Legend has it that in the early 1600s, when the bubonic plague ravaged Europe, four men made a living of looting the homes of newly deceased persons. The plague was spread by the bites of fleas that had left their usual hosts of rats and mice and begun to bite people. Not knowing how the disease was spread; however, fear gripped the community (reportedly Marseille or Toulouse, France) even tighter.
Fortunately, these four thieves were apprehended and incarcerated. However, in exchange for their freedom, these four men revealed to the judge their secret of robust health in a time when just the slightest exposure to the plague was feared. One of the men, an herbalist, formulated an herbal vinegar of which they drank and washed with freely. This tale is a fascinating piece of herbal history; however, there are so many versions of the story, with corresponding recipes, that you must decide which one to believe.
When I first read of this formula in a magazine article many years ago, I began making it for my family. During the flu season, taking a dose before being exposed to crowds and immediately upon returning home has, I believe, protected us from illness. The recipe I’ve used with success is as follows:
Recipe for the Four Thieves’ Vinegar
You will make three herbal extractions and then combine them for a mixture that can be used internally or externally.
Pour 1 quart of apple cider vinegar into a glass jar. Separate and crush the cloves of 2 bulbs of garlic and place in the vinegar. Steep for 2 to 3 days in a warm place. Strain.
Bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Add 1 heaping tablespoon of each of the following—Juniper berries, Echinacea, and Pau D’Arco. Lower the temperature to a simmer and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Strain.
Place 1 heaping teaspoon of the following herbs in a saucepan—sage, lavender, thyme, rosemary, elder flowers or berries, peppermint, and catnip. Pour 8 cups of boiling water over the herbs and cover. Let steep for 10 to 15 minutes and strain.
Combine all 3 herbal liquids and seal in quart jars.
Use 1 tablespoon of the vinegar in 1 cup of apple juice or water. Sweeten with honey if desired. Take 4 to 8 times per day when sick or once per week when well as a preventative.
As I mentioned, there are as many recipes for Four Thieves as versions of the story. Some say the formula is to be used as an insect repellant and not to be taken internally. These formulas do appear to be a more potent extraction so I would follow the directions that come with the recipe you choose.
How Does Four Thieves’ Work?
When researching the herbs used in Four Thieves’ Vinegar, you will find that their medicinal properties are exactly what one would want to fight off any bacterial, viral, or insect-spread illness (West Nile Virus or Malaria).
Although some claim that garlic was not in the original recipe, it is a potent anti-bacterial and I would not bother with making the vinegar without it. It also has historical uses as an insect repellant.
Most recipes include what they say were the original four herbs: sage, rosemary, thyme, and lavender. Sage is the herb of choice when the throat is involved. Its antiseptic properties stop throat infections like tonsillitis in their tracks. It is also a lymphatic, which is an important thing to have for an illness that attacks the lymph glands, like the plague. Thyme tames bronchial spasms, breaks up congestion and alleviates coughs. Rosemary is a strong antiseptic and high in antioxidants. It also has been used historically to repel insects. Lavender is high in volatile oils which makes it a very good insect repellent.
The additional herbs in the recipe that I share here, all have health promoting properties. Juniper berries are anti-viral; as is Echinacea and elder flowers. Echinacea also has anti-bacterial properties and is specific for the respiratory system. The Pau D’Arco, also high in anti-oxidants, fights fungus. And the peppermint and catnip, while high in volatile oils which would repel insects, also have calming and cooling effects on feverish conditions.
Four Thieves’ Vinegar is always on our pantry shelf. I have shared this recipe with others who have done the same. Is there anyone who should not take it? I have found it better to take with food on the stomach. Other than that, if you have any concerns, or take pharmaceutical medications, you should consult with your health care provider.