards as they did for dentistry shows how rudimentary such procedures were. In most instances, they simply pulled rotting teeth out using pliers, with little or no anaesthetic. Up until the 1400s, barbers would also carry out a number of other surgical procedures besides dentistry, including bloodletting, lancing abscesses and even performing amputations using crude saws. That’s why traditionally the barbers pole is coloured red and white – the red represents the blood lost during tooth extractions and the white represents the bone and gore of surgical procedures.
Over time, however, physicians started to get involved in surgery, and they became increasingly protective of their profession. By the 15th century, barbers were only permitted to perform some of the more simple and straightforward surgical procedures. They were, however, allowed to carry on their side trade in dentistry – and indeed, the profession of barber-dentist endured right up until the 19th century right across Europe.