When next trying to encourage a child to cut down their sugar intake, perhaps a history lesson might help. The BBC’s new production of Wolf Hall will include actors with shiny white teeth – despite common assumptions that, in the bad old days, dental hygiene was unimportant. But the author of the books upon which the drama is based, Hilary Mantel, says that this is quite accurate. Early Tudor Britain had not yet encountered sugar, so teeth were relatively pearly white.

“Sugar” as “sugar” might have arrived a little later. But honey, mead, were well known. And of course “sugar” isn’t the only thing that can affect or blacken teeth.

A major effect would have been from pieces of grit in the bread. Flaking off the millstones as flour was ground….

21 thoughts on “Balderdash”

  1. Good Queen Bess was renowned for, amongst other things, the appalling state of her teeth through a surfeit of comfits. When next on a visit to the dentist, get a look at the chart showing natural tooth colours, the range is astonishing. Pearly-white teeth is a glamour started in Hollywood, from technicolour days, when to get that white shine, the actors teeth were covered in a green compound.

  2. I find it mildly amusing that the British need to refer to a bygone era for examples of poor dental hygiene when issuing stark warnings relevant to today.

  3. Sugar is the new tobacco. Or the latest in the ever more crowded market of things that need to be banned.

    False teeth were made from the teeth of corpses back then. Lovely.

  4. Britain’s dental hygiene has vastly improved, at least amongst the middle class – braces being an obvious social marker. That said, what with the rise of talent shows and the dreams of instant stardom, almost everyone gets the message these days. Or so I thought: a recent report indicated those areas where fluoride had been added to the water were 45% less likely to suffer tooth decay (the report was initiated by dental surgeons).

  5. “I saw it on the telly so it must be true.”

    A whole new line of research opens up before our very eyes!

    Time travel is possible, cowboys had guns that fired 38 shots and Oxford has a murder a week.


  6. Mantel may be relying on dentition in 16th century skulls for her evidence; many excavated skulls from this date and earlier reveal a lovely set of pearlies, and indeed Richard III looks as though he didn’t even need a filling.

    However, this may be due to post-mortem bleaching during putrefaction; the many images of post-Elizabethan skulls taken to show a tobacco smoker’s ‘pipe notch’ in the teeth also show lovely white teeth – when we know that during life they would have been stained brown / black from unfiltered smoke in a pipe smoker with high enough consumption to grind a ‘rowlock’ in their dentition.

    This may also explain why George Washington’s mahogany teeth, if made from the hardest Honduras Mahogany, which would have appeared black when moist, did not seem extraordinary in an age of pipe smokers.

  7. Nothing like a hefty dose of acetic acid to strip enamel from teeth: all those pickles! vinegar instead of refrigeration at least prolonged the life of vegetables.

  8. One things that’s always bugged me about historical productions is that all the interior scenes are way too brightly lit.

    Anyone who’s ever been to a stately home/castle can attest that they are the gloomiest places in the world. Gloomier than Slough even.

    Now, I can understand why this it is thus, you want the viewers to be able to see what’s going on and see all the fancy costumes wigs and actors. But part of the appeal of the genre is seeing how people lived back in olden?

    Stanley Kubricks ‘Barry Lyndon’ the only flick that springs to mind that gets it right — he didn’t use any electric lights at all, just hundreds and hundreds of candles.

  9. “When next trying to encourage a child to cut down their sugar intake…”

    WTF? Since when were children responsible for the weekly shop?

    No fizzy drinks except for birthdays. A jug of water on the dining table. Only sugar cubes, in case you have builders round. That cuts out enough sugar to be healthy.

    Parents these days! They don’t know they’re born.

  10. No fizzy drinks except for birthdays. A jug of water on the dining table. Only sugar cubes, in case you have builders round. That cuts out enough sugar to be healthy.

    Hah! You grew up in my house!

  11. And so it continues, the insane moral panic about sugar, furled by incredible ignorance, snobbery and the new British disease, a desire to be a censorious pain in the arse.

    I bet the Tudors had fairly poor teeth, for those who still had them. Gum disease would have taken most of them. I expect the population of England wasn’t brushing and flossing back then.

    I half expected to see “HFCS came from America and ruined everyone’s teeth in Tudor England”.

  12. My old granddad in Norfolk where I lives, he used to pull his own teeth out, he did. An’ he smoked all his life, drank, and had shrapnel from World War 1 working its way to his heart. Died at 97! Them lefty tyrants won’t make that age, they won’t.

  13. So the Tudors had not encountered sugar…. Not even the fructose available from fruits. Did grapes and oranges not exist then?

  14. So Much for Subtlety

    Diogenes – “So the Tudors had not encountered sugar…. Not even the fructose available from fruits. Did grapes and oranges not exist then?”

    Grapes? Well grapes will grow in the UK. But oranges, that may be tougher. The sweet orange turns up in Europe about the time of the Late Tudors. So it is possible.

  15. So Much for Subtlety

    Tim Newman – “Oranges grew in the UK during the medieval warm period: road in Pembroke is called Orange Way, on the site of what was an old orchard.”

    Depends on what you mean by an orange:

    In Europe, citrus fruits—among them the bitter orange, introduced to Italy by the crusaders in the 11th century—were grown widely in the south for medicinal purposes,[4] but the sweet orange was unknown until the late 15th century or the beginnings of the 16th century, when Italian and Portuguese merchants brought orange trees into the Mediterranean area.[4] Shortly afterward, the sweet orange quickly was adopted as an edible fruit.

    So I am guessing people grew them as an ornamental tree for a long time before they came up with one that you could eat.

  16. PaulB: So you think you have a correlation?

    Of course there is a good theory sitting behind the proposed correlation. But you have five paired data points and no error bars: this is not great evidence, even though it may be the best you can find.

  17. “This may also explain why George Washington’s mahogany teeth…”

    Probably nobody watching now, but – George Washington did not have wooden teeth. Several sets of interestingly varied 18th century denture technology, sure, but none with wood.

    Amazingly calm, rational and good-natured chap, really, considering the dental hell he went through.

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