Our modern conception of the medieval times evokes images of barbaric medical
practices, knights and ladies, unusual fashion, poor hygiene and, by extension,
rotting teeth. Surprisingly, medieval folk had pretty healthy teeth, bolstered
not only by the era’s aesthetic preference for white teeth and fresh
breath, but also by the calcium-rich diet that was prevalent during the
In the medieval era, people’s diets were relatively bland, with
little to no sugar. At this time, sugar was either hard to find or astronomically
expensive, so the common person turned to natural sources of sugar such
as fruits and honey—and sparingly, even then. As we would discover
hundreds of years later, sugar is conducive to tooth decay through the
acid byproduct of bacteria as they feed on sugar remnants on the teeth.
Only about 20% of teeth in a medieval person’s mouth showed signs
of decay, according to archeological evidence. By the early twentieth
century, sugar had become a dietary staple—but dentistry had yet
to catch up to the times, and a whopping 90% of teeth showed signs of
decay in some populations.
Medieval people ate the way they did because it was all there was to eat.
But archeological evidence and historical records show that medieval people
were fairly meticulous about their dental health. In what was an early
form of tooth-brushing, people rubbed pastes made of salt and herbs on
their teeth and gums to freshen breath and remove what would come to be
known as plaque. If herbs weren’t available, medieval people rubbed
their teeth with linen cloths instead. Even more surprising was that medieval
people used acidic, vinegar or wine-based mouthwashes flavored with herbs
and spices. And, for a quick fix for bad breath, people chewed strong,
pleasant-smelling herbs. These habits helped maintain white, healthy teeth.
In those days, anesthesia didn’t exist, and the primary anesthetic,
so to speak, was inebriation. As you can imagine, this was not particularly
helpful, much less for the barber, who pulled teeth in addition to his
other duties. Treatments for mouth cancers were just as, if not more painful:
surgeons would cut out diseased tissue and then cauterize the diseased
area—again, without anesthesia. When you take into account the dental
“treatments” of the medieval era, it’s no wonder people
took such good care of their teeth.
University Associates in Dentistry, we’ve come a long way from the medieval times. We’re experienced
providers of general and cosmetic dentistry, dental implants, and more.
If you’re looking for dental care in Chicago, visit our website,
or call us at (312) 704-5511 to find out more about what we do.