This is how Medieval dentistry explained the toothache : a worm busy eating a way out of the jawbone into the tooth and peeping out through the cavity.
Not a bad description of what a cavity actually feels like.
(Am I alone in picturing a nano-version of the movie “Alien” peering out of your kisser? Probably.)
Much of Medieval dentistry involved ‘killing’ this worm or putting it to sleep. Using cloves, peppers or herbs steeped in wine to ‘kill the worm’,
at least helped to fight infection and numb pain.
This can of dental worms was opened in Babylonian medicine, discussed in first-century Rome, and referred to in Arabian and late Anglo-Saxon sources. A Medieval remedy, gasping the smoke of hot henbane seeds, was mentioned by the Roman doctor, Scribonius Largus.
Medieval Dentistry Cures
Welsh ‘cures’ against the tooth worm include:
‘Take a candle of sheep’ suet, some eringo (sea holly Eryngium maritimum) seed being mixed therewith, and burn it as near the tooth as possible, some cold water being held under the candle. The worms (destroying the tooth) will drop into the water, in order to escape from the heat of the candle’
The severe pain caused by the tooth worm was commonly treated by inhaling the smoke from hot henbane. Possibly the burnt henbane seeds looked like small worms, suggesting a successful remedy. The worms had fled the teeth!
Not surprisingly, the major concern in Medieval dentistry was toothache.
There are several bizarre recipes for powders for painless tooth extraction:
‘Take some newts, by some called lizards, and those nasty beetles which are found in fens during summer time, calcine them in an iron pot and make a powder therof. Wet the forefinger of the right hand, insert it in the powder, and apply it to the tooth frequently, refraining from spitting it off, when the tooth will fall away without pain. It is proven’
‘Seek some ants with their eggs and powder, have this powder blown into the tooth through a quill, and be careful that it does not touch another tooth’
John of Gaddesden suggests applying the fat of a green tree frog, partridge brain or dried cow dung to help a decayed tooth fall out. To regenerate the teeth, try smearing the brain of a hare to the gaping jaw. If all else fails, pray to St Apollonia on her feast day. She is the patron saint of dentistry by virtue of having all her teeth extracted, before being burnt alive. However, even contemporary physicians considered John a mountebank, rehashing “the worst of medical lore”
Advanced Medieval Dentistry
If you were lucky enough to have money and live in a larger city or university town, you could avail of quite advanced Medieval dentistry. Dentures, teeth whitening, fillings, and treatments for oral cancer are all mentioned in Medieval texts. Early cavities were filled with delicacies like gall nuts, pig grease and myrrh, sulphur, camphor, beeswax, and arsenic.
Early whitening attempts included aqua fortis (diluted nitric acid). This did actually whiten teeth, but had the unfortunate side effect of eating away at the tooth enamel, so if used too often it destroyed the teeth. A slightly safer method of tooth whitening was boiling together equal parts of honey, vinegar and wine to brighten teeth. Another tooth powder was made from ground up alabaster mixed with jelly that could be rubbed on the teeth, which sounds a little less harmful.
Peasants had to make do with local barber surgeons, their own traditional remedies, and their friends. Untrained tooth-pullers often dislodged other teeth in the process of extraction. They could even dislocate the jaw, break the bone or cause severe haemorrhaging. The victim would not only have to pay for their brutal “care”, but would also be charged to buy his own tooth back!
In an odd case, a royal hobbyist stepped up. King James IV of Scotland (1473-1513) was an enthusiastic amateur physician and paid some of his subjects to allow him to extract their teeth and bleed them!