17th-century Frenchwoman's 'innovative' gold dental work was likely torturous to her teeth

The woman was suffering an inflammation of the gums and bones that had loosened her teeth, so she'd had them fixed in place with fine gold wires.
The woman was suffering an inflammation of the gums and bones that had loosened her teeth, so she'd had them fixed in place with fine gold wires. (Image credit: Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports/Rozenn Colleter)

An aristocratic woman at the height of French society at the turn of the 17th century preserved her alluring smile by having her teeth secured with gold wires — a painful procedure that may have made her condition worse.

The remains of the woman, Anne d'Alègre, who lived from 1565 until 1619, were discovered during archaeological excavations in 1988 at the Chateau de Laval in northwestern France. She had been embalmed and then buried in a lead coffin, which meant that her bones — and her teeth — were remarkably well preserved. 

Rozenn Colleter, an archaeologist at the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) in Rennes, France, said archaeologists noted during the 1988 excavations that the skeleton had a false tooth and ligatures (a medical term for a thread or wire used to tie something) on the teeth. However, the nature and scope of the dentistry was not revealed until a reanalysis of the remains last year, she told Live Science in an email.

Related: Byzantine warrior with gold-threaded jaw unearthed in Greece

Winning smile

X-ray photographs of the skeleton's jaws and teeth show where the fine gold wires were placed to tighten the woman's teeth in place. (Image credit: Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports/Rozenn Colleter)

Colleter is the lead author of a new study on Anne d'Alègre’s teeth, published Jan. 24 in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. The renalysis involved scanning the skull with a "cone beam," which uses X-rays to create a three-dimensional image. That scan revealed that d'Alègre suffered from a severe periodontal disease that had loosened many of her teeth — and that she'd had fine gold wires put in place to keep them from falling out. 

Often, the wires were wrapped around the bottom of d'Alègre's teeth near the gums. But some of her teeth had been pierced for the wires to pass through, and she also had a false tooth made of ivory from an elephant's tusk. 

Although securing teeth by piercing them with wires now may sound primitive, it was advanced dental technology at the time. "This is an innovative treatment", Colleter said.

Some of the fine gold wires were wrapped around D'Alègre teeth several times to hold them in place, while some of her teeth had been pierced to let the wires pass through. (Image credit: Rozenn Colleter, INRAP)

But such a treatment would have been painful, and would have required the wires to be retightened periodically, Colleter said. The dentistry, however, only made the situation worse by destabilizing her neighboring teeth.

So why did d'Alègre endure such a torturous treatment? Colleter suggested that d'Alègre may have felt social pressure to preserve her teeth at a time when the perceived value and rank of women in high society was influenced by their appearance.

Colleter noted that a nice smile may have been particularly important for D'Alègre, who was a twice-widowed socialite. "Beyond a medical treatment, the objective was certainly aesthetic and especially societal," Colleter said.

Problem teeth

Anne d'Alègre lived an often difficult life between 1565 and 1619, and the stresses of her circumstances may have been reflected in the state of her teeth. (Image credit: Public domain)

D'Alègre's problem teeth reflect her stressful life. She was a Protestant, or Huguenot, at the time of the French Wars of Religion with the Roman Catholic majority, and she'd been widowed before she was 21 years old. 

Her property was seized, and she had to hide from Catholic forces during France's Eighth War of Religion from 1585 until 1589. Her son Guy was killed at the age of 20 while fighting in Hungary. D'Alègre married again but was widowed again, and she died at age 54 from an unknown illness.

Sharon DeWitte, a biological anthropologist at the University of South Carolina who wasn't involved in the study, said she found the research paper "fascinating."

"The authors have rich historical evidence to contextualize their analysis," she told Live Science in an email. "Work like this improves our understanding of the compromises people made in the past between health and societal expectations."

DeWitte also noted that periodontal disease can serve as a marker of general health in past populations, because the incidence of such diseases can vary among people based on their experience of stress, nutrition and other factors, she said.

Live Science Contributor

Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.