History of Four-Thieves Vinegar
When researching the history of Four Thieves Vinegar I realized there are many more versions of this folklore than I expected. The reason there are so many versions is because the story itself dates back centuries. A popular recount is that during an outbreak of the plague in Marseilles around 1772, four robbers ransacked the sick and dying. These four thieves, even though exposed to the plague, didn’t fall sick because they used a medicated vinegar topically. They were eventually caught and in exchange for leniency by the court they shared their prophylactic recipe which became known as Marseilles Vinegar and also Four Thieves Vinegar. The use of protective medicinal vinegars dates back even further to the 14th century bubonic plague; I’m sure these four opportunistic criminals didn’t come up with the bright idea all on their own.
The original recipe was handed down for centuries and many variations were the result. The Scientific American Cyclopedia of Receipts, Notes and Queries published the following in 1900.
In another book called Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy, Gattefosse claims that the following is the original Four Thieves recipe which hung in the Museum of Paris in 1937.
Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of champhor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express then bottle. Use by rubbing it on the hands, ears and temples from time to time when approaching a plague victim.
The late Dr. John R. Christopher (1909 - 1983) when writing about the medicinal value of garlic pointed out, “Garlic was the principal ingredient in the famous Four Thieves Vinegar which was adapted so successfully at Marseilles for protection against the plague when it prevailed there in 1772. This originated, it is said, with four thieves who confessed that, while protected by the liberal use of aromatic garlic vinegar during the plague, they plundered the dead bodies of the victims with complete safety”.
Four Thieves Morphed into Oil and More
There is no doubt that the term Four Thieves sprung up centuries ago to describe an herbal vinegar tincture containing plenty of garlic. Just like many other herbal traditions, Thieves Vinegar recipes have been happily created, shared and enjoyed by herbalists and wise women in the kitchen ever since; cottage industries also sprung up to share this valuable medicine with the community. In relatively more recent years, essential-oil blends were created and given the similar name Four Thieves Oil or just Thieves Oil even though these oil blends didn’t have that much in common with the ancient vinegar recipes. One company, Young Living, has produced an entire line of Thieves products including essential oils, soaps, cleaners, mints, toothpaste, etc. which don’t resemble the original recipe at all.
This would be all well and good, except that Young Living trademarked the name Thieves, so now no one else can call their products by that name or any name even similar. The four thieves making this recipe famous took advantage of the sick and dying, and as the story goes weren’t locked up back in the day. Now hundreds of years later the name, that has become synonymous with their traditional recipe, has been put behind lock and key.
Was Four Thieves Stolen?
So now this begs the question, “was four thieves stolen?”. The herbal community believes so. They are still reeling from a similar trademark debacle because another traditional recipe, Fire Cider, was trademarked by Shire City. I wrote a post for Mother Earth News two years ago entitled, Fire Cider Original Recipe and Controversy, which explains how Rosemary Gladstar, the godmother of modern day herbalism, coined the term Fire Cider. Throughout her life, and still to this day, Rosemary freely shares the beloved recipe that she created with her students at the California School of Herbal Studies in the early 1980’s. If she wished to sell it, Rosemary can’t legally use the term Fire Cider to describe her own recipe! This also effects longstanding cottage businesses that have used the term for decades. Some may ask, why didn’t she trademark it? To Rosemary and other herbalists, myself included, trademarking the terms Fire Cider and Four Thieves is like trademarking Chicken Soup or Elderberry Syrup. It’s concerning that the trademark office didn’t do more research before handing out these trademarks to ensure generic terms stay in the public domain. Rosemary, along with Mary Blue, Nicole Tells and Kathryn Langelier (aka as the Fire Cider Three), is working with the US Patent office to create a master list of traditional terms that their office needs to be aware of before more of the people’s heritage are stolen. The hope is to free the terms Fire Cider and Thieves, and to set a legal precedent to protect generic and traditional herbal terms from trademarks in the future.
If you would like to help these causes or just learn more, please visit the Facebook page Traditions Not Trademarks or www.freefirecider.com
I hope you've enjoyed learning about the history of Four Thieves and the current state of affairs. Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts.
Judy DeLorenzo is a holistic health practitioner, garden foodie, and daycare founder. She has a deep understanding that food is medicine and "we are what we eat" so we should treat our bodies with respect by eating pure, whole, super nutritious foods. She loves to grow and shop for food, create recipes, cook, take food photos, and share the process with clients, her social media audience, family, and friends. You can learn more about Judy's healing practice at Biofield Healing and enjoy her blog posts at A Life Well Planted. Read all of Judy's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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