From bloodstone to fish soup: iron recipes

By Marieke Hendrikksen

In my research on the use of metals in eighteenth-century medical chemistry, iron has a special place. Unlike other metals, which were increasingly regarded as dangerous, iron remained a safe bet in blood-related diseases. However, up until the early nineteenth century, this understanding was not so much based on a chemical understanding of iron, but on the ancient principle of sympathetic medicine, in which a cure is associated – often materially – with the body part or disease it treats. An excellent example of this is bloodstone.

From antiquity onwards, the terms ‘lapis haematites’ and ‘bloodstone’ were used to refer to minerals or precious stones spotted or streaked with red, or red in colour, used as pigments by artisans and medicinally in the treatment of hemorrhage, or as a charm against injury or bleeding. Most descriptions seem to refer either to what is now known as heliotrope, a form of chalcedony, or more commonly to hematite, an iron oxide. Whereas in hermetic alchemical texts ‘blood’ often refers to the transforming arcanum, now commonly believed to be a form of mercury, bloodstone occurs predominantly in pharmacopeia and is clearly linked to blood because of its blood-like pigments. A quick test in my back yard shows how easy it is to yield ‘blood’ from bloodstone:

Grinding some chips of bloodstone gives a rusty red powder...
Grinding some chips of bloodstone gives a rusty red powder…
Result after adding some water.
Result after adding some water.

By the early eighteenth century, bloodstone was routinely listed in city pharmacopeia as a mineral that had to be stocked in the apothecary shop. Its association with and supposed influence on the blood was implied by its use in recipes for styptics, without reference to its iron-like nature. This does appear in more detailed sources in Latin though. The Amsterdam physician Stephen Blankaart for example described it in his 1701 Opera medica, theoretica, practica et chirurgica (Volume 1) as ‘dark red stone, like the name perhaps suggests coagulates the blood. It appears in long streaks, like wood, and can be split into sharp needles. It is found in the veins of iron mines and can be consumed by rust.’ 

Recipe for 'cookies' to cure excessive periods and bleeding hemorrhoids, consisting mainly of red ingredients. From Wouter van Lis's Pharmacopoea.
Recipe for ‘cookies’ to cure excessive periods and bleeding hemorrhoids, consisting mainly of red ingredients. From Wouter van Lis’s Pharmacopoea.

A clear example of how bloodstone was understood and applied by early modern apothecaries can be found in Wouter van Lis’s bilingual 1747 Pharmacopoea Galeno-Chemico-Medica, which gives information in both Latin and Dutch on the same page.[1] Van Lis gained a doctorate in medicine from Utrecht University in 1745 and probably authored this book to capitalize on his previous experience as an apothecary while he set up a practice as physician in another city.

Van Lis lists Bloodstone as a semi-metal, but he also refers to the origins of its name: ‘Bloodstone has a Rock- Earth- and Metal-like nature. Because of its paint that resembles blood, or because it is a styptic, it is called Bloodstone.’ In the chapter ‘Medicinal biscuits and stones,’ two recipes are listed for cookies containing bloodstone: they are said to cure heavy menses and bleeding haemorrhoids, as well as bloody stool. These two recipes are clearly based on sympathetic rather than chemical principals; they contain predominantly red ingredients, like coral and red flowers.

Ironically, anaemia caused by iron deficiency is still the most common nutritional health problem in the world today. I was fascinated to learn that health researchers are battling anaemia in rural Cambodia with reusable ‘lucky iron fish’ that are added to boiling soup or rice. The small amounts of iron released during cooking ensure the sufficient intake of iron. A vital part of the success of the ‘fish’ is its shape: fish is both a staple in the local diet, and a symbol of luck in Cambodian culture. Not exactly sympathetic medicine in the early modern sense, but this shows how important cultural understandings of materiality still can be in ensuring the correct use of medicinal substances and dietary supplements.

Just one final note–although iron, especially in small amounts, is essential and one of the more harmless metals for humans, an overdose can be poisonous. Like always, the dose makes the poison.

[1] Van Lis, Wouter, Gualtheri van Lis Pharmacopoea Galeno-Chemico-Medica… = Meng- Schei- … / Wouter van Lis Meng- Schei- En Geneeskonstige Artseny-Winkel (Amsterdam: Jan Morterre, 1747).


3 thoughts on “From bloodstone to fish soup: iron recipes”

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