One highlight of the Being Human presentations on ‘Beauty Lost and Found’ in Swansea last week was Geraldine Gnych’s hands-on discussion of medieval tooth care recipes, exploding the common perception of medieval teeth as blackened and uncared-for. Thus in ‘medieval’ films, ‘when the actors smile, aesthetic anachronisms shine across the screen in their perfectly straight teeth gleaming with the striking whiteness typical of Hollywood stars but mostly alien to the pre-orthodontic milieus of earlier centuries’ (Pugh and Weisl 2013: 83). Straightness may well be a more recent dental intervention, but cleanliness and whiteness are not so anachronistic. Geraldine cited the Welsh physicians of Myddfai (tr. Pugs 1861: 393), who had a simple but effective recipe:
Take the leaves of sage, powder with as much again of salt, and make it into balls. Bake them till they are burnt, and powder. Let your teeth be rubbed frequently therewith. It will render the teeth clean, white, and sweet.
So in true Mary Berry fashion, here’s the recipe to try, as tested by Geraldine!
Sage leaves (preferably fresh and green)
Salt (fine, ground sea salt)
Pestle and Mortar
- Take fresh green sage leaves and weigh them, and then weigh an equal amount of salt
- Chop the sage leaves finely. Place in a mortar with the salt and grind together until a fine green powder (This powder is slightly damp)
- Gather small amounts of the powder and between the fingers mould into small balls
- Place balls on a baking tray in a pre-heated oven on gas mark 2 for approximately 2 hours or until lightly browned (they will feel hard)
- When the balls are lightly browned remove from the oven and leave to cool
- When cool, reduce them to a powder in the mortar to leave a light greenish brown powder
To use: place a small amount in your hand; add a little water and apply to a toothbrush, and vigorously brush the teeth to leave them clean, white and your breath smelling of sage.
Tison Pugh and Angela Jane Weisl (2013). Medievalisms: Making the Past in the Present (Abingdon: Routledge).
The Physicians of Myddfai, ed. by Rev. John Williams ab Ithel, trans. by John Pughe (Llandovery: D.J. Roderic, 1861), p. 393.