Hi all, I have a short post for you today. I personally find this topic fascinating.
Let me start with some questions.
If you had to guess between Julius Caesar and some random Roman proletariat, who had the better teeth? What about between Richard III and some poor sod living in a corner of London where the streets are still of mud?
Who enjoys all the luxuries today? The common man or the 1 percent?
You’d think then that, especially in those times, it was the rich who had the best access to “dental care” — their excuse for dental care, that is. You’d think it was the rich who lived the healthiest. That’s certainly how it’s portrayed in the movies, after all. The king always has a beautiful, brilliant smile and the peasant might have two teeth left, if that.
What if reality was the other way around?
What if it was the ancient 1 percent that had the problem with oral disease and not the poor?
What if the poor were the better off, at least as far as their oral hygiene went?
Actually, that’s pretty much the case. It was the rich whose breath was stinky and teeth half-rotting, while the peasants — who, regardless, by no means lived comfortable lives — were surprisingly healthy and cavity-free.
How could that be?
The Curious Case of Richard III
Richard III, last of his House, lived a short, interesting, and violent career as King of England. After the death of his brother, King Edward IV, Richard was appointed regent to the deceased king’s son and heir, Edward V. In typical fashion of the time, Richard had his brother’s marriage to the son’s mother declared invalid and young Edward’s claim to the throne evaporated. Richard took the opportunity to ascend to the throne, becoming Richard III.
He wouldn’t be king for long, for rebellions soon rose against him. The first by those loyal to Edward IV and the other by Henry Tudor, who would take the throne soon after.
The poor Richard III — who probably deserved what came to him — died in battle against Henry Tudor, at Bosworth Field.
He was buried in Leicester, where whatever monument was left to his honor was later removed. They, in fact, lost his remains, until recently. It was in 2012 that the Richard III Society and the University of Leicester found and identified his skeleton.
Part of those remains includes his teeth and you won’t believe what they discovered.
It’s amazing what one’s teeth can tell you about that person. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the king is portrayed as fearful and anxiety-driven. How true was that depiction? Publishing their work in the British Dental Journal, researchers found that his back teeth had been whittled down by grinding, something associated with stress. Unsurprisingly for a man whose rule lasted only two years, steeped in war all the while.
They also found that Richard III had undergone dental surgery, including the extraction of two teeth. Why would the king need his teeth extracted?
The Ancient 1 Percent: Rich in Wealth, but not in Dental Fortune
It turns out Richard III suffered from tartar and tooth decay. No wonder he needed two teeth removed.
This is surprising because skeletal remains of the lower classes don’t show the same features. What does that mean and how could it be possible?
It comes down to diet.
What causes tooth decay? Bacteria that feed on carbohydrates.
Nowadays, sugars run wild in most of our foods, from cereal and bread, to candy and soda. They’re hard to get away from and we need them. Back then, though, carbohydrates were more difficult to access, especially for those without means.
With their wealthier diet — pun unintended —, the rich of the Middle Ages, and those that came before them, were more susceptible to the dental health consequences associated with those kinds of foods.
Of course, oral hygiene of the era was wanting, as was dental advice. Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled a hundred years after Richard III, was told that eating sweets would help with her breath.
Combined together, bad advice and a sugar-heavy diet caused the rich major dental problems.
Commoners, while hardly living the life (most of the time), could count on healthier teeth. Once you realize that it was due to lack of access to certain foods, you’re less certain that the lack of tooth decay was worth it — now that they had a choice, anyway.
What’s amazing, though, is how relatively uncommon tooth decay and gum disease was in many societies prior to the Industrial Revolution. It surprised researchers when, several years ago, they found decay in recently excavated prehistoric human remains. This was rare in those days because agriculture hadn’t even been invented yet, and so grain and bread were still unknown to them. It turns out that they were eating local acorns and wild oats that would be gathered.
Tooth decay for the average person certainly did exist, but it goes to show how constrained it was when it surprises scientists to find evidence of infection in skeletal remains.
Trickle-Down Dental Problems
You’ve heard of trickle-down economics, or the idea that the rich will provide jobs and therefore trickle-down their wealth to the poor. Whatever you think of that theory, let’s talk about trickle-down dentistry.
Today, oral bacterial infections that cause decay and tissue loss can affect all equally. Sugar is prevalent and inexpensive, sometimes cheaper than water, and dental caries and gum disease are far more widespread than they once were. In some ways, it illustrates just how far society has gone, to allow most people to enjoy a rich diet, but in other ways it underscores how important it is to take care of your oral health.
Of course, nowadays you have actual dentists and you have science. Get checked up twice a year, or you might end up like Richard III.