Did you know that in order for people to be considered healthy in the Middle Ages, they had to have white teeth and sweet-smelling breath?
Because these were also considered attributes of beauty, it’s natural that people enjoyed dedicating some time to their oral care regimen back then. Archeologists have found a large amount of evidence on this topic, including mouthwashes and treatments for halitosis and numerous types of toothpastes and powders.
Wait, wasn’t the Middle Ages all about blackened and rotting teeth?
Perhaps you can blame it on Hollywood, but most depictions of people in the medieval period, particularly the peasants, promote the idea that almost everyone had blackened and rotting teeth. In reality, most people living in the Middle Ages, in fact, had relatively healthy teeth due to one major factor: sugar was a rarity back then.
Cleaning the teeth and gums was typically done by rubbing them with a rough linen cloth on which they placed various mixtures. According to historians, sage grout with salt crystals and powdered charcoal from rosemary were the most popular ‘toothpaste’ solutions at the time.
Furthermore, the diets of the people were quite balanced and included plenty of fruits, vegetables, and calcium-rich dairy foods (i.e., foods that which modern dentists would still recommend for people seeking healthy teeth). Tooth decay, too, wasn’t as prevalent, compared to present day, and it only became a serious issue in the later centuries, when sugar imports from the tropical region became the norm.
These facts don’t automatically entail that medieval people didn’t experience any dental problems. In fact, dental surgery was quite bad during this period. In an overwhelming number of cases, the tooth was removed via a ‘procedure’ usually performed by the local barber and without any anesthetics (ouch!).
Maintaining your oral health in the Middle Ages
In spite of the fact that dental hygiene was considered relatively good compared to the later periods, one can’t help being amused at the practices and recipes available at that time. For instance, people and ‘dentists’ used to believe that dental pain was caused by a worm. Even though no specific conditions or diseases are mentioned in most historical sources, there is extensive evidence of bizarre and, sometimes, funny remedies.
For instance, one ‘dental pain relief’ treatment available suggested grinding ants and their eggs and blowing the powder directly into the aching tooth via a quill. Another cure recommended boiling newts, a type of amphibian lizard, and beetles, those that are commonly found in fens in the summertime, in an iron pot until you could make a powder out of them. Using the forefinger from the right hand, they applied the powder to the tooth often and refrained from spitting it out. This was a proven technique, guaranteed to allow the tooth to fall out without pain.
Overall, despite not having the modern technology of today, medieval people came up with some reasonably effective ways of maintaining their white teeth and fresh breath!