What Secrets Lie Beneath This 17th-Century French Aristocrat’s Smile?

New research suggests noblewoman Anne d’Alégre used gold wire to keep her decaying teeth in place

A portrait of Anne d’Alégre, a 17th-century French noblewoman
A portrait of Anne d’Alégre, a 17th-century French noblewoman who masked her poor dentition with gold wire and an elephant ivory false tooth Colleter et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 2023

Long before early 20th-century doctors began using metal braces to straighten their patients’ teeth, a French aristocrat named Anne d’Alègre devised a novel way of keeping her smile intact. As archaeologists discovered while studying the 17th-century noblewoman’s skull, she used gold wire to hold her decaying teeth—as well as an ivory prosthesis—in place.

D’Alégre suffered from periodontal disease, which inflames the gums and bone surrounding the teeth, in some cases leading them to loosen or fall out. Per a Google-translated statement, the new analysis, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, suggests she sought out the unusual treatment for “therapeutic, aesthetic and above all social” reasons. Living in an era when beauty was associated with good character and health, the noblewoman may have used her dental prosthesis “to maintain a certain social rank in front of her detractors”—of whom there were many, according to the study.

Lead author Rozenn Colleter, an archaeologist at the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research, tells Agence France-Presse (AFP) that d’Alègre was a “controversial,” twice-widowed aristocrat “who did not have a good reputation.”

Born around 1565, d’Alègre was a Protestant Huguenot in a Catholic-dominated kingdom. She came of age during the French Wars of Religion, a series of eight civil wars that took place between 1562 and 1598. After a brief marriage to Paul de Coligny, Count of Laval, she found herself a widow at age 21.

Skull of Anne d'Alègre
Skull of Anne d'Alègre Laval Museum Collection / © Rozenn Colleter, Inrap

The countess attempted to protect her son, Guy XX de Laval, from the Catholic crown but did not succeed, with Henry III confiscating all of his property. In 1599, she married the governor of Normandy, Guillaume IV d’Hautemer, who was 30 years her senior. Guillaume died in 1613, eight years after his stepson was killed in battle in Hungary. As Jérôme Tréguier, director of the Museum of Sciences of Laval, tells Radio France’s Sophie Bécherel, Guy XX, who had converted to Catholicism during a trip to Italy, embarked on a religious crusade but died during “the first skirmish” at age 20.

This string of losses likely contributed to d’Alègre’s poor dentition, which appears to have been exacerbated by stress-related grinding of the teeth. At an unknown point in her life, she had a tooth replaced with an artificial one crafted from elephant ivory, as opposed to the hippopotamus ivory popular at the time. The noblewoman then wound gold wire around the false tooth and its neighbors, preserving her smile but making the dental “situation worse,” Colleter says to AFP. Over the years, the wire had to be tightened repeatedly, destabilizing the teeth around it.

According to a 2011 study co-authored by Colleter, 17th-century chronicles describe d’Alègre as a fashionable, status-conscious socialite who was often seen “riding in carriages” on her way to preach on Sundays. She lived in a patriarchal society governed in part by appearance, with individuals’ attire and looks influencing their social status.

As historian Marlisa den Hartog wrote in a 2019 blog post for Leiden University in the Netherlands, the association between appearance and character dates back to the classical era, when Hippocrates and Galen advanced the theory of the four humors, bodily fluids whose balance supposedly “determine[d] your health as well as your complexion.” Later, during the Renaissance, people came to believe that “a beautiful appearance [was] a sign of inner goodness, a token by which we can recognize the beauty of the soul.”

L to R: location of Laval, view of d'Alègre's lead coffin and a portrait of d'Alègre
L to R: location of Laval, view of d'Alègre's lead coffin and a portrait of d'Alègre Colleter et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 2023

In contrast, French barber surgeon Ambroise Paré, who served in the royal court during d’Alègre’s lifetime, declared that if a patient “is toothless and disfigured, his speech also becomes depraved.” With this expectation in mind, notes the statement, modern observers can “understand better … why it was essential for Anne d’Alègre to reconstruct her appearance by fitting a prosthesis, despite devastating consequences.” The noblewoman died of an illness in 1619, around the age of 54.

D’Alègre’s quest to maintain her smile is part of a lengthy tradition of dental decoys. As Elena Conis reported for the Los Angeles Times in 2007, artisans in what is now Italy created false teeth carved from ivory or bone as early as the sixth century B.C.E. This technique remained in vogue for hundreds of years, until 18th-century entrepreneurs started taking real teeth from corpses, executed criminals and lower-class citizens who offered up their molars in exchange for a small sum. Efforts to straighten rather than replace affected teeth kicked off around that same time and were standardized in the early 20th century by American dentist Edward Angle.

“The choice to leave one’s mouth in aesthetic disarray remains an implicit affront to medical consumerism,” wrote the Atlantic’s Michael Thomsen in 2015. “... Orthodontics persists to address a genuine medical necessity, but also (and more often) to enable unnecessary self-corrections.”

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