BACK IN MEDIEVAL times in England (and in most other places, to be fair), people didn’t have a great understanding of what caused cavities or gum disease, but they still cared about having fresh breath. It wasn’t just out of politeness — they believed that bad smells could carry disease on their own, including bad breath.
Medieval Breath Fresheners
So what was their smell-based dental care? They chewed spices, which we can see an example of in the Canterbury Tales where Chaucer’s characters stay fresh by chewing licorice and cardamom. We also know that women were sometimes recommended a mixture of aniseed, fennel, and cumin to chew.
Cracking a Tooth on Your Bread
Some of the modern causes of dental problems didn’t apply back then. Cavities wouldn’t start to become common until the sugar trade reached England in the 1400s. However, grinding flour between millstones tended to leave tiny chips of stone in their bread. It was pretty easy to crack a tooth on that, and it was a big reason many adults lost several teeth in their lifetimes.
Strange “Cures” for Toothaches
Aside from combating bad breath, they also tried to treat toothaches. The rich could afford myrrh and opium, but everyone else had to make do with dubious remedies like burning a mutton fat and sea holly seed candle near their mouths, which was supposed to lure out the “worms” hiding inside the teeth. (We now know that what they thought were worms were just the roots of teeth!)