Seminal Knowledge: Materiality of Semen in the Eighteenth Century

Verwaal, R. E., 22-Feb-2019.

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperAcademic

Among all the bodily fluids, semen was perhaps the most potent in relation to human practices: people copulated and procreated, doctors observed semen with microscopes, and teachers warned their students that excessive emissions led to disease. Scholars working on early modern semen have mostly focused on literary, religious, and social concerns. This paper demonstrates, however, that exploring the materiality of semen can reveal important insights in early modern studies of sex. I will do so by examining how Dutch physicians, in particular Herman Boerhaave and his students, studied and discussed the bodily fluid of semen. These medical men experimented with semen because they agreed it was the most important of all bodily fluids. Their studies were aimed at answering three major questions. First, where did semen stem from, and how was it produced? Second, how did semen fulfil vital roles of health and virility in men’s bodies? And finally, what function did semen play in venereal diseases? In short, I demonstrate that in the early eighteenth century, physicians were intensively sensing and debating the material properties of semen to reveal its central function in the male body. The materiality of semen, I argue, can lead to a more integrated history of cultural, social, medical and scientific understandings of this seminal fluid.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 22-Feb-2019
EventSex and Science in Early Modern Europe - VU University, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Duration: 22-Feb-201922-Feb-2019


ConferenceSex and Science in Early Modern Europe
Abbreviated titleSex and Science
Internet address


Sex and Science in Early Modern Europe


Amsterdam, Netherlands

Event: Conference


  • semen

ID: 76612726