The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.
by Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research staff
French teeth are something of a specialty for the president of Great Britain’s Royal Historical Society. Colin Jones, who is also a history professor at Queen Mary University of London, wrote two memorable monographs on the subject.
A Large Man Who Yanked Teeth
His study called “Pulling Teeth in Eighteenth- Century Paris” centers on a literally huge Parisian tooth-yanker called le Grand Thomas. Jones explains that:
“For nearly half a century, from the 1710s to the 1750s, Thomas was a standard fixture, a living legend, plying his dental wares on the Pont-Neuf in Paris... If the tooth he was attacking repulsed his assaults he would, it was said, make the individual kneel down, then, with the strength of a bull, lift him three times in the air with his hand clenched on the recalcitrant tooth.”
Jones suggests that a well-informed toothache sufferer, surveying the major health care options, might reasonably opt for Le Grand Thomas or one of his many self-taught peers.
Surgeons, the people most likely to do a good job, were enjoying a rise in prestige and fees. They would commonly decline the pedestrian, relatively low-paying task of tooth-pulling. Doctors and apothecaries “were both still primarily hands-off practitioners” whose services might be expensive and whose array of remedies still included things like “the ingestion of flayed, crushed and cooked mouse.”
Given these alternatives, Jones, writes, “it is not difficult to imagine that the limited dental skills of the smithy or the therapeutic value of casseroled mouse must have opened up a niche for a more helpful and more imaginative approach. This niche appear to have been filled by men of the stripe of le Grand Thomas.”
The Two Teeth of King Louis
Jones also wrote a study called “The King’s Two Teeth.” The title refers to the two choppers present at birth, in 1638, in the mouth of Louis XIV, the man who would later be called Louis the Great and Louis the Sun King. “To contemporaries,” writes Jones, “this prodigious, gluttonous, voracious pair of teeth seemed to presage the wonders which the hungrily devouring prince would in the fullness of time effect on the map of Europe.”
Jones mentions a tradition of French royal portrait painting: kingly teeth, even when existing and beautiful, were always hidden behind closed lips.
But traditions would change.
A much-celebrated portrait done in 1701, of a 63-year-old Louis “at the height of his powers”, shows the king with impressively youthful legs and posture. Even with this blatant inaccuracy, Jones says, “one feature stands out – and shocks – for its stark naturalism: hollow cheeks and wrinkled mouth reveal a ruler with not a tooth in his head.”
Together with the development of better dental medicine, he concludes, “The replacement of the tooth puller by the dentist and the emergence on the marketplace of a powerful demand for a different kind of mouth all in their different ways highlighted a silent revolution of the teeth and the smile which bade to put paid to the Old Régime of Teeth.”
“Pulling Teeth in Eighteenth-Century Paris,” Colin Jones, Past and Present, vol. 166, no. 1, February 2000, pp. 100–45.
“The King’s Two Teeth,” Colin Jones, History Workshop Journal, no. 65, Spring 2008, pp. 79–95.
The article above is from the January-February 2015 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!
Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.