December 5, 2009 by

Wisdom Teeth

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , ,

Although within fiction and movies, there is a sense that hygiene was poor and few people lived into adulthood with all their teeth intact, people did care for their teeth in the Middle Ages.  Herbs and mouthwashes existed that allowed people to do so:

http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/teeth.html

At the same time, it is certainly true that tooth extraction was extremely common, and probably one of the few means of dealing with a rotten tooth.

http://www.ada.org/public/resources/history/timeline_midlage.asppeople

If people didn’t care for their teeth, they lost them, as the following image clearly indicates (copyright to the British Library Board).

I’ve been rereading Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series.   These books are a joy to read, if only because Peters is a master of her craft and it is enjoyable to note how beautifully she strings words together.  But she also writes about an area of the world in which I am interested, and Brother Cadfael is a medieval herbalist.

The combination of that and the fact that my son had his wisdom teeth out on Thursday prompts me to think about the care of teeth within medieval medicine.  Cadfael spent twenty years in the Holy Land, where he learned about herbs and medicines.  Fortunately, this was an era before bloodletting, and Cadfael is a true physician.  He focuses on easing pain and ailments and  counteracting symptoms with herbal remedies.  He sets bones and sutures wounds, too.  He is also not averse to washing his hands, and perhaps Peters’ intent was that he learned this in the Holy Land too.

Cadfael never took care of dental work, however, and it is hard to get a bead on what was really the situation with medieval people’s teeth.  Clearly, there was no flouride or flossing, but with less sugar consumption, perhaps there were fewer cavities.  Certainly, archaeologists have dug up medievial skeletons with most of their teeth still present.  From what I have read here and there (e.g. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3722598.stm; http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/teeth.html),  it is a modern conceit to think that medieval people had bad teeth, and perhaps, as is the case now, the range of care was wide and to some extent depended on education and wealth.

Dentists say that wisdom teeth need to come out because they are prone to infections, even if they have come in properly, and if they haven’t, can cause even worse problems by coming in sideways, not coming in at all, etc.

From my reading, wisdom teeth would have been far less of a concern in earlier eras–obviously we’ve just started taking them out in the 20th century–because by the time wisdom teeth began to bother people once they were adults a) they’d already lost a few teeth so the wisdom teeth came in properly, or b) by the time wisdom teeth would be a concern (i.e. an individual in their thirties) most people were nearing the end of their lives.  (http://www.wonderquest.com/LifeSpan.htm)

I’m not sure I believe that any of this is giving us the whole truth.

14 Responses to Wisdom Teeth

  1. Sarah Vallieres

    Very interesting post. I’ve read that archeologists have found that peasants were more apt to have more of their teeth than the nobility (especially during the War of the Roses period). The peasants typically ate a near vegetarian diet with limited amounts of meat. This diet was high in coarsely ground grains.

    As result, their teeth and bodies were healthier than carnivorous nobility, some of whom ate almost no vegetables at all. (In fact, if memory serves, one foreign visitor to Henry VIII’s court commented that the breath of the nobles was foul from eating too much meat.)

    One thing the forensic archeologists noted about the peasant teeth was that, unlike the teeth of nobles, the peasants’ molars tended to be ground almost flat from eating so many coarse grains.

  2. Sarah Post author

    Gerald says: “Both sexes exceed any other nation in attention to their teeth, which they render like ivory, by constantly rubbing them with green hazel and wiping with a woollen cloth.”
    Thanks Anna!

  3. Brynne

    There has to be some evolutionary reason for it. To replace the teeth that fell out, presumably. But if we’re talking Homo Sapiens then yeah, they probably lost teeth and needed replacements . . . but was that as big a problem in the middle ages?

  4. Anna Elliott

    Gerald of Wales talks about how careful the Welsh are about cleaning their teeth in The Description of Wales. I think he says they used willow wands? It’s been awhile since I read it.

  5. Sarah Post author

    It’s hard to say. If the median age of death was 30, then maybe . . . wisdom teeth might not really bother you until your late twenties. But it just seems too pat, to me.