How to avoid the heartbreak of halitosis and other dental disasters in the time of the Tudors

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A dentist with silver forceps and a necklace of large teeth, extracting the tooth of a seated man. Photo Credit – British Library

Taking care of our teeth has always been a priority even in Tudor times.  However, for many people it was not an easy task and did not always work.

There were not toothbrushes and certainly no fluoride enhanced toothpaste at the time, but cleaning your teeth was considered part of good daily grooming.  A “tooth rag”, twigs or sponges were used to scrub teeth with ashes of burnt rosemary.  At least one expert at the time, recommended ground pumice stone.  Then the teeth must be rubbed by a mixture of Aqua Vitae, aqueous solution of ethanol, and Aqua Fortis, nitric acid, to strengthen them. 

After dinner, the mouth must be rinsed with water, wine or water with vinegar to rid it of any leftover food.  To sweeten the breath, comfits of anise, parsley and cinnamon.

The English Housewife, a book from 1615 by Gervase Markham, has remedies to whiten teeth as well.  One that made the grade was as follows, “Take a saucer of strong vinegar, and two spoonfuls of the powder of roche alum, a spoonful of white salt, and a spoonful of honey; seethe all these till it be as thin as water, then put it into a close vial and keep it, and when occasion serves wash your teeth therewith, with a rough cloth, and rub them soundly, but not to bleed.”

With the advent of sugar many in the upper class had blackened teeth.  It is reported that Bess of Hardwick, one of the richest women of the

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Medieval dental tools. Photo credit – Google Images

age, blackened on purpose her teeth to give the illusion of more wealth.

However, even with all this attention to oral hygiene,  tooth loss was rampant.   Mary I and Elizabeth I were especially plagued with poor teeth, and there are many reports of them both having teeth pulled.  Dentists were instructed to seat the patient on a low stool or on the ground with the patient’s head between the legs of the dentist.  Once the tooth is extracted, the wound must bleed freely to rid the patient of “ill humors”.  Then the dentist must press on the gums with his fingers to adjust the remaining teeth.

Looking at the tools some of these early dentists used is the stuff of nightmare!  You would have to have nerves of steel to endure it or come at your sovereign with one.

Teeth could be replaced by substitutes of ivory and held in place by silver wire attached to the remaining teeth.

All in all a harrowing process, so make sure you use your Aqua Vitae.

ER