Was bad breath considered bad in the days of poor/no oral hygiene?

Were men and women doing much lip-locking in the days of rotten mouths, lots of meat-eating and no tooth-brushing? Did they think each other’s breath was gross?

Put another way, is what makes bad breath smell bad to us built into us (which would mean people were grossed out by each other’s breath back then, too)?

Or would the ubiquitousness of such breath back in the day make it not smell bad, or in some way mitigate people perceiving it as yucky?

Given how EVERYTHING smelled and what they were eating, I think people had a lot less sensitive senses of taste and smell.

In my years of reading about things in the olden days, some people (the upper class, maybe) did clean their teeth with bits of rags or twigs and used various herbal/spice concoctions to make their breath fresh(er). Probably women, as it wouldn’t do to be a lady-in-waiting at court, looking for a husband, to repel any eligible prospects with her rank breath. The peasants probably had better teeth, living on black bread and vegetables. There were no sugary candies and cookies to hasten the rotting of teeth.

There once was a maid in a tower
Who looked just as fair as a flower
Her skin was like milk,
Her hair smooth as silk,
But her breath made the bravest knight cower.

Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale features a rather foppish young man who chews herbs and spices to make his breath smell sweet, anticipating a tryst with his lady-love. So it was certainly something that at least a few people cared about.

A quote from Ian Mortimer’s “Time traveller’s guide to medieval England”:

People did mock those with bad breath. I don’t recall the name, or the source, but the story goes, a prominent Greek politician was mocked for his bad breath, and he came home to his wife, livid that she hadn’t warned him. Being a proper woman from ancient Greece, she innocently told him that she simply thought all men’s breath smelled like that. Given cultural norms at the time, that is a realistic explanation, on her part. If the story isn’t apocryphal, it also answers how lip-locking went. What do you really have, at the time, to compare your current lover, if the norm is poor hygiene?

I don’t follow your logic here. Are you saying that chronic exposure to pungent odours caused people to lose their sense of smell, the same way that listening to loud music all the time can make you go deaf? Or are you saying that the only possibly explanation for people not complaining about bad smells back then would have been that they hadn’t developed the ability to smell them in the first place? If the former, what leads you to believe that exposure to strong odours can damage the sense of smell? If the latter, by what mechanism do you propose that humans evolved a better sense of smell within the span of just a few hundred years?

Also, what does your “given what they were eating” comment refer to? What is it that you think they were eating that had any bearing on their ability to taste? And who is “they”? Surely diets varied greatly, both geographically and across human history. What is it about all modern human diets that is so different about all pre-toothbrush human diets that has enabled us to develop or retain a sharper sense of taste?

I didn’t read **Chimera **'s post as saying that people permanently lost their sense of smell, but as they became desensitized to it. And you do - I can’t tell you the number of times I’ll spend the afternoon cooking something, and then leave the house or go in another room for 20 or 30 minutes. When you come back in, OMG it smells great! But when you stay in the room for a few more minutes, you don’t smell it anymore.

If you’re constantly around stinky sweaty bodies with stinky breath, I’m sure it’s the same. You just don’t notice it as much as you would if you weren’t used to it. Now, I’m not saying that’s the answer to the OP, but I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that the medieval nose might not be as sensitive to body odors as we are now that they’re not around us everywhere.

Isn’t this what olfactory receptor desensitization is?

I wondered the same thing. Although they did try to freshen in some ways, I can easily imagine them just getting used to whatever state was common. For example most smokers are able to completely tune out how their breath and clothes smell.

Yes, but if someone then asks you why you don’t smell it any more, you wouldn’t say, as Chimera did, that you don’t have a very sensitive sense of smell, because that sounds like you’re making an observation about your ability to smell generally. Rather, you’d say that you’ve been so accustomed to the smell that you don’t notice that particular odour any more. This is why I think Chimera is saying that people didn’t have very good senses of smell in general.

Romans brushed their teeth with urine.

“please don’t kiss me yet Flavius, not until we’ve had our urine.”

Poor dental health in general isn’t the default condition for most people throughout history. It is fairly localized and rather recent. I took a really good anthropology class called Bones, Bodies, and Disease in college and we studied real mummies and preserved body parts from different geographic regions and periods. Dental caries (cavities) aren’t that common in older remains. The grit in their diet smoothed out small holes before they had a chance to fully develop and many older cultures didn’t use refined sugar regularly which is a prime culprit in poor dental health. You are mainly looking at the period between the time when refined sugar became popular yet modern dental hygiene didn’t have either the technology or the common preventive measures in place. That was the late middle ages in Europe through the early 20th century in Western societies when most people did have rotten mouths to some degree. Individuals from other times and places could be susceptible to it but it wasn’t universal.

I know what you are saying though. I have never been able to read a kissing scene in older British literature without being repulsed by the idea.

Do you smell your own home? No? Trust me, others do.

And yes, you can become desensitized. When I was a teen, I used to tend chickens in an 8’ by 8’ chicken coop. After a few hot months of walking into that hellhole twice a day, I didn’t tend to smell a lot of other things. Doesn’t mean I didn’t smell anything at all, but it certainly blunted my smelling in some areas.

Well, picking from someone who I think was around for the ‘imported sugar = black teeth’ phenomenon…