Wednesday 5 January 2011: Mediaeval toothache
Today I went to Haverfordwest (county town of Pembrokeshire) for a haircut. A few doors up the High Street from the hairdresser is St Mary's Church and I usually pop in to admire the 13th century carvings that adorn the pillars along the nave. They are some of the best of their kind and include human faces (grotesque and serene), masks, foliage, and creatures locked in combat or playing musical instruments.
Among them is this poor fellow holding his throbbing jaw: it's not an unusual depiction to find since toothache was a scourge in the Middle Ages and dentistry non-existent. The only remedies were herbal or hopeful, for example:
Take a candle made of Henbane seeds and burn it close to the tooth. The worms that are gnawing the tooth will fall out into a cup of water held under the mouth.
Camphor and cloves were deemed helpful of course but so were concoctions of roasted earthworms and crushed spiders' eggs. Or you could put your trust in God:
When the gospel for Sunday is read during the service of the Mass, let the man hearing Mass sign his tooth and his head with the sign of the Holy Cross and say the Lord's Prayer. It will keep him from pain and cure the tooth, so say trustworthy doctors.
Failing that, brute force was the only answer - the tooth would have to be yanked out by whatever means available with all the attendant risk of infection.