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Four Thieves Vinegar: Legendary Cure Or Fable?

There’s quite a distance between us and those who lived hundreds of years ago during times of the plague. It was a dark, terrible period and the plague was considered a sure sign of God’s displeasure. It attacked both young and old, rich and poor alike and no one knew how to protect themselves or how to treat loved ones who fell victim to it.

Image Source: wikipedia.org

When signs of the pestilence reached a community, those who could would pack up their belongings and get out of town while those who didn’t have the means to leave would stay inside, lock the doors and only venture out when absolutely necessary.

You can imagine the fear and dread, this was something quite deadly with no known cure and no one knew how it was transmitted!

There’s a legend about four thieves in France during one of these outbreaks…while everyone is hiding themselves away, these men would venture out and rob the homes and graves of those who died. Things are ripe for criminal activity during times of chaos, but even a less-than-intelligent thief would think twice about putting his life (and his family’s life) in jeopardy for a precious bauble or two.

Officials wondered what these men knew that no one else did and when they were finally caught, they were promised freedom if they would share their secret. What tumbled out was a recipe using vinegar, assorted herbs and garlic and this concoction is what held the pestilence at bay.

I found an interesting page online that does a good job tracing the history of this legend here: secretofthieves.com [1].

Image Source: wikipedia.org

Is this a fable or did this really happen? I think it’s possible, but it could also stem from some very clever herbalist who wanted to sell a potion or two or had some excess stock to get rid of ;).

Considering the fruits of modern medicine that we enjoy today and that no one in our lifetime has had to fear it, why pay attention to some old concoction that may or may not fight off some mysterious plague? Looking at the ingredients listed and knowing their antiseptic qualities, I myself have no problem taking note…just in case some mysterious super bug hits the streets. If anything, they’d make a great disinfectant cleaner!

You’ll find several versions listed in various books, magazines and even online. There’s really no way to know for sure which one (if any) is true to the original, if there even was one, but here are three that you can tuck inside your remedies journal…each featuring a variety of items that are known to have some antibacterial properties. They’re simple to make and the ingredients are easy enough to get your hands on (either grow your own or purchase).

Directions For Use: Soak cotton masks in the fully infused liquid, squeeze out excess then cover your nose and mouth with it to wear outside. You can also soak a cloth to wash yourself with (morning, noon and night) or mix with equal parts water to use as a household disinfectant. Many versions I’ve read also advise consuming 1 tsp daily (or 1 TBS, depending on recipe).

Each of the following should be strained before using and stored in glass jars. Smash the garlic gloves roughly when adding to the mixture so their properties can be released more readily.

*Note: All measurements below are for dried herbs

Recipe #1:

3 quarts apple cider vinegar
3 TBS rosemary
3 TBS lavender
3 TBS sage
3 TBS mint
3 TBS rue
3 TBS plantain
6 cloves garlic

Combine items, cover and set aside for at least 24 hours.

*I’d use this one topically only since there are questions about how safe wormwood is when consumed

2 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1 TBS lavender
1 TBS rosemary
1 TBS sage
1 TBS rue
1 TBS wormwood
1 TBS peppermint
2 to 4 cloves garlic

Mix ingredients, cover and set aside for two weeks.


1 pint apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup lavender buds
1/4 cup rosemary
1/4 cup thyme
1/4 cup sage
1/4 cup peppermint
8 cloves of garlic

Seal and store in a dark, warm place for 4 weeks.

It is well known that Cardinal Wosley (from King Henry VIII’s time) would travel the streets with an orange stuffed with cloves and spices (or stuffed with a rag soaked in an infusion). He would hold it up to his nose to ward off the smell from the general population (the great unwashed) and as a protection from any diseases they may carry. Maybe it was a herbal infusion similar to this?