The Story of The Four Thieves
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.
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.
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. Scientific evidence today is building support for this seemingly outrageous behavior.
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 included things like dried rosemary tops, dried sage flowers, fresh rue, camphor, "spirit," garlic cloves and vinegar which was to steep 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." For those who don't travel the renaissance fair circuit, "pestilence" was the medieval term for bubonic plague.
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