Unveiling Medieval Smiles
Did medieval people have rotten teeth? What was teeth health like in the Middle Ages? In a captivating episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, Christopher Dyer unveils intriguing insights into the dental hygiene practices of medieval peasants. These practices, as revealed through archaeological evidence, offer a unique perspective on oral health that challenges modern assumptions.
Listen to the podcast episode here.
Exploring archaeological remains from the churchyard at Wharram Percy in Yorkshire, which houses one of the most extensive collections of medieval peasant remains, reveals that around 68 percent of individuals displayed cavities. While tooth decay did exist, it was notably less prevalent compared to modern populations.
A compelling comparison arises when we shift our focus to a 19th-century cemetery, where a staggering 79 percent of individuals exhibited signs of tooth decay. This striking contrast underscores the relatively lower incidence of dental issues in the Middle Ages.
Surprisingly, dental hygiene practices of the time were less advanced than today's standards. Many individuals had teeth covered in calculus, the hardened plaque removed by dentists during routine cleanings. However, it's essential to note that medieval peasants did not have access to such professional dental care, yet they still managed to maintain relatively healthier teeth despite these limitations.
While brushing teeth, as understood today, was not common in medieval times, a crucial differentiating factor between the Middle Ages and the 19th century was the consumption of sugar. Unlike modern times, where cheap and abundant sugar is ubiquitous, medieval society had limited access to sugar, which was primarily available to the higher aristocracy due to its expense and scarcity. This dietary distinction played a significant role in the dental health disparity between the two eras.
In summary, Christopher Dyer's insights into dental health among medieval peasants shed light on their surprisingly advantageous oral health compared to their 19th-century counterparts. Despite rudimentary dental hygiene practices, the absence of widespread sugar consumption appears to have contributed significantly to the lower prevalence of tooth decay. The diet primarily consisting of bread and porridge likely played a role in maintaining healthier teeth for medieval individuals.
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