Here's what I discovered and the opinions that I generated.
Since there was no pharmaceutical industry as it exists now, nature was the people’s pharmacy throughout the middle ages. Plants were adopted into in use by the medical community, having borrowed such knowledge from wise pagan men and women healers.
During the second wave of the Plague in
four individuals allegedly made it their business to rob the homes and very bodies
of those who had died of the Plague, but did not contract the infection
themselves. When questioned by the courts upon their capture, they revealed
that they crafted a medicinal vinegar, which they regularly drank and wore on
their clothes to protect them. To allay a sentence of execution, they revealed
to the courts the recipe they used. Thus, the recipe became known as “four thieves’
So horrible was the nature of the plague in Europe that any remedy effective at stopping the disease, especially if revealed to an official court of law, would have been instantly circulated, at least amongst the medical community, who would have had the influence and education to remark for history how they escaped such horrors. Here are some examples of the attempt to do just that.
In 1720, Dr. Joseph Browne published a pamphlet in
London called, A Practical Treatise of the Plague. It
stated intent to reveal the proper methods “used by the most learned Physicians
of those Times,” to prevent the plague from spreading.
On p. 55, the author announces a section “Of Preservatives, or such Things as have Power, and are most proper, to prevent the Infection in pestilential Times.” This section is filled with a variety of herbal recipes delivered from noted most learned Physicians, and vinegar features in most. No mention of the four thieves is made.
In 1721, Parker published a pamphlet titled, The Late Dreadful Plague at Marseilles, whose subtitle indicated it was a comparison of the 1665 plague in
London and professed to
reveal the remedies to keep people safe. This work states several remedies of
Besure keep your House Fresh, Airy and moderately Cool: Strew it with Cooling Refreshing Herbs, as Roses, Violets, Rosemary, Lavender, Time, Sage, Rue, Mint, Wormwood, Sweet marjoram, etc. And Wash it often with Vinegar and Water, which is an admirable thing to Kill Damp, and Destroy the Infection – A very good preservative Breakfast in a Morning is a piece of Bread, rubbed well over with Garlick, with or without Butter; and with Rue, Sage, or Sorrel we very well with Vinegar, and laid on it, drinking after it a Glass of Sack, or good strong Drink.
Despite the primitive concept of infection of the day as a kind of foul air, it is clear from the antibacterial properties of the herbs recommended that the remedy would work to reduce the presence of surface and possibly airborne bacteria, if only with the use of vinegar, which is an effective edible disinfectant.
Further, the pamphlet states:
The College of Physicians in their particular Directions for the Plague, which they published in the Great Sickness Year in
1665, by express Order of the King & Council, p. 10. ordered Persons whose Business obliged them to go Abroad,
and about Streets, to WEAR and carry about them, Snake Root, Rue, Angelica, Myrrhe, Wormwood, etc. London
Also to Take Angelica, Rue, Myrrhe, and Camphire, beat these all together, and with Wax make this Mixture into round Ball, to WEAR ABOUT THEIR NECKS, to preserve from, and keep off the Infection.
It is clear that by this year, certain herbs are known as particularly helpful in making the body resistant against the infection. These herbs are similar to contemporary recipes of the vinegar, but again, no mention of the infamous thieves is made.
Daniel Defoe, in his Journal of the Plague Year, written in 1722 about the year 1665, writes of a woman who nursed the sick, but never took ill because she washed her head in vinegar, sprinkled her head-cloths with it such that they were always wet, snuffed vinegar up her nose, and held a cloth wet with vinegar to her mouth to avoid stench. Her husband avoided infection by “holding garlic and rue in his mouth” (105). Similarly, the local butcher would not take money out of the hands of his customers, preferring instead that they drop them into a bucket of vinegar.
In 1725, R. Bradley published an English translation of Noel Chommel’s work, Dictionaire Oeconomique, which the translator states on his title page was “done into English from the Second Edition, lately printed at
. . .” Though the original could not be found, listings of it were found in
catalogs of private libraries. It had a publish date of 1718, but also an
earlier date of 1709, which could be the date of the first edition. The catalog
entries did not specify their edition, either because the owner found it
unnecessary information, or because the books did not have but one edition to
Bradley’s entry titled “Plague” includes several treatments, but in particular a passage about a preservative for “poor people,” which is called Vinegar of Ernest. It includes many of the similar ingredients, a preparation method, and dosing recommendations given in the
1770 recipe to follow. Here is a medicinal vinegar that does have a name but is
not the one of legend. This is the only occurrence of this name I could find
for this remedy.
There is also an entry for Plague Water, which is intended for horses and has a great number of herbs in its recipe.
In 1732 The Compleat City and Country Cook was published in
London. It represented one of Europe’s first formal cookbooks for making food,
desserts, cosmetics and medicines. Page 197 gives the recipe for “Plague Water,”
which is essentially a medicinal beer that is then distilled to form an
alcoholic extract. Some of the ingredients are similar to contemporary recipes.
The thieves are not mentioned.
A similar recipe, but with fewer ingredients, to the one stated in Bradley’s translation above is the “Plague Water” given in the 1739 book, The Compleat Housewife (235). However, this book and its contents are intended for human consumption rather than for horses.
The herbs used in these cookbooks are similar to those already encountered in the recipes above.
In 1745, Dr. Theophilus Lobb of
London published his Letters Relating to the Plague and other Contagious Distempers. Like
Defoe, he notes a nurse who cared for the sick and avoided infection by washing
her head and face in vinegar. When she has affected by a particularly strong
odor of the sick, she snuffed vinegar into her nose and never succumbed to the
disease (91-92). Similarly, there is a recommendation to wash parts of the body
exposed to the air with vinegar mixed with Hungary water or Rose water (92-93).
Nurses were to wash their hands with this mixture both before and after they
touched the sick (165). The sides, ceiling and floor of the infirmary were to
be washed with hot vinegar twice daily (156). It was further recommended that
those who must handle the bodies of the dead should do so with gloves dipped in
Clearly, the use of vinegar is favored over even herbs.
Hungary water was both a perfume
and a medicine known to those in the mid seventeenth century, to be both worn
and ingested. Its primary ingredient was rosemary, though some recipes also
added lavender, mint, sage, marjoram, orange blossom and lemon. The addition of
vinegar to Hungary
water is remarkably similar to the recipe of four thieves’ vinegar. If I was a
peasant, unable to purchase a preparation of Hungary water, I would attempt to
make my own using wild herbs. Upon adding vinegar as recommended above, I would
produce a blend very similar to four thieves’ vinegar.
An advertisement clipping cited for Saturday, October 20, 1770 of the Newcastle Courant, which began as a news publication in 1710, cites a recipe for “Thieves Vinegar.” Among the application information is instruction for snuffing up the nose and carrying a pieces of sponge dipped in the solution to be held to the mouth for frequent smelling.
Newcastle is an area in
northern England near the
border with Scotland.
If a recipe of this nature had already made its way this far north, it was
surely known in London.
No reference to a vinegar useful against illness is given in this newspaper
prior to this listing.
In his Philosophical Magazine: Comprehending the Various Branches of Science, the Liberal and Fine Arts, Agriculture, Manufactures, and Commerce, Vol. 15 (1803), Alexander Tilloch reprints a letter written to him by William Henry regarding a scented vinegar that William’s father encountered “more than fifteen years ago . . .”. William stated that “the vinaigre des quatre voleurs had gained much reputation in obviating infection. . . .” The time of this remedy, based on the story and the book’s publish date, is roughly 1785.
In 1828, Thomas Breyerly and John Timbs edited a volume of curious blurbs about anecdotes and popular culture that had been printed to their day. Their Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, Vol. 12, included an entry about four thieves vinegar, credited to one “W. H. H.” The article points to another work published in 1749 that claims that Richard Forthave of Bishopsgate-street,
London, was noted for his therapeutic
vinegar, whose surname was eventually corrupted into the currently used title
of the vinegar. This is the only occurrence of this claim. Despite Forthave’s
alleged success with a treatment against the most noted plague to wreck Europe, no other publication bearing the name of Forthave
is present, either in 1749 or 1828. In my opinion, any remedy so successful, by
1749 would have been copied and published, just as have other recipes for perfumes,
food, or other remedies of the day.
Here is what I believe. Many herbal remedies existed amongst a people threatened by plague. Frequent admonishments were published against the quackery that was sold to the frightened and poorly educated faced with the prospect of dropping dead on the street. In an effort to lessen or end the rate of death, or to forward their name and Christian reputation by circulating instruction to those without an ability to purchase medical services to treat them, published works about plague remedies attempted to relay the methods of preparation and use. Those folk remedies listed above show that a common formula was known at the time, but it seems the recipe did not yet have a legend. At some point around the first half of the eighteenth century, the publishing of a common anti-plague folk formula increased the validity of its use. As publishing became more prolific, the formula became more highly circulated. The employment of legend, whether intentional or as a result of natural social interactions, helped to promote the use of the vinegar recipe. Perhaps the name of Forthave helped to inspire a tall tale in the mind of the public, perhaps not. It could be that Forthave himself added vinegar to
Hungary water or
a similar herbal recipe for his own production line. There is no way of knowing
without more evidence.
Published evidence shows that the legend of the four Plague thieves did not begin in the fifteenth century in
Auvergne; it did not begin in the seventeenth
century in Toulousse. Evidence of published works shows that it did not even
begin in 1720, Marseilles.
These claims about the beginning of the legend are hearsay, completely
unsubstantiated and most likely are myth. I applaud Graycloak for his
scholarship. However, the authors of the sources he cited never should have
made their claims without more solid evidence.