Brushing Up: Dark Ages Dental Care

I had to make an emergency trip to the dentist yesterday. Not for me, but my daughter, who has a brace to straighten her teeth. A piece of wire was cutting into her cheek and therefore had to be fixed. Fortunately, it was quite a simple process even though it was quite painful. Far preferable to a decayed tooth.

Toothache is the worst pain ever.

I have always loved sweets and puddings and did suffer some tooth decay in my youth. Thanks to modern dentistry and immaculate oral hygiene, I have not suffered toothache for a couple of decades. I cannot imagine how awful it must have been for those like me, who enjoyed the sweeter things, before the toothbrush was invented.

The official date for the toothbrush was 26 June 1498, when Chinese Emperor Hongzhi first patented it. He modified an ancient idea of tying boars’ bristles to a bamboo stick. Evidence has shown that the bristle toothbrush had been used from the Tang Dynasty (seventh to tenth century) so it wasn’t a ‘new’ invention for the Chinese people. However, it was the emperor’s patent that allowed the toothbrush design to travel across Asia and Europe – just as many of the Chinese ideas did (paper money, printing, gunpowder, post offices, acupuncture and noodles).

Once in England, William Addis mass produced the toothbrush and created the big industry that dental hygiene is today. The yukky animal bristles (they had to be germ-ridden for goodness sake!) were eventually replaced by synthetic fibres in the 1930s. In 1954 the electric toothbrush was invented in Switzerland, a gift from God, no less.

But how did the Anglo-Saxons in Dark Ages England cope with their smiles? Archaeological evidence (that is, skeletons) has demonstrated that most people had good teeth with very few cavities. It is no surprise to us modern folk that the amount of sugar eaten corresponds to the amount of tooth decay. For the Anglo-Saxons, there was no refined sugar or carbohydrates but there were the natural sugars of fruit and honey. This would explain the tartar, hardened dental plaque, that has appeared on the skeletons’ teeth. This also tells us that the Anglo-Saxons did not use toothbrushes like their peers in China did.

Researchers have found bits of bark between the teeth of our ancestors. This could mean that they were short of tasty food at some point and tried to eat trees, or that they were attempting to clean their teeth. Literature has mentioned ‘chew sticks’. These were frayed twigs that were chewed in an attempt to clean teeth, in a similar way to the chews we give our pet dogs these days. So they did make an effort.

In the Leechbooks of Bald (found at the British Library) there are several remedies for toothache, so it wasn’t unknown. One is: ‘…chew pepper often with the teeth, it will soon be better for him. Again boil henbane’s root (Hyoscyamus niger) in strong vinegar or in wine, set it on the sore tooth, and let him chew it with the sore tooth sometimes; he will be hale’ Other remedies exist, some seem to have a narcotic effect. They were probably the better ones.

Of course, prayers to Teutonic and Christian deities were always popular methods to cure toothache, as with everything else. Carrying amulets and reciting charms were common, too.

I’ll give my daughter a posy of herbs next time her brace is playing up. Or maybe not.

 (c) 2015 A.J. Sefton

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