Stories of the Four Thieves may not be true but like all myths there is more to the tale than meets the eye.  Since the time of Hippocrates, miasma or “bad airs” were blamed for the spread of petulance and disease, particularly cholera, typhus, and the bubonic plague.  The Miasma theory held that a poisonous vapor or mist filled with particles from decomposed matter caused illnesses. It follows that if you can counteract that bad smell, you are protected from illness so people adorned themselves with pungent amulets, burning Sulphur, nosegays, and most popularly, the four thieves – parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. 

The legend of the four thieves dates back to the early to mid-1600’s when local magistrates would commonly conscript convicted criminals to haul away the rapidly accumulating dead bodies. It happened there were four thieves in prison who had been arrested for stealing from the homes of the dead, and they were conscripted to haul the bodies. One of the thieves had a mother who was an herbalist; she made an herbal vinegar the men used on a fabric handkerchief over their mouths and noses while they robbed the dead. She supplied more of the same as the thieves took on their assigned tasks. The men survived carting away dead and decaying bodies without catching the plague, and the magistrates took note. The magistrates offered them a deal: the thieves could hang for their crimes, or divulge their secret and go free. They gave up the recipe and somehow it made it into the folksong – Scarborough Faire (the English folksong not the version popularized by our favorite lyricists…). 

The recipe ingredients vary from tale to tale, but with today’s science we know that most of the herbs reportedly used are antifungal, antiseptic and also serve as a strong insect repellent, just the thing you need to survive the tickborne bubonic plaque.  Most versions of the recipe contain rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), rue or herb of grace (Ruta graveolens), garden sage (Salvia officinalis), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), wormwood (Artemisia) and peppermint (Mentha x piperita), steeped in a base of fermented apple cider vinegar with added fresh garlic after the initial brewing.  Variations include additions of thyme, lemon balm, meadowsweet, marjoram and juniper berries.

What the Ingredients do:


Rosemary is known as a good aromatic antiseptic; the tea relieves colds and chills and is a good gargle for sore throats.

Rue is known as a stimulant and an antispasmodic. It also helped purge the stomach.  Handling rue can cause a contact dermatitis. Rue is also known as the “herb of grace” because at one time priests used a branch of rue to sprinkle holy water during mass.

Wormwood is the main ingredient in Absinthe a mind-altering addictive drink. However, long before Absinthe was distilled, wormwood was used as a recuperative tonic in folk medicine. The Chinese used it thousands of years ago to cure malaria, and it is a known insecticide.

Sage is a stimulant, an antiseptic and an antipasmodic herb. (It also prevents or expels gas.)

Lavender has the reputation of being antiseptic, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. 

Mint was known to increase perspiration and help relieve fevers.

Fermented vinegar is known to contain trace minerals, beneficial bacteria and enzymes. It is also high in potassium which helps to re-establish good bacteria in the intestinal tract.

The final ingredient is fresh garlic. Louis Pasteur and Albert Schweizer both demonstrated that garlic could kill infectious germs. Garlic became known as “Russian penicillin” during WWII for treating wounds when antibiotics were not available.

If you add up all the ingredients and their properties, it is quite possible that this vinegar concoction could affect a person’s resistance to disease. Certainly, if we steep them together today and apply topically, they make a good natural insect repellant.

So, next time you are listening to the radio and that familiar tune is played, remember this just might be the herbal mix that saves your life…

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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