Even today, you probably still have those two lines from Jean Marzollo’s poem memorized.
Unfortunately, the poem doesn’t let us know about Columbus’ teeth.
That’s ok, because we can garner some insight from other poems. Take Geoffrey’s Chaucer’s prologue of The Canterbury Tales, for example:
When the West Wind also with its sweet breath / In every wood and field has breathed life into…
We can infer “sweet breath” was important to people in the Middle Ages. And, thanks to the poem “O How Sweet the Breeze of April” by Arnaud de Marveil, we can also infer “snow-white teeth.”
But if teeth were important to people in the Middle Ages…
How Did They Take Care of Their Teeth?
We have a few clues about how people in the Middle Ages took care of their teeth. For example, this page recounts how one woman, Jennifer A. Heise, tried several medieval tooth powders and rubs.
Fresh Breath Powders
Heise points us to two types of powders mentioned in Gilbertus Anglicus’ Compendium of Medicine:
“And let him use this powder: Take of pepper, one ounce; and of mint, as much; and of rock salt, as much. And make him to chew this powder a good while in his mouth, and then swallow it down.”
“And let him use these pills that are good for all manner of stinking of the mouth: Take of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and mace, eight drams; of red sandlewood, ten drams; of quibibis, seven drams; of cardamom, five drams. Mix them with the juice of mint and make pills of the size of a fig. And let him to have two of them under either side of his tongue at once.”
In both cases, Heise described a burning sensation. But for the spice balls — the one with cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and mace — she said her breath was noticeably sweeter.
Gilbertus Anglicus also wrote about tooth rubs:
“. . . let the mouth be washed with wine that birch or mint has simmered in. And let the gums be well rubbed with a sharp linen cloth until they bleed…And let him rub well his teeth with the chewed herbs and also his gums. . . .”
Heise reports her teeth did feel cleaner and less gummy afterward.
What Can We Learn from the People in the Middle Ages?
Obviously, today, we don’t use the same tooth powders or rubs as people in the Middle Age. Yet, while those aren’t the same as squeezing a dab of toothpaste onto a toothbrush, and brushing in short, circular strokes for two minutes, we can still take away some oral hygiene pointers of our own.
We are what we eat. This answer to a Quora question credits better teeth to diet. For example, during the Middle Ages, most people couldn’t afford sugar. According to this medieval sourcebook, sugar cost 1 to 3 shillings a pound, and the average family budgeted 600 to 2,000 shillings a year on meals (anywhere from two to six shillings a day). As a result, people used sugar sparingly, if at all. This helped their teeth a lot, as sugar can act as a stimulant for plaque.
To prevent disease, get into a tooth-cleaning routine. “And after every meal, let him wash well his mouth and rub well his gums and his teeth so that no corrupt matter abides among the teeth.” There’s a lot we can take to heart from Gilbertus Anglicus.
This Columbus Day, as we reflect on Columbus and other medieval forefathers, let’s remember our own snowy-whites, keep our breath smelling sweet and keep our teeth free of plaque.