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 beauty attributes, it is only natural that people back then enjoyed dedicating some time to their oral care regimen. Archeologists found a large amount of evidence in this sense, including mouthwashes and treatments for halitosis, as well as numerous types of tooth pastes 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 the people in the medieval period, particularly the peasants, promoted the idea that almost everyone had blackened and rotting teeth. In reality, most people living in the Middle Ages actually had healthy teeth and that is 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 (what modern dentists would recommend for healthy teeth these days). Tooth decay wasn’t as prevalent as nowadays, 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, truly funny remedies.
For instance, one ‘dental pain relief’ treatment available suggested grinding ants and their eggs, and afterwards blowing the powder directly into the aching tooth via a quill. Another cure recommended boiling newts – a type of amphibian lizard – and the beetles that are commonly found in fens in summertime in an iron pot until you can 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 without pain. 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!