Occasionally, Elizabethan truths sound so ludicrous that most people believe the tale is a myth. Such is the tale of Elizabeth I and her rotten tooth. The story goes that Elizabeth was so frightened of the pain of having a tooth removed that Bishop Aylmer offered to have one of his teeth extracted to demonstrate that the process did not hurt. Indeed, Elizabeth required him to have two teeth removed to prove that he was not displaying fake gallantry…and this was supposedly after nine months of suffering from her problem.
Such is the fascination surrounding this tale that at least two dental journals have covered the subject. The source of Elizabeth’s dental problem is not a mystery, however – as the highest lady in the land, Elizabeth had access to sweets that a majority of the population could only dream about (“to sleep, perchance to dream of sweets” was what Shakespeare was really going for). No, the real juice to this story comes from our amusement concerning Elizabeth’s fear of tooth removal. Part of the ever-growing Virgin Queen mythos is society’s fascination with those qualities deemed “masculine” in Elizabeth. For the Queen to demonstrate fear in this moment is to make her more human, or for others, more “feminine.”
Facing the removal of my own wisdom tooth, I can identify with Elizabeth’s panic. As I write, I’m actively working on a campaign to convince my dentist that the offending tooth might as well stay put – I anticipate doom on the morrow. The realities are, after all, a bit frightening. I won’t be able to drive myself home due to the numbing agents used, and I’m not certain of my abilities to watch my toddler while the loopiness wears off. As such, my husband is taking off from work. I have to watch what I eat to make certain that I don’t trap food in the socket. More importantly, I had to sign a waver noting that the removal of the tooth could affect my sinus nerves, which could result in further oral surgery. Sure, the assistant has only seen the final bit occur two or three times during the course of her career, but that is two or three more times above my comfort level. The result is the quivering mess that sits typing about her certainty of disaster.
What I face, however, is nothing compared to what could happen when having a tooth removed during the Elizabethan period. Take the example of Sir John Digby, who wrote of his experience to the Earl of Salisbury in 1611:
I will crave your pardon, which I am partly forced unto by my indisposition, having by the drawing of a tooth (in which I lighted upon one that was none of the expertest men) so much offended my jaw that the anguish of it has caused an extraordinary swelling and pain in my throat these two or three latter days accompanied with a fever. I hope of amendment, though I have every day hitherto grown worse. (1)
You see, we have a tendency to laugh at the past, because modern conveniences have numbed us to past dangers. Does the above inspire confidence in what it was like to lose a tooth in the late Elizabethan/early Stuart period? Not exactly. “None of the expertest of men” might have been one’s only option, and it was no small thing to have a fever in 1611. No one can even explain to me what Elizabeth’s options were if the tooth removal affected her sinuses – oral surgery wasn’t exactly in vogue.
In fact, I’m not certain that I will not repeat poor John Digby’s experience tomorrow. I must go forth with courage, for alas, I have no Bishop to go as an example before me. But I do go with a good deal of understanding for Bess, who was in worse hands than me.
(1) G. Dyfnallt Owen (editor), “Cecil Papers: March 1612,” Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House, Volume 21: 1609-1612, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=112480&strquery=tooth archbishop