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Author Topic: Putting the Four Thieves to Work Again  (Read 2978 times)

Allaya

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Putting the Four Thieves to Work Again
« on: March 08, 2020, 04:29:45 pm »
(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.

Anyways…storytime.

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 luck looking for "home and garden" vinegar meant for spraying on weeds as a safer alternative to weedkiller. Or maybe try an ethnic grocery shop if there's one near you.

Garlic: Listed in the Codex Medicamentarius (1748) and has antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Rosemary: Listed in the Codex Medicamentarius (1748) and has antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Sage: Listed in the Codex Medicamentarius (1748) and has antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Mugwort: Listed, for certain values of listed, in the Codex Medicamentarius (1748) and has antiviral and antibacterial properties. The now obsolete name Absinthii majoris shows up in contemporary listings as applying to both Wormwood and Mugwort. They both have the right compounds in them, so pinning it down exactly doesn't really matter for this particular purpose.

Cloves: Listed in the Codex Medicamentarius (1748) and has antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Lavender: Listed in the Codex Medicamentarius (1748) and has antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Cinnamon: Listed in the Codex Medicamentarius (1748) and may have antiviral and antibacterial properties. The scientific research is there, but not at a high enough volume for my tastes as far as a definitive yes/no on effectiveness.

Juniper Berries: Listed in several recipes for Aceta Medicata for use against the plague and has antiviral and antibacterial properties. The recipe in front of me at the moment is from the Pharmacopoeia Bateana (1720), contemporary with the Great Plague of Marseilles.

Tansy: Shows up in a recipe for "Thieves Vinegar" found in Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1879)7 and has antiviral and antibacterial properties. I'm kicking myself for not collecting and drying more tansy last autumn, but I've never actually had a use for it until now. It's technically a weed and grows all over the place around my house.

Thyme: Shows up in a recipe for "Thieves Vinegar" found in Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1879) and has antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Coriander Seeds: Observed as an ingredient in a bottle of Lucky Mojo Four Thieves Vinegar8, and has antibacterial properties. In Hoodoo, it can be used with other herbs to prevent illness.

Black Pepper: Observed as an ingredient in a bottle of Lucky Mojo Four Thieves Vinegar and has antiviral properties. In Hoodoo, it can be used with other herbs for protection and to drive unwanted persons away.

Hot Pepper: Observed as an ingredient in a bottle of Lucky Mojo Four Thieves Vinegar and has antibacterial properties. In Hoodoo, it can be used with other herbs for jinxing and to drive unwanted persons away.

In my case, I used tiny little African Bird’s Eye Chilies that my husband collected from a wild bush growing near his accommodations when serving a tour of duty in Sub-Saharan Africa some years ago. Besides its magical significance, I like the idea of there being a touch of heat in the mix as a possible reminder not to touch your eyes/nose/face…as if the stink of vinegar wouldn’t be enough on its own.

Right, so that's the stuff I used.

Here’s what I did with it all:

Step 1: Pour the vinegar into the carboy and then add the assorted ingredients. If you're so inclined, you could pray over the herbs9 before adding them.
 
Step 2: Put the cork in the carboy and swirl the contents until everything is wet.

Step 3: Put the carboy in a warm place where it won't be forgotten, because it should be shaken/swirled every day for two weeks. The old recipes often say to put it somewhere sunny, but they didn't know back then that the UV light from the sun would work to decompose those precious plant essences.

Step 4: When the two weeks are up, it's time to empty all the stuff out of the carboy and filter the vinegar. Be sure to squish the soaked-up vinegar out of the herbs so you get all the goodness from them. A muslin bag would work for that. Or maybe a thin tea-towel that you don’t like?

TA-DA! Put your Four Thieves Vinegar back in the carboy or bottle it in smaller containers.

(For the record, my carboy is sitting next to my warm computer box under my desk. I’m just shy of halfway through the two week wait for the herbs to macerate.)

As for how much to dilute it...that depends entirely on the strength of the vinegar you started with. If you used 10% vinegar, it’s ready to go and shouldn’t eat up your hands too badly…though honestly, I’d wear gloves. Use common sense and test the surfaces you want to use it on. Don't use it on marble, period.

If you’ve made weapons-grade Four Thieves like I have, for crap’s sake…dilute it down to 10% or thereabouts. The bottles of high-strength vinegar usually have dilution ratios on the label.

Oh, and when you use it to clean surfaces…let it air dry if you can. Again, use common sense and test the surfaces you want to use it on.

Whew! I made it to the end! And you did too!

Now, all of this is just my own approach to things. It’s no better than anyone else’s approach. In fact, I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts and ideas.

If anyone has questions about stuff, please ask!



TL;DR version: Four Thieves Vinegar seems to have originated during an outbreak of disease for which there was no cure and providing supportive care could only do so much. While not completely analogous to our collective situation right now, the parallels are there. Thus, perhaps there is value in putting Four Thieves Vinegar to work once again as a symbolic/magical cleanser and a practical disinfectant. I made some high-strength Four Thieves for my own household and shared how I did it.





1 In Revue d'histoire de la pharmacie (1963), the question and answer article titled “Origine du «Vinaigre des Quatre Voleurs»”.
2 In English, The Codex of Substances Used for Medical Treatment or the Parisian Pharmacopoeia.
3 Which translates from the Latin as: Prophylactic Vinegar, commonly termed "of the Four Thieves"
4 I took three years of Classical Latin in high school. Year Three was spent slogging through some of Cicero's orations. Recipes written in Early Modern Latin are delightful puzzles by comparison.
5 An example can be found here: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0008987
6 This made its way into my practice via my study of Hoodoo/Conjure/Rootwork. Interestingly, 13 is also a lucky number in both Italy and China, both hit hard by SARS-CoV-2. Let my use of 13 ingredients be a prayer for them and for all other nations.
7 I'm going to call this the Early Modern Period for Four Thieves. I've done less poking for recipes in this time period and don't have much to say about it. The recipe given in the book is very much in keeping with the old European formulas, but with the addition of a couple of ingredients that I've yet to run into while pawing through old, now-obscure books in Latin and French.
8 Made with care by the Lucky Mojo Curio Company. It seems to be a purely modern take on Four Thieves Vinegar and is safe for consumption.
9 If you do, might I suggest including a little something involving the Black Pepper and Hot Pepper. They’re in there to not only to offer protection, but to have unwanted (ie: germ-laden) people keep the hell away.
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Re: Putting the Four Thieves to Work Again
« Reply #1 on: March 09, 2020, 06:28:34 pm »
For those folks not in Scandinavia but who still want to try for crazy-strong vinegar, you might have some luck looking for "home and garden" vinegar meant for spraying on weeds as a safer alternative to weedkiller. Or maybe try an ethnic grocery shop if there's one near you.

There are several acids used in baking and preserving (cream of tartar, ascorbic and citric acid) which are sold as crystals so you can mix them up in whatever strength you like. That said ...

Quote
If you used 10% vinegar, it’s ready to go and shouldn’t eat up your hands too badly…though honestly, I’d wear gloves. Use common sense and test the surfaces you want to use it on. Don't use it on marble, period.

Please, anyone who is working with strong acids, use appropriate safety measures. (For comparison, the household cleaner CLR is 18% lactic acid, and over-the-counter wart remover is 17% salicylic acid. Just the idea of 35% vinegar gives me the willies.) Not just gloves; eye protection and good ventilation are important too. And keep some baking soda handy to neutralize any spills.

Quote
Be sure to squish the soaked-up vinegar out of the herbs so you get all the goodness from them. A muslin bag would work for that. Or maybe a thin tea-towel that you don’t like?

I find that coffee filters work well for this sort of thing.

PerditaPickle

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Re: Putting the Four Thieves to Work Again
« Reply #2 on: August 01, 2020, 11:46:31 am »
Four Thieves Vinegar seems to have originated during an outbreak of disease for which there was no cure and providing supportive care could only do so much. While not completely analogous to our collective situation right now, the parallels are there. Thus, perhaps there is value in putting Four Thieves Vinegar to work once again as a symbolic/magical cleanser and a practical disinfectant. I made some high-strength Four Thieves for my own household and shared how I did it.

Sounds useful, though complex to make (at least for someone like me for whom a simple recipe such as 'beans on toast' is already complex to make!)

Slightly tangential, I came across a recipe for an Ol' Fashioned Switchel, and wondered whether anyone had ever tried it or anything similar?  Allegedly it was a precursor to electrolyte/energy drinks.

I made some and found it really unpalatable (I have to admit my hand slipped a little and I added perhaps 25ml too much vinegar compared the the amount of honey in it - perhaps this is why it tasted like drinking vinegar with some honey and ginger added, maybe if I add a corresponding amount more honey it'll be more drinkable).
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Re: Putting the Four Thieves to Work Again
« Reply #3 on: August 01, 2020, 01:47:53 pm »
Slightly tangential, I came across a recipe for an Ol' Fashioned Switchel, and wondered whether anyone had ever tried it or anything similar?  Allegedly it was a precursor to electrolyte/energy drinks.

I have a high tolerance for vineagar (I used to just put a glug in water, no extra sweetener - works great with some of the smoother fruit vinegars. I had an amazing one that was blueberry lavender, and I should make some of that sometime.)

However, you might try sekanjabin, which is a Persian drink that's vinegar, honey or sugar, and usually mint. I find the mint does something amazing. (One recipe and more info here, but there are a bunch of variations)
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Re: Putting the Four Thieves to Work Again
« Reply #4 on: August 01, 2020, 01:50:17 pm »
Sounds useful, though complex to make (at least for someone like me for whom a simple recipe such as 'beans on toast' is already complex to make!)

Slightly tangential, I came across a recipe for an Ol' Fashioned Switchel, and wondered whether anyone had ever tried it or anything similar?  Allegedly it was a precursor to electrolyte/energy drinks.

I made some and found it really unpalatable (I have to admit my hand slipped a little and I added perhaps 25ml too much vinegar compared the the amount of honey in it - perhaps this is why it tasted like drinking vinegar with some honey and ginger added, maybe if I add a corresponding amount more honey it'll be more drinkable).

I've drank Apple Cider vinegar and honey in water for years...it does take a bit of fine tuning to get your sweetness/vinegar ratio to your liking (I do pretty well with high vinegar), though I've never added ginger powder, that sounds like it could be good.
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