Legend of The Four Thieves

Four Thieves Vinegar: Evolution of a Medieval Medicine

The bubonic plague wreaked havoc in Europe off and on for about 600 years before peaking in the 1300s. Century after century, as late as the 1700s, outbreaks claimed up to half the population. The plague had a big influence on the life of William Shakespeare, having claimed the lives of some of his siblings as well as causing his theater to be shut down during several especially nasty outbreaks in London between 1593 and 1608.[1]

It is well know that the bubonic plague is a bite-based infection. A lesser known fact is that there were many more victims than those bitten by fleas. It turns out that the bubonic plague was often the first step of a progressive series of illnesses. Two other types were pneumonic and septicemic. The resulting pneumonic plague was also very infectious and allowed person-to-person transmittion.[2]

This is the period of time responsible for the bizarre images of physicians wearing dark robes, wide-brimmed hats, and masks with long beaks. There was actually method to the madness. These beaks held dried herbs, spices and essential oils which the physician breathed. The robe was doused with a similar fragrant concoction.[3] Scientific evidence today is building support for this seemingly outrageous behavior... many harmful microbes can't survive in the presence of certain essential oils.[4]

Meanwhile in France another interesting aromatic legend developed around a horrid sounding witch's brew known as "Marseilles Vinegar" or "Four Thieves Vinegar." A variety of recipes floated around. One recalled by Scientific American in 1910[5] included things like dried rosemary tops, dried sage flowers, fresh rue, camphor, "spirit," garlic cloves and vinegar which was to be taken internally for 7 or 8 days "with occasional agitation." It was said that this "medicated vinegar was invented by four thieves of Marseilles who successfully employed it as a prophylactic during a visitation of pestilence."[6][7][8][9] For those who don't travel the renaissance fair circuit, "pestilence" was the medieval term for bubonic plague.

The earliest online English reference found so far is in the 1825 Pharmacologia. After recounting the story of the aromatic vinegar used by the four thieves of Marseilles, it goes on to note that, "It was, however, long used before the plague of Marseilles, for it was the constant custom of Cardinal Wolsey to carry in his hand an orange, deprived of its contents, and filled with a sponge which had been soaked in vinegar impregnated with various spices, in order to preserve himself from infection, when passing through the crowds which his splendour or office attracted. The first plaque raged in 1649, whereas Wolsey died in 1531." The Pharmacologia then sites the French Codex and The German Dispensatories as possible earlier sources of the vinegar recipes.[10]

Was the concoction actually effective? Despite being branded a "very useless preparation" in a 1854 medical book[11], stories persist that indicate there were certainly positive results, if only because of the garlic. Apparently doctors who carried garlic in their pockets were protected from the plague as were French priests who ate garlicand safely ministered to the dying while the garlic-free English priests fell ill.[12]

But the biggest twist in this tale is yet to be told. In 1966, a book called "Nature's Medicines" was published with this tasty tidbit...

"In Marseilles, a garlic-vinegar preparation known as the Four Thieves was credited with protecting many of the people when a plague struck that city (1722). Some say that the preparation originated with four thieves who confessed that they used it with complete protection against the plague while they robbed the bodies of the dead. Others claim that a man named Richard Forthave developed and sold the preparation, and that the 'medicine' was originally referred to as Forthave's. However, with the passing of time, his surname became corrupted to Four Thieves." [13][14]

Could it really be true that the infamous four thieves never existed?! Were they created out of thin air via a centuries-long game of telephone in which the original formula was ultimately as mangled as the creator's name? We may never know.

The History of Thieves Essential Oil


While there are a few versions of the story they all center around one event, the Bubonic Plague. It is said that, during that time, four thieves went from house to house to rob those who had succumbed to the illness. After the thieves were captured and tried for their acts of robbery, a judge offered leniency if they would share how they were able to be around those afflicted long and often enough to rob them but not be affected by the illness. It’s interesting to note here that, during this time of the plague striking Europe, physicians were seen wearing long black robes, wide brimmed hats, and masks that appeared to have a beak. The reason for doing this is that the masks were said to have contained a combination of herbs, spices, and essential oils that the physicians would breathe in order to keep themselves safe from those afflicted with the illness. Their long black robes were also said to be doused in a similar fragrant concoction and current research continues to build upon this theory.

How did the thieves stay healthy and what were the herbs, spices, and essential oils used in the masks of the physicians?

There are as many recipes as there are theories for which aromatics were used during the time: some accounts say vinegar with a blend of sage, rosemary, rue, camphor, garlic, and cloves was best while other accounts say that garlic, cloves, and cinnamon were used. More mysterious than the original protective recipe is the actual story of how the blend came to be called “Thieves”. In 1966 a book called Nature’s Medicines was published and outlined a story that a man named Richard Forthave created a preparation of vinegar and garlic meant to taken as a medicine during times of outbreak. Did the four thieves exist or was the origination of this blend from a man who, through the passing of time and stories, had his surname corrupted to Four Thieves? We may never know.

1. Shakespeare and the Black Plague

2. Secondary plagues spread through air, not just flea bites

3. Beak Doctor Costume

4. Essential Oils vs Bacteria

5. The Scientific American Cyclopedia of Formulas, 1910, p878

6. The New Sydenham Society's Lexicon of Medicine and the Allied Sciences, 1881

7. Medical Lexicon: A Dictionary of Medical Science, 1874, p10

8. Popular Science Monthly, Volume 30, January 1887, p383

9. The Scientific American Cyclopedia of Formulas, 1901, p585

10. Paris Pharmacologia, Volume 2, 1825, p18

11. The Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, Volume 2, 1854, p946

12. Garlic Revisited: Therapeutic for the Major Diseases of Our Times? TH Abdullah, 1988, p1

13. Nature's Medicines, Richard Lucas, 1966, p38

14. Early citation of "Forthave's Vinegar"...The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Volume 12, 1828, p89