(Apologies for the gigantic post, but working on writing this was therapeutic. I decided to post it in its entirety rather than try to edit it down. Maybe someone will find it interesting.)
Since we’re all stuck in the same boat, waiting to see what the fallout of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) ends up being in our respective localities, I thought I’d share the bit of witchery I’ve recently done and what makes it relevant to current affairs.
As some may have figured from the post title, I made Four Thieves Vinegar.
I decided to do so for three reasons. First, because of the story behind the origin of Four Thieves Vinegar. Second, because of the extreme utility of the mixture. And last, because it was an excuse to set a challenge for myself and scout the interwebs for things to nerd out on.
I’m going to assume a goodly number of you know the story of the Four Thieves. However, for anyone who doesn’t know, the way the tale usually goes is that during the Great Plague of Marseilles (1720-1722), there were four thieves who obtained their loot from the houses, graves, and bodies of those who were dead and dying of the plague.
When eventually caught and sentenced to death for their crimes, they struck a deal with the authorities: in exchange for their lives, they would share the secret of how they survived the plague despite being in close contact with the disease and its victims.
Their secret turned out to be an herbal vinegar that they used to wash their hands and faces.
I’m sure you can see the relevance of such a tale in light of current events.
Now, the story itself is impossible to trace to a definite historical occurrence. I’ve made a valiant attempt to dig into what texts I can find and manage to decipher. French isn’t a language that I can easily sort out the problems in a machine translated text block.
There is some mention1 that the Four Thieves were originally out of Toulouse, not Marseilles. There is also some indication that the story that went around in the early-middle 1700s might be a retelling of an occurrence that took place during a previous outbreak of plague. I’m still poking at that, but the digitized documents available online are a small fraction of what’s actually out there.
At any rate, aromatic/antiseptic vinegar preparations were very much a thing both before and after the reappearance of plague in the 1720s. What caught my interest is that earlier recipes that I’ve found reference to, and those contemporary with the Great Plague of Marseilles, don’t bear the Four Thieves appellation. It would be interesting later on to see if I can work out what (if any) earlier published formulas might have evolved into Four Thieves Vinegar.
So far, the very earliest appearance that I’ve located that does bear the Four Thieves appellation is in the Codex Medicamentarius seu Pharmacopoea Parisiensis2 from 1748. The recipe is entitled “Acetum Prophylacticum, vulgò des Quatre Voleurs”3.
(If anybody is actually interested, I would be happy to post a translation of the original Early Modern Latin4 and work out the math on the French apothecary units of measure.)
All told, I’m inclined to believe that perhaps a unique vinegar formulation to stave off disease might have indeed arisen in the general time period of that particular outbreak.
That brings me to the next reason for my interest in Four Thieves Vinegar.
What makes this recipe from the 1748 Codex so interesting (and relevant to today) is that, like the vinegar in the story, it is meant to be used as an antiseptic. It’s not for internal consumption.
This makes it a very different thing than what we encounter today. What is sold under the name Four Thieves Vinegar nowadays is usually meant to be put on salad, added to a glass of water, or taken straight from the bottle.
I suspect that the decline of Aceta Medicata (Medical Vinegar) in favor of modern antiseptics might be what shifted the idea of Four Thieves Vinegar from something to wash with over to something that was meant to be consumed.
The loss of Acetum Antisepticum from the toolkit is unfortunate. Peer-reviewed studies5 have shown that 10% vinegar will make short work of a good many viruses and bacteria. Everything old is new again.
Anywho, I’ve written quite enough on the backstory of why Four Thieves Vinegar might be of interest right now.
Let’s start shifting over to what I did in my kitchen.
To be honest…I was disinclined to make a safe-to-consume modern Four Thieves from the beginning. I myself HATE the taste of vinegar. Absolutely can’t stand it. Besides, there are a multitude of things I could take internally that are of equal or greater value from a “jeez, I don’t want to get sick” standpoint.
What would be of REAL use to me, doubly so in light of current events, is something meant for physically washing down surfaces. You know, like some Acetum Prophylacticum, vulgò des Quatre Voleurs.
Making things is comforting, so I made weapons-grade Four Thieves Vinegar.
As far as the particulars of my choice of ingredients go, there are three distinct circles in the Venn Diagram of influence.
- Ingredients found in the historical versions of Four Thieves that have been proven to kill viruses and bacteria
- Ingredients found in historical recipes for similar types of Aceta Medicata that have been proven to kill viruses and bacteria
- Ingredients found in modern versions of Four Thieves that are there for magical reasons and can, incidentally, kill viruses and bacteria
Since the idea of there being only four ingredients – one for each thief – is a modern invention, I ignored that rule completely. I decided on having 13 ingredients (besides the vinegar) because of the number’s association with turning bad luck into good luck6.
Here is what I used:
* a glass carboy that looks like it’s about an Imperial gallon in capacity (1.2 American gallons)
* a cork (to keep the vinegar miasma contained!)
* White Vinegar (35%) – 2 liters
* Garlic – the cloves of 2 bulbs, peeled and sliced
* Rosemary, dried – 2 tablespoons
* Sage, dried – 2 tablespoons
* Mugwort leaves, dried – 2 tablespoons
* Cloves, whole – 2 tablespoons
* Lavender flowers, dried – 2 tablespoons
* Cinnamon sticks – 9 sticks
* Juniper Berries – 2 tablespoons
* Tansy leaves, dried – 1 tablespoon (only because that was all I had)
* Thyme, dried – 2 tablespoons
* Coriander seeds, dried – 2 tablespoons
* Black Pepper – 2 tablespoons
* Hot Chili Pepper, whole dried – 18 tiny pods (seriously, they’re pinkie-nail sized)
So, let’s talk about that list of stuff.
The Carboy: Basically, a big jug with a handle. I got mine from a brewing supply store for a very reasonable price. Whatever container you use, it needs to be big enough to swirl the herbed-up vinegar around pretty hard in order to get it mixed. Avoid anything with a metal lid because vinegar is corrosive. Failing that, put a layer or two of plastic wrap over the mouth before putting the lid on.
White Vinegar: A big part of what makes this recipe “weapons-grade” is my use of 35% white vinegar. I realize that it’s not easily obtained elsewhere, but here in Norway you can get it at the grocery store in half-liter bottles. It’s meant to be diluted before use because vinegar at that strength is not only an irritant, but somewhat corrosive. Why did I choose such a strong vinegar? Well, mostly because the only reason I buy vinegar is for household cleaning.
Strictly speaking, if you want to make this for yourself…there’s no real reason you couldn’t just use 10% vinegar. As I mentioned quite a way’s back, it looks like 10% vinegar will make short work of a good many viruses and bacteria.
If what you have available is less than 10%, then it’s probably best to relegate it to symbolic use only. I’d not use anything less than 10% vinegar, since that’s what I’ve seen mentioned in peer-reviewed studies.
For those folks not in Scandinavia but who still want to try for crazy-strong vinegar, you might have some …