By Danièle Cybulskie
Need advice on how to keep your teeth clean and shiny white? Medieval writers have got you covered! Like us, people in the Middle Ages were concerned about their oral hygiene, especially their breath. As a result, solutions from medical treatises and beauty regimens have survived to help us all achieve medieval dental standards. Without further ado, here are five recipes for toothpaste.
1. According to Gilbertus Anglicus’ Compendium of Medicine, it is important to rub your teeth and gums with a cloth after eating, because it is important to ensure that “no corrupte mater abyde amonge þe teeþ” (“no corrupt matter abides among the teeth”). You can also munch on a paste of pepper and salt for that lovely scratchy feeling, and old-fashioned taste. Gilbertus advises, “chewe þid poudir a good while in [your] mooþ, and then swolle it down” (“chew this powder a good while in [your] mouth and then swallow it down”). As a side benefit, you’re likely to clear your sinuses while you’re at it.
2. From one part of The Trotula, one of the most famous books of medieval remedies and beauty tips for women, comes a recipe “For Black Teeth”:
… take walnut shells well cleaned of the interior rind, which is green, and … rub the teeth three times a day, and when they have been well rubbed … wash the mouth with warm wine, and with salt mixed in if desired.
I’m not sure how much anyone would desire mixing salt with the wine, but there you have it: black teeth whitened.
3. This second tooth-whitening recipe from The Trotula may work even better, since it requires wiping the teeth after swishing the wine, preventing unsightly wine stains on the teeth. This recipe requires a bit more effort:
Take burnt white marble and burnt date pits, and white natron, a red tile, salt, and pumice. From all of these make a powder in which damp wool has been wrapped in a fine linen cloth. Rub the teeth inside and out.
After that, be sure to do the wine rinse again, “with very good wine,” then “dry” and “wipe” the teeth “with a new white cloth.” Perhaps the white cloth helps you find all the wine stains. Finally, finish by chewing on “fennel or lovage or parsley” for good oral health and fresh breath.
4. Need to take your toothpaste on the road? No problem. The Physicians of Myddfai have got your back. You can either scrub “briskly” with just one herb – “elecampane” – or you can make handy powder balls to bring with you:
Take the leaves of sage (Salvia officinalis), powder with as much again of salt, and make it into balls. Bake them till they are burnt and powder. Let your teeth be rubbed frequently therewith. It will render the teeth clean, white, and sweet.
Who could ask for anything more?
5. This last recipe from The Trotula is for people who are rich and want their teeth to show it. The writer does say this one “works the best”, so, naturally, I’ve saved it for last.
Take some each of cinnamon, clove, spikenard, mastic, frankincense, grain, wormwood, crab foot, date pits, and olives. Grind all of these and reduce them to a powder, then rub the affected places.
Your breath, with its mix of frankincense and crab foot, will let everyone know just how wealthy you are. (You’re welcome.)
And there you have it! Solutions for all of your toothpaste needs. For more information on English dentistry, read the rest of Trevor Anderson’s “Dental Treatment in Medieval England”; for an always-worthwhile read on women’s health and beauty, check out The Trotula; and for more helpful tips from history, check out Ask the Past.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Medieval girl at the table. Photo by Hans Splinter