• Brigitte Mars

Vinegar of the Four Thieves 

 A back-up plan for pandemics?

By Brigitte Mars


An early story recounts how, in the 14th century, a group of thieves mysteriously managed to enter the homes of those dead from the plague and rob them without becoming ill. A few centuries later, during a plague in 1721 in Marseilles, France, four thieves were released from prison to bury the dead. They were surprised to remain healthy. In both cases the thieves had concocted an herbal formula that gave them protection. The same formula was used successfully during a cholera epidemic in Bulgaria in 1848 and there are other reports as well.


Not only was the formula taken orally, but cloths were soaked in it and applied over the mouth and nose to filter out bacteria. Could this formula really have an effect? Could it still be useful today?


All of these ancient herbs in the formula have been used by millions of people for thousands of years and are still used medicinally today. We are blessed to have life saving drugs available, though we also know about the dangers of antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria. Perhaps it’s time to reinvestigate simple formulas that once served humanity well, in case we need a back-up plan.



Lavender (Lavendula species) is a member of the mint family. Before WW II it was used as an antiseptic dressing for wounds and to get rid of parasites. It has activity against diphtheria, typhoid, pneumonia, staph, strep and many flu viruses. A popular strewing herb in the Middle Ages it was also used in sachets to repel moths and other bugs. Lavender is antibacterial and antifungal. The essential oil can prevent mosquito bites, lice, and scabies. Burned in sick rooms during the Bubonic Plague to prevent the spread of the disease, lavender is bitter, cool, and drying.


Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis), also in the mint family, was used at funerals and religious ceremonies as protection from evil. It was often buried with the dead for remembrance. Its antiseptic aroma could help prevent the spread of infection. Europeans carried pouches of rosemary to ward off the plague and it was strewn in legal courts to prevent the spread of typhus. It was burned in sick rooms and placed in books to deter moths. A Rutgers University study found that rosemary has preservative qualities safer and more powerful than common food additives BHA and BHT. It is antibacterial, antifungal, antioxidant and is considered pungent, bitter, warm, and dry.


Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is one of the most ancient of all medicinal herbs. Antimicrobial, antiparasitic, antiviral, diaphoretic, and vasodilating, it causes perspiration, which helps eliminate toxins through the skin. Both the herb and the essential oil are used topically to treat bug bites, itchy skin, chicken pox and measles. Peppermint is pungent, cool, and drying.


Sage (Salvia officinalis), in the mint family, is antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antiseptic. The dried herb has long been burned for purification. It is considered pungent, warm, and drying. The name derives from the Latin salvere “to be in good health.” An ancient Latin proverb is translated as, “Why should a man die who has sage in his garden?


Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), a member of the daisy (asteraceae) family, is named for the Greek goddess Artemisia. It is antibiotic, antiparasitic, antipyretic (fever reducing), and antiseptic. The dried leaves are used as a purifying smoke. Wormwood was used to give protection from the “evil eye.” Because mice dislike the plant, authors mixed a bit of wormwood juice into their ink so their manuscripts wouldn’t get eaten. It is bitter, cold, and dry. It should only be used internally when needed as medicine. Large doses are toxic and can cause nausea, vomiting, vertigo, restlessness and delirium.


Garlic (Allium sativum) belongs to the lily family and is considered antibiotic, antifungal, and antiparasitic. Garlic helps protect from many types of infectious diseases including staph, strep, and salmonella bacteria. Once used to offer protection from Bubonic Plague, Dr. Albert Schweitzer also used it to treat cholera, typhoid, and typhus infections. Pungent, hot, and dry, it is used in problems of the circulatory system because it helps prevent blood platelet aggregation (clots).


Clove (Eugenia aromatic) is a member of the Eucalyptus family. Antiseptic and antiparasitic, essential oil of clove is effective against strep, staph and pneumococci bacteria. Clove is pungent and warm.


Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia, C. zeylanicum), a member of the laurel family, is antibacterial and antifungal. Used in ancient Egypt for embalming, it was also added to food to prevent spoiling. During the Bubonic Plague sponges were soaked in cinnamon and cloves and placed in sick rooms. The most sought after spice in 15th and 16th century explorations, cinnamon was also burned as incense. It is sweet, pungent, and hot.

Brigitte Mars is an herbalist with more than 50 years of experience. She teaches Herbal Medicine at Naropa University in Boulder and The School of Health Mastery in Iceland, and has previously taught at Omega Institute, Esalen, and The Mayo Clinic among other venues. She is a founding and professional member of the American Herbalist Guild. www.brigittemars.com (Early Spring 2020)