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:
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.
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.