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Getting Medieval on Your Teeth!

By Madeline | March 28, 2008

Sorry I have been slacking so bad and not posting a whole lot lately - even less than before and that was already infrequent as it was.  I’ve been crazy busy at work and at home.  Bleh… 

At any rate, my new topic - Dentistry in the Medieval Times.  Interestingly enough, there are many comparisons out there on the web likening today’s dentists to medieval torture chambers, though very few articles on dentistry.  What I found though, I found very interesting. 

One of the negative impacts on dental care was the discovery and wide spread use of sugar.  Comfits were made from it, teas were sweetened with it, pastries were sprinkled with it and teeth were destroyed by it.  Initially those holes in the teeth, which we now refer to as cavities or caries, were thought to be caused by tooth worms.  Ew.  There were many old world remedies for tooth worms like lighting a candle, placing it next to the jaw and leaving your mouth agape so the tooth worms could crawl out.  I’m curious as to how many gullible suckers had their jaw lines singed with candle flames as they waited for the nonexistent worm to crawl from their teeth.  Fortunately this ridiculous theory and the worm removal method it procured were tossed aside during the 13th century. 

Dentists of today were not referred to as dentists during the medieval times, but as barbers.  Barbers were as they are now, professional’s who cut your hair, trim your beard, shave your face, etc.  However they also offered a dental service that consisted of pulling teeth.  You did not go to the barber for a dental check-up or to have your teeth cleaned; if you went to the barber for dental reasons, it was to have the tooth extracted. 

Though the theory was tossed aside, cavities still continued to be prevalent among the masses, specifically the wealthy due to their high sugar consumption.  There are some theories that barbers became the ones to extract the teeth because they were the ones with the sharpened tools and the steady hands.  Regardless of how they came upon their side jobs, they were the men people sought when a tooth pained them so terribly that it had to be removed.  In thinking back on this, their teeth must have had to hurt something awful if they went to a barber, because a barber wouldn’t pump anesthetic into their gums, drill out the nasty part and fill it with a pretty match-to-tooth-color filling like now - no, they yanked that sucker out.  Their anesthetic - alcohol, which was probably the best thing they could have used in those days from a sanitation perspective.  The people who did not use alcohol to alleviate the primal pain of having their tooth ripped out ran the high risk of infection.  I can’t help it - every time I think of someone having their tooth ripped out without anesthetic, I think back on that scene during Cast Away where Tom Hanks character pulls his tooth out using the ice skate blade and how I couldn’t even watch that scene - these barbers must have had some very, very strong stomachs.  Not to mention the pain of having it ripped out - as it is, I complain about the ‘little pinch’ we feel when we get the shot of anesthetic only to be following by that oh so memorable sound of the tooth literally being ripped from your gums.  *shudder*

Once a tooth was removed, regardless of how painful the removal process was, the area of infection felt better almost immediately (gotta love those endorphins, eh?) and left the sufferer permanently free of the pains caused by the cavity, abscess, etc.  In many cases, having a tooth removed also alleviated one of physical ailments brought on by the bad tooth as well such as fever, headache, etc.

Despite popular belief, there was actually a conscious effort made towards dental hygiene during the medieval times.  Records have been found with recipes for mouth washes, powdered tooth cleansers and evening whitening agents.  Most of these recipes included herbs such as parsley, mint, sage and rosemary (primarily for their scents), vinegar, wine and (in some cases) alum.  Rinses and rubs were usually advised for use in the morning upon waking.  This actually makes some sense since teeth really don’t get that nasty feel to them until the morning when you wake up.  Of course, we would feel gross if we went to bed with dirty teeth, but that’s because we have probably all been brushing before bed since we were old enough to remember.  Unfortunately, if the rinse/tooth cleansing powder would have offered any benefit, the opportunity for it to do its work when it was most needed was missed out; when we sleep is when bacteria does the most damage to our teeth because all that food stuck between them remains stagnant, breeding pools for nastiness.  I’m sure many of you are curious to know how they whitened their teeth in those times.  It’ll make you cringe, but here it goes: they would file the teeth down with a metal file, stripping if of its protective enamel and then rub the tooth down with nitric acid which is highly corrosive and terribly bad for you.  The patient would probably enjoy a few months of beautiful, white teeth (and certainly much discomfort!) before his or her teeth began to rot out of their heads as always happened in the teeth whitening cases.  *shudder* 

Being a barber was certainly a bloody job that entailed a good deal of bandages.  As linen could get expensive and there was not the obsession with cleanliness and the avoidance of germs that there is today, the bandages used on patients were simply washed and hung to dry.  Often times these bandages would whip around one another in the wind, twisting the blood stained bandages with the cleaner, white ones used for simple shaving and hair cuts creating a spiraled red and white effect.  Hence the barber pole was born.  I’d personally never actually wondered how the pole came about, but still found this fact interesting.  Initially I didn’t believe it because it just sounds so…I don’t know…unrealistic, I guess.  However, every article I found indicated its origins to this story and so I guess I’m a believer.  A few articles mentioned the blue that is often seen swirled amidst the red and white and noted its addition was after America established its independence as a way of proclaiming its patriotism.  Can you imagine, when trying to find a dentist, looking out for the blood stained rags to know where to go?  And here I was complaining about how Delta Dental’s site is difficult to navigate…

Barbers initially started off their careers assisting monks who offered free medical care to the masses, yet were not allowed to draw blood from individuals.  Though monks had basic medical knowledge, their understanding and application of the human body actually made them, more times than not, better doctors than the expensive ones hired by the wealthy.  Meaning the poor actually received better medical care more often than the wealthy did.  When they could make it to the monasteries, that is… 

In closing, next time you need to go to the dentist and complain about how much you hate it and how uncomfortable it is, just think back on this article and know that it could be SO much worse!  ;)  Enjoy your beautiful smiles, everyone and take good care of them!

Topics: Medieval Era |

One Response to “Getting Medieval on Your Teeth!”

  1. Sugar-n-Spice Says:
    September 1st, 2009 at 5:43 am

    Made me go “Yuck” … I’m due for a dental surgery … one that I’m putting off for a few years now lol … guess I’ll just go ahead with it :)


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