One of the most widespread misbelieves about the Middle Ages is that everybody was always dirty and nobody cleaned their teeth which – according to the stereotype – resulted in horrible tooth decay and bad breath. But in reality, people in the Middle Ages believed that bad smells (including bad breath) transmitted diseases. So if people in the Middle Ages tried to avoid bad smells then how did they clean their teeth to avoid tooth decay and the bad breath that comes with it?
While toothbrushes existed in the Middle Ages they were expensive and rare. A cheaper alternative was to chew young twigs and use the unraveled end as an improvised toothbrush. The most common way for medieval people to clean their teeth was to repeatedly wash out their mouths with a mixture of water, wine, and herbs (basically a medieval mouthwash). These measures might sound unsophisticated, but they were quite effective!
By the way, not only dental hygiene was important to medieval people. Unlike the common cliche, medieval people also bathed regularly. You can find out more about bathing in the Middle Ages and how often even medieval peasants bathed in my article here.
But for now, I would like to focus on dental hygiene in the Middle Ages.
Were there toothbrushes in the Middle Ages?
When we think of cleaning our teeth, then the first tool that comes to mind is the toothbrush. However, toothbrushes already existed in the (Late) Middle Ages.
The toothbrushes that existed in the Late Middle Ages usually had a wooden or metal body to which brushes made from bundles of hair were attached with wires or cords. However, these toothbrushes were expensive and extremely rare.
So yes, toothbrushes already existed in the Middle Ages. But since they were so expensive, only a tiny minority would use them. The vast majority had to use other tools and ways to clean their teeth.
Let`s take a look!
How did people in the Middle Ages clean their teeth?
When it comes to cleaning teeth in the Middle Ages, then there were basically two options.
Option number one was to use improvised toothbrushes and brush the teeth with those. By chewing on one end of young twigs until that end became fibrous, medieval people were able to make improvised toothbrushes to clean their teeth. That worked pretty well, especially when a paste of salt and herbs (like cloves) was used as toothpaste. But while salt was easily available and rather cheap in the Middle Ages, the same can not be said for cloves. Additionally, the process of cleaning the teeth with such an improvised toothbrush takes forever and it is quite hard to get to all the teeth (and especially the rear side of the teeth).
Because of that, chewing on twigs and using them as improvised toothbrushes was not the most common way people in the Middle Ages cleaned their teeth.
Instead, they used an early version of something that many of us use to this day. Mouthwash!
The most common method that people in the Middle Ages used to clean their teeth was to repeatedly wash out their mouths with mouthwash. These medieval mouthwashes were made by mixing water and wine and – when available – different herbs like sage or crushed cloves. Not only did that clean the teeth quite effectively, but the herbs also ensured a pleasant breath.
These medieval mouthwashes were also not just effective, they were also quite inexpensive since both water and wine were part of the diet of medieval peasants and herbs were usually also grown in the gardens.
Speaking of wine and the daily medieval diet. Have you ever heard somebody say that people in the Middle Ages always drank alcohol because the water was unsafe to drink? Well, that is a myth! Here you can find out more about that myth and why people in the Middle Ages really drank alcohol.
Ok. So the most common way medieval people cleaned their teeth was to use mouthwash. But just how effective was that?
Did people in the Middle Ages have bad teeth?
There is the stereotype that everybody in the Middle Ages had horrible teeth, Caries, and tooth decay. But that is not backed by archaeological findings. Instead, most medieval sceletons have pretty good teeth with way fewer cases of Caries than modern-day people!
The reason for that was probably not just the dental care that has been illuminated in this article, but also the typical medieval diet (which was much better than its modern reputation)! Here you can find out more about the daily diet of a medieval peasant.
And here you can find out more about the diet of a medieval knight.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Rolf Will: Zähne, Menschen und Kulturen Evolution, phylogenetische und kulturhistorische Aspekte; eine Dokumentation aus Jahrtausenden (2001 Weißbach).
Daniela Rösing: Von der Badestube zum Badekabinett. Badekultur im Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit (Zülpich 2014).