Did medieval people have rotten teeth?
What was teeth health like in the Middle Ages? Speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, Christopher Dyer reveals why medieval peasants probably had better dental hygiene than their more modern descendants...
Did medieval people have tooth decay? And did they have toothache?
Of the people buried in the churchyard at Wharram Percy in Yorkshire – the biggest collection of dead peasants that we have available to us – 68 per cent of them had cavities – so they did have tooth decay, but much less than in modern populations.
If you look at 19th century cemetery – and count the number of people with tooth decay, it's 79 per cent. Everybody, in other words, has rotten teeth in the 19th century. Whereas it's a much smaller number in the Middle Ages.
And I don't think they're very good at cleaning their teeth. The teeth are often covered in calculus, the hard stuff that the dentist scrapes off when you go for a teeth cleaning. The peasants didn't have dentists to do that.
They’re also not very good at brushing their teeth, but the main thing is, they don't eat sugar. This is the big difference.
The 19th century population – the modern population – is the beneficiary of a huge trade in cheap sugar. In the Middle Ages, sugar was a very expensive and scarce; it was known only really to the higher aristocracy. I suppose they probably did have tooth decay – but the peasants didn't. They had a healthy diet of bread and bread and porridge.
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Christopher Charles Dyer CBE FBA is Leverhulme Emeritus Professor of Regional and Local History and director of the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester, England
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