When we think of medieval times, we picture peasants with rotted and missing teeth but Tim O’Neill, MA Medieval Literature, says during the Middle Ages, a white smile and pleasant breath were admirable attributes. During the Middle Ages, there’s evidence that people used toothpastes, powders, treatments, and even mouth washes for halitosis!
Sugar wasn’t widely available during the time period and was too costly for most people. Medieval people used sugar as a seasoning or used the natural sugars in fruit or honey, which they used sparingly. Most people ate a diet high in calcium from dairy and also ate vegetables and cereals, very similar to the diet dentists today would recommend.
Archaeological studies show that an average of 20 percent of teeth showed decay. In some early 20th century populations, up to 90 percent of teeth showed decay, probably in part to the increased sugar consumption once sugar was imported from tropics.
How did medieval people brush their teeth? They would rub their teeth and gums with a rough linen. Recipes have been discovered for pastes and powders they might have applied to the cloth to clean and whiten teeth, as well as to freshen breath. Some pastes were made from ground sage mixed with salt crystals. Others included powdered charcoal from rosemary stems or a crushed pepper, mint, and rock salt. Most pastes included both an abrasive and a scented herb or spice.
Medieval people even had their own version of Scope! Typically, the mouth washes were made from herbs and spices steeped in wine or vinegar. Mint, marjoram, and cinnamon were popular. People also chewed on fennel seeds, parsley, and cloves.
When people did have dental problems, the tooth would just be pulled by the local barber — without an anesthetic! Skilled surgeons may have had treatments for oral cancer. Wealthier people may have had dentures, made from cow bone or human teeth.