Did Medieval People Brush their Teeth?
The act of brushing your teeth is second-nature in this day and age. Most people start their day by doing it, using a fresh minty toothpaste and floss and mouthwash to make their mouths feel clean. We regularly see dentists for check-ups, some people get braces, we have supermarket aisles dedicated to it, and commercials advertising the latest toothpaste or toothbrush have become common place. But did you know that people in the Middle Ages were just as careful about their dental hygiene as we are today? Read more to find out!
There is a common misconception that medieval people had basic, primitive ideas of dental hygiene, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Medieval people bathed regularly, brushed their hair, did their laundry, and actually established the hygiene routines that we still follow to this day. The Eastern Medieval world was the first to popularise teeth brushing. Using a stick called a "miswak", people would scrub their teeth until they felt clean (Kausar, p. 85). This form of personal hygiene caught on, and before long it had reached Western Europe, where emphasis on personal cleanliness boomed. The only people exempt from cleaning their teeth were certain types of monks, who had chosen to forgo life's luxuries and live as nature intended. For the most part, men, women and children brushed their teeth daily, either with a miswak, a cloth, their fingers or leaves.
The Vikings had been the early advocates of personal hygiene, encouraging the use of combs and the act of washing. Did you know, that care for hair and teeth was actually remarkably similar in the Middle Ages? It was the job of a barber to not only cut and style hair, but also to perform minor surgeries and even pull rotten teeth! (Elliott, p. 29). It is a common misconception that sugar was only brought over to Europe in the Renaissance, when actually it was first recorded in England in 1069, and was brought over through trading routes during the Crusades (Making Sense of Sugar). Additionally, at least in the case of the peasantry, who often relied on coarse bread and tough vegetables for sustenance, teeth wore down massively. An interesting journal article about the wearing down of teeth is linked at the bottom of this post if you want to find out more.
But what about toothpaste? While the medieval people unfortunately didn't have the fresh, minty stuff that we use today, natural remedies were always at hand. Crushed leek seeds, lemon juice, or fresh mint would have been chewed to ensure fresh breath, whilst the ground bones of fish may have been applied for that glimmery white sheen! (McLean, p. 204). Deadly alternatives such as lead may have also been applied to the teeth to maintain whiteness, but thankfully that had died out by the turn of the Renaissance!
In the later Middle Ages, lozenges would have been sucked for freshness of breath (like an early form of breath mint!). The Tudors would later popularise these lozenges, as well as encouraging the chewing of leaves and the rubbing of one's teeth with a dry handkerchief. Although it is common knowledge that Queen Elizabeth I of England suffered greatly with toothache caused by rotten teeth, generally speaking, most people of the time followed fantastic dental hygiene practices. For example, when Elizabeth's aunt, Mary Tudor-Brandon's skeleton was disturbed in 1784, they found "a good set of teeth" (Tudor Place). Similar teeth bones were also excavated in places like the Tower of London, proving that dental care in the late Middle Ages and at the turn of the Renaissance was generally better than most people believe!
So the next time you're standing in front of your mirror brushing your teeth, spare a moment to think about our medieval ancestors who did exactly the same - and be grateful that we no longer have to chew leek seeds or rub our teeth with fish bones!
Here is the journal article relating to tooth wear in Medieval Iceland, written by Svend Richter and Sigfus Thor Eliasson for the University of Iceland: http://www.hrpub.org/download/20160630/UJMSJ3-17506441.pdf
Elliott, L., Clothing in the Middle Ages (Crabtree Publishing Company, 2004).
Kausar, Z., Muslim Women in Medieval (Janaki Prakashan, 1992).
Making Sense of Sugar, The History of Sugar (available online at: https://makingsenseofsugar.com/all-about-sugar/history-of-sugar/#:~:text=Sugar%20was%20only%20discovered%20by,including%20the%20importation%20of%20sugar).
McLean., T., Medieval English Gardens (Courier Corporation, 2014).
Tudor Place., Mary Tudor Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk (available online: http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Bios/MaryTudor(DSuffolk).htm).