Study King Richard III Remains Give Insights on Middle Ages Oral Health

The stereotype often seen in movies of peasants with blackened and gapped teeth during the Middle Ages may just be a myth.

Thanks to the remains of King Richard III of England, which were discovered in 2012, researchers continue to gain a better understanding of the oral hygiene habits of that era.

A study in the April 2013 British Dental Journal found that Richard III, the last English king to die in battle, had generally poor oral health, suffering from tartar build up and dental caries—a commonly used term for tooth decay.
The study supports research that found, unlike modern day, people in higher social classes had more dental caries during the Middle Ages.

“For the lower social classes access to limited range of dietary sugars and the consistent inability to cook carbohydrates resulted in a reduced caries experience,” according to the study. “By the same reasoning it is likely that the more affluent of individuals suffered with a greater caries experience, as was the case with the Grey Friars remains.”

The skeletal remains of Richard III, who wore the crown from 1483 to 1485, were found in September 2012 under a parking lot—the former site of the Church of the Grey Friars where he was buried in an unmarked grave.
Researchers found that several of his teeth were missing, most likely due to tooth decay. On other teeth, the remains suggested tartar build up over a period of time.

However, some of the teeth showed less evidence of tartar build up which suggest that Richard III had “some degree of insight with dental hygiene, however basic.”

Researchers also found that evidence of gap closure on two of the missing teeth point to the “early extraction of these teeth by skilled hands.”

According to the study, barber surgeons legally practiced dentistry at the time.

It is also “not impossible” that Richard III had practiced the 10 rules outlined by Giovanni de Arcoli, professor of medicine and surgery in Italy from 1412-1427, to help preserve the teeth.

The list includes caution on eating sweets, breaking “hard things” with the teeth, rinsing and cleaning the teeth after every meal using “thin pieces of wood.” Giovanni de Arcoli was the first to record using gold leaf as a restorative material despite his unfamiliarity with tooth morphology, researchers say.

“The provision of dentistry in the 15th century was surprisingly sophisticated with evidence of restorative advances,” the study concluded.

For more information on caries and nutrition tips to help the health of your teeth and gums, visit the ADA’s consumer site

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This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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