The Garden Remedy that Survived the Bubonic Plague: Four Thieves Vinegar

Four Thieves Vinegar can cure the plague, at least, that’s what French folklore teaches us. And while I can’t comment on the veracity of this statement (and, no, it hasn’t been approved by the Food & Drug Administration), I will say that in every little garden whether it’s an expansive lot on a farmstead, a 10-foot by 10-foot plot in your community garden or a nook of potted herbs on your balcony, harbors powerful medicine in its own right. And when I venture out to my plot in the community garden or trim the kitchen herbs in terra cotta pots and plastic tubs on my porch, I know that this medicine is good enough for me.

Four Thieves Vinegar, a folkloric elixir thought to protect against black death, finds its way to my kitchen in the summer time when fresh herbs from the garden are plentiful. Four Thieves Vinegar is the stuff of legends and of kitchen magic – a beautiful combination of rosemary, sage, mint and raw vinegar that combines for a vibrantly herbaceous and slightly floral concoction that may or may not protect your family from the rigors of medieval plagues, but will definitely enliven plates of sweet lettuces and other summer greens.

Four Thieves Vinegar: Myths & History

When the plague ravaged the city of Marseilles in the seventeenth century, it is said that a fortunate lot of grave robbers and thieves escaped what would have been inevitable illness and subsequent death by covering their bodies and dousing their face masks in an herbal vinegar with strong antibacterial and antiviral properties. Initially, as French folklore tells it, no one quite worried about the grave robbers and thieves who stole into the houses of Marseilles under the cloak of moonless nights to rob victims of the Black Death as, the townspeople assumed, the plague would inevitably infect and kill the thieves, too. But it didn’t.

The thieves continued to assail the homes and graves of the dead with impunity until they were finally caught in the middle of their act, tried and set to be burned at the stake. Astonished by the thieves’ immunity and seemingly indifferent attitude toward the plague that devastated the community so severely, the judges offered the thieves a bargain: in exchange for releasing the cause of their immunity, the thieves would be hanged instead of burned at the stake – a less brutal and more quick end. The thieves acquiesced and surrendered the recipe for their elixir, and the legend has continued to grow since then.

While many recipes for Four Thieves Vinegar abound, there’s no telling now which recipe is most accurate though a recipe written by Jean Valnet, a renowned aromatherapist and herbalist of the early 20th century, may resemble the original more closely than any other. He calls for vinegar, wormwood, meadowsweet, juniper, marjoram, sage, cloves, horse heal, angelica, rosemary, horehound and camphor. Valnet calls for steeping these herbs in vinegar for six weeks before decanting, for a lighter flavor I usually allow my herbs to steep in vinegar for about a week.

Modern herbalist usually use only a handful of herbs: rosemary, sage, lavender, thyme and mint usually make an appearance. Every herbalist and avid keeper of herbs should have his or her own version, and below is mine. Be inventive with your garden herbs.

Four Thieves Vinegar: Ancient Remedy, Modern Uses

While this garden remedy may or may not have helped grave robbers and thieves to stave off the plague that ravaged Europe centuries ago, it seems modern herbalists and gardeners have revived the interest in this garden remedy. Many herbalists use it as a cleansing agent – transferring it to a spray bottle and using it to clean and sterilize kitchen counters or bathrooms; indeed, many of the herbs posess strong antimicrobial effects and vinegar, in any case, makes an excellent natural cleanser. Others recommend using Four Thieves Vinegar in personal care, diluted with water of course, as a cleansing agent for the skin or as an astringent. Among neo-Pagan circles, Four Thieves Vinegar is thought to have protective qualities and some swear that if you dress your doorstep with the vinegar, it’ll keep your enemies away.

As for me, I can’t promise that this vinegar will save you from the black death, make your kitchen counters sparkle, beautify your skin or keep your enemies away, but I do know that it makes an excellent seasoning for braised meats and vegetables and is perfect mixed with a good quality floral olive oil (see sources) in a simple vinaigrette for freshly pickled salad greens and edible flowers.

four thieves vinegar recipe

By Jenny Published: July 19, 2011

  • Yield: 1 quart
  • Prep: about 05 min
  • Cook: about 7 to 10 days (resting) min
  • Ready In:

While many recipes for Four Thieves Vinegar abound, there’s no telling now which recipe is most accurate though a recipe written by Jean Valnet, a renowned aromatherapist and herbalist of the early 20th century, may resemble the original more closely than any other.

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh lavender flowers
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh mint
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh sage
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh marjoram
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh anise hyssop
  • 4 cloves garlic (peeled and crushed)
  • 1 quart white wine or apple cider vinegar (preferably raw)

Instructions

  1. Toss herbs and garlic together in a one-quart mason jar, cover with vinegar and allow them to marinate for seven to ten days in a sunny location. After seven to ten days, strain the vinegar through a fine-mesh sieve into a second, clean 1-quart glass jar.
  2. Store at room temperature until ready to use and serve as you would any seasoned vinegar: as a basis for vinaigrettes or as a seasoning for braised meats and vegetables.