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A Mouthful Of Microbes

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After watching Hollywood movies of medieval knights with neat haircuts and bright smiles, it may shock you to be reminded that our dear medieval cousins looked anything but clean. The truth is that hygiene was not a top priority in the Middle Ages and germs were in heaven. This was a time in which cities lacked sewage systems and feces, urine, and garbage were dumped onto the streets or into the castle moat. Not surprisingly, outbreaks of water-borne diseases were a frequent occurrence. Add to that religious concerns about nudity, and it will not surprise you to know that even the most illustrious doctors recommended not taking baths regularly. As a result, everybody, from the lowest peasant to the most powerful king, stank like a smelly animal.

In this era of complete disregard for personal hygiene, people did pay some attention to dental hygiene. Why? Because toothache was a widespread malady and people would result to anything in their power to prevent it and alleviate it. They would rub on their teeth, for example, mixtures of fresh or burned scented herbs such as parsley, mint, and rosemary, and then rinse their mouths with solutions made of herbs, vinegar, wine, and/or alum (the latter is still use by many as a home remedy for sore throat). Alas, these practices were not effective enough to prevent dental bacteria from growing and causing cavities and infections. I also read that our medieval ancestors were advised to clean their teeth in the morning, rather than at night. I imagine this was done to ensure they had good (better?) breath. However, the morning practice left the oral microbes free to roam and proliferate throughout the long night hours. Hence, cavities and abscesses were very common and medieval barbers found a profitable side job: pulling out teeth!

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