Earwax: Rendering Deafness Visible in Early Modern Europe
Dr Ruben VerwaalPadlet
This video explores earwax in early modern medicine, arguing that it allows us to observe how diversity in hearing was rooted in the aural fluid of earwax. Scholarship has demonstrated how the senses were perceived afresh in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it often takes unobstructed hearing for granted or focuses almost exclusively on the profoundly deaf. With this video, I demonstrate that earwax was a point of entry into medical understandings of hearing and hearing difficulties. Also known as cerumen, earwax was the yellow, waxy substance secreted in the passage of the outer ear. Across Europe, physicians agreed that the quality of earwax resonated with both healthy and bad hearing. Asking why these physicians believed earwax played such an important role in hearing, I trace investigations into the variabilities of earwax, enabling physicians to come up with an aetiology for a wide range of hearing conditions, from ear pain and irritation to an obstructed aural orifice and deafness. In short, by focussing on the fluids coming from inside the ear, this video provides a fresh view on early modern perceptions of hearing and deafness.