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Trench Mouth

The Bad Old Days

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From the Hoax:

    Most people didn't have pewter plates, but had trenchers - a piece of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms got into the wood. After eating off wormy trenchers, they would get "trench mouth."

The Facts:

Originally, trenchers (also called "manchets") were simple plates made from the bottom crusts of day-old bread. Lacking plastic in which to wrap it, a day-old loaf could get pretty hard, but it wouldn't get wormy. The trencher would soak up the juices of whatever meat was served on it and could be consumed as part of the meal. It was a very common feature of dinner in a medieval castle.

In the later Middle Ages wooden trenchers evolved. At first they were simple flat boards, but later they contained depressions to hold food, and sometimes separate indentations for salt or a knife. Considering the care people took to wash their hands before meals,1 it is difficult to imagine that the lord of a castle would stand for his food being served on a disgusting, worm-filled trencher. And as has been pointed out, medieval people were not oblivious to the affairs of hygiene and knew how to clean their dishes.

"Trench mouth" is a painful form of gingivitis.2 The term originated in World War I, when soldiers spending extended time in the trenches suffered the effects of stress, exposure and limited hygienic options. Some medieval people may have suffered from it, too, but they didn't call it "trench mouth." And not everyone contracted gingivitis in the Middle Ages. In the absence of toothbrushes (which some nobles had by the 13th century), people rubbed their teeth with ivory or wooden sticks and wiped them with a woolen cloth.3

Next: Bread

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Notes

1. In Gies, Frances & Gies, Joseph, Life in a Medieval Castle (HarperPerennial, 1974), the authors note that "Meals were announced by a horn blown to signal time for washing hands. Servants with ewers, basins and towels attended the guests." (p. 114) And, due to the practice of sharing dishes with table mates and eating some food with the fingers, diners were expected to keep their hands and nails "scrupulously clean" (p. 116).

2. "Vincent's gingivitis" Encyclopædia Britannica
<http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=77403>
[Accessed April 12, 2002].

3. Bishop, Morris, The Middle Ages (Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. 133.

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