Trench Mouth

The Bad Old Days

Trencher
A wooden trencher from the Victoria and Albert Museum, c. 1500-1700. Photo by David Jackson, made available through the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales license

A popular email hoax has spread all sorts of misinformation about the Middle Ages and "The Bad Old Days." Here we take a look at the term "Trench Mouth" and its supposed association to a type of medieval tableware.

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:

A trencher (also called a "manchet") was a very common feature of dinner in a medieval castle. Trenchers might also be used in large monasteries, manor houses, or anywhere else that had regular access to an oven and plenty of people to feed. This is because of the origins of the trencher: Initially, it was made of bread.

In castles in particular, ovens would be busy all day long baking bread, which was usually made in round loaves no more than about a foot across. The bottom crusts of these loaves were often the hardest, crispest part, and were sliced off before the rest of the loaf was served to the diners -- of whom, in most castles, there were many. The sliced-off portion made a handy plate -- especially after a day or two (or possibly three or four). It became common to serve a meal on this bread plate.

The trencher would soak up the juices of whatever meat was served on it and could be consumed as part of the meal.

It could also be collected up by the almoner after the meal was done and distributed as alms to the poor, or even tossed to the dogs. It's unlikely that bread was ever used as a trencher in more modest homes; they had no ovens of their own, so the single loaf (or two) they brought to the communal village oven would have to serve the entire household, and the crust would be part of their meal right away.

No matter how the bread trencher was used, however, it was unlikely to have a chance to get "wormy."

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  -- or anyone, for that matter -- 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

Return to the Introduction.
 

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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Snell, Melissa. "Trench Mouth." ThoughtCo, Dec. 31, 2015, thoughtco.com/trench-mouth-in-medieval-times-1788713. Snell, Melissa. (2015, December 31). Trench Mouth. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/trench-mouth-in-medieval-times-1788713 Snell, Melissa. "Trench Mouth." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/trench-mouth-in-medieval-times-1788713 (accessed December 18, 2017).