The ancient Greeks used human sweat to concoct a paste known as gloios. After exercise, Olympic athletes scraped the sweat, dirt and oil off their bodies and sold it as a substance for treating various ailments. Drinking this pungent miracle cure, which was associated with physical prowess, was said to be restorative and to relieve pain.
This is one of the stories featured in Bloed, zweet en tranen. Een geschiedenis van de vloeibare mens, a new book by Erasmus MC historian and curator Ruben Verwaal. Other stories Verwaal unearthed from the archives include that of a woman from Hoorn who washed herself with the urine her servant had produced that morning, and Dutch patricians who spat in ornate spittoons at the dining table. They all support his premise that we did not always have such a problematic relationship with our body fluids.
About ten years ago, Verwaal wrote a thesis on an anatomy collection – which consisted exclusively of solid parts of the human body, such as bones – and wondered: why do we never talk about the fluid parts? This eventually prompted the historian to write this book, in which he discusses the fluids that the body secretes with regularity: sweat, saliva, earwax, blood, menstrual blood, pus, urine, semen, milk and tears.
According to Verwaal, it is important to talk about these body fluids. “Nowadays, the relationship that we have with our own fluids is very unhealthy”, he argues. For example, why should mothers who express milk at work have to withdraw to a separate lactation area? Why do we hardly ever talk about menstrual blood? Why do we prefer using deodorant to smelling of ourselves? “My hope is that this relationship will become a little less forced.”
Verwaal’s own attitude to the subject is more relaxed. After all, if you deal with body fluids as often as he does, you no longer recoil from ‘nasty’ stories. “Some time ago, I was at a dinner party when people asked me what I was working on”, he remembers. “I just said casually: ‘I’m writing a chapter on earwax’, just as we were having our soup. They were momentarily revolted. I forget that other people feel differently about the subject than I do.”
Should we just let our fluids run freely and revoke the ban on urinating in public? Verwaal wouldn’t go that far. “Hygiene has a part to play, of course”, he says. For instance, urine is harmless when fresh out of the bladder, but after a while it will start to go stale. “Three centuries ago, however, urine was in common use in all layers of society: as a cleaning agent in the textile industry, as a skin moisturiser, as an ingredient in medication – you name it. Culture is at least as important as hygiene where our relationship with our fluids is concerned.”
Verwaal hopes that the book can spark a debate about how we deal with body fluids in our contemporary culture. “Historical research is a safe space for breaking taboos”, he says. “A story from three centuries ago does not immediately force people to confront their own ideas or political beliefs, but it does open up an opportunity to examine current mores.”
Above all, Verwaal believes that debating a subject such as this can lead to insights into what people really have on their minds. It makes a change from history books about battles waged by emperors or works by major artists. “The subject of body fluids is an inclusive one, covering everything from Marie Antoinette’s menstrual cycle to textile workers in Tilburg who used their own urine to wash their wool.”
Author: Ruben Verwaal.
Publisher: Thomas Rap.