Dental treatment in Medieval England

Dental treatment in Medieval England

By Trevor Anderson

British Dental Journal, No. 197 (2004)

Abstract: Medieval (12th–14th century) medical literature suggests that care of the teeth was largely limited to non-invasive treatment. Cures, mainly for toothache and ‘tooth worm’ were based on herbal remedies, charms and amulets. Bloodletting was advised for certain types of toothache. There is also documentary evidence for powders to clean teeth and attempts at filling carious cavities. Surgical intervention for oral cancer and facial fracture is also known. Post-operative infection and abscess formation can be identified and early forms of false teeth are mentioned.

Excerpt: John of Gaddesden wrote the Rosa Anglica in Latin around 1314AD. John was the first physician of distinction to be trained, based mainly on books, in England. Four copies of his MS are housed in the British Library. His work became very popular and was widely used by non-medical readership but was not so well received by his colleagues. The French surgeon, Guy de Chauliac, stated that ‘it was a stupid rehash of the worst of medical lore’. Indeed, a great deal was copied from earlier works and it contained a large amount of charms, sympathetic medicine and folklore, but hardly mentions astrological influence. Despite, apparent limitations, he became court physician to Edward II.

John’s section on toothache includes many prayers and charms. He mentions that anyone who prays to St Apollonia on her feast day (February 9th) will be cured of toothache. St Apollonia (d.c.249AD) was an elderly deaconess of Alexandria who was martyred by having all her teeth extracted and was then burnt alive. One charm involved repeatedly drawing three vertical lines on parchment (to represent running water) while touching the painful tooth with one’s finger.

He also mentions that, ‘some say that the beak of a magpie hung from the neck cures pain in the teeth’. Apparently, he is not convinced by this particular charm. He also states that you should prick a ‘many footed worm which rolls up in a ball when you touch it’, with a needle. You then touch the aching tooth with the same needle and, ‘the pain will be eased’. Obviously, a reference to pain transference from tooth worm to the worm-like centipede.

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