Four Thieves Vinegar: Evolution of a Medieval Medicine

Black Plague DoctorThe bubonic plague wreaked havoc in Europe off and on for about 600 years before peaking in the 1300s. Century after century, as late as the 1700s, outbreaks claimed up to half the population. The plague had a big influence on the life of William Shakespeare, having claimed the lives of some of his siblings as well as causing his theater to be shut down during several especially nasty outbreaks in London between 1593 and 1608.[1]

It is well know that the bubonic plague is a bite-based infection. A lesser known fact is that there were many more victims than those bitten by fleas. It turns out that the bubonic plague was often the first step of a progressive series of illnesses. Two other types were pneumonic and septicemic. The resulting pneumonic plague was also very infectious and allowed person-to-person transmittion.[2]

This is the period of time responsible for the bizarre images of physicians wearing dark robes, wide-brimmed hats, and masks with long beaks. There was actually method to the madness. These beaks held dried herbs, spices and essential oils which the physician breathed. The robe was doused with a similar fragrant concoction Scientific evidence today is building support for this seemingly outrageous behavior... many harmful microbes could not survive.

Four Thieves Vinegar RecipeMeanwhile in France another interesting aromatic legend developed around a horrid sounding witch's brew known as "Marseilles Vinegar" or "Four Thieves Vinegar." A variety of recipes floated around. One included things like dried rosemary tops, dried sage flowers, fresh rue, camphor, "spirit," garlic cloves and vinegar which was to be taken internally for 7 or 8 days "with occasional agitation." It was said that this "medicated vinegar was invented by four thieves of Marseilles who successfully employed it as a prophylactic during a visitation of pestilence."[6][7][8][9] For those who don't travel the renaissance fair circuit, "pestilence" was the medieval term for bubonic plague.

The earliest online English reference found so far is in the 1825 Pharmacologia. After recounting the story of the aromatic vinegar used by the four thieves of Marseilles, it goes on to note that, "It was, however, long used before the plague of Marseilles, for it was the constant custom of Cardinal Wolsey to carry in his hand an orange, deprived of its contents, and filled with a sponge which had been soaked in vinegar impregnated with various spices, in order to preserve himself from infection, when passing through the crowds which his splendour or office attracted. The first plaque raged in 1649, whereas Wolsey died in 1531." The Pharmacologia then sites the French Codex and The German Dispensatories as possible earlier sources of the vinegar recipes.[10]

Four Thieves Vinegar Citation in 1825

Was the concoction actually effective? Despite being branded a "very useless preparation" in a 1854 medical book[11], stories persist that indicate there were certainly positive results, if only because of the garlic. Apparently doctors who carried garlic in their pockets were protected from the plague as were French priests who ate garlic and safely ministered to the dying while the garlic-free English priests fell ill.

But the biggest twist in this tale is yet to be told. In 1966, a book called "Nature's Medicines" was published with this tasty tidbit...

Black Plague Priest"In Marseilles, a garlic-vinegar preparation known as the Four Thieves was credited with protecting many of the people when a plague struck that city (1722). Some say that the preparation originated with four thieves who confessed that they used it with complete protection against the plague while they robbed the bodies of the dead. Others claim that a man named Richard Forthave developed and sold the preparation, and that the 'medicine' was originally referred to as Forthave's. However, with the passing of time, his surname became corrupted to Four Thieves." [13][14]

Could it really be true that the infamous four thieves never existed?! Were they created out of thin air via a centuries-long game of telephone in which the original formula was ultimately as mangled as the creator's name? We may never know.

Fast forward to the end of the last century and the barely-remembered story takes its first steps toward legendhood. Dr. John R. Christopher, probably the most popular of pioneering US herbalists[15], attached the story to a garlic-heavy formula he created and about which he began educating people. His formula, the story of the four thieves and the possible contribution of the mysterious Mr. Forthave were all mentioned in the April 1977 "garlic" issue of his newsletter,Concern

It was famous French aromatherapy doctor Jean Valnet (1920-1995) who gave the story its essential oil gravitas. In his book, "The Practice of Aromatherapy," Valnet quotes the archives of the Parliament of Toulouse. He claims the original recipe was revealed by corpse robbers who were caught red-handed in the area around Toulouse in 1628-1631. Given the virulence and deadliness of the plague, the judges were astonished by the indifference of the thieves to contagion.

Mounting evidence is demonstrating that the blend's effectiveness stands up to the legend. Studies at Weaver State University in 1997 showed a 96% reduction of pneumonia bacteria and a 44% reduction of staph bacteria from the air after a mere 10 minutes of exposure.[4] Ongoing studies are also showing unparalleled protection against mold.[22]

The legend, the studies, the pleasant aroma and taste (a welcomed difference from garlic and vinegar recipes), and the convenience have combined to make Thieves Oil available to you.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Consult your health care professional about any serious disease or injury. Do not attempt to self-diagnose or prescribe any natural substances such as essential oils for serious health conditions that require professional attention.

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