Vinaigre De Marseille
History and Lore
The history of Marseille’s Vinegar is a fascinating subject that with many interesting historical references, dating back hundreds of years. The modern day reedition of this infusion is still popular today as an essential oil.
In 1413, as the bubonic plague decimated France, thieves were arrested for robbing dead and dying plague victims - a crime punishable by burning alive.
The judge offered them leniency for their crimes if they would share their remedy which enabled them to expose themselves to the plague without contracting it. The Thieves’ of Marseille explained that they were sailors and spice merchants who were unemployed due to the closure of France’s sea ports.
They had prepared a special herbal infusion which they applied to their hands, ears, feet, masks, and temples and this protected them from infection. As promised, the judge did not burn the men alive - he hanged them instead. Soon after, plague doctors began to wear beak-like masks stuffed with absorbent material soaked in the Thieves’ infusion to protect them from disease.
The Thieves’ original remedy, containing vinegar and garlic, was known primarily as Vinaigre de Marseille. This formula was marketed by medical suppliers as the first line of defence for hundreds of years, and has been a staple of pestilent prevention in every plague since its formulation.
Some major outbreaks
|1360–63||England||700–800,000||Black Death in England|
|1629–31||Italy||280,000||Italian plague of 1629–31|
|1647–52||South Spain||500,000||Great Plague of Seville|
|1656–1657||Naples, Rome||150,000||Naples Plague|
|1664–1667||London||70–100,000||Great Plague of London|
|1679–80||Austria||76,000||Great Plague of Vienna|
|1704–10||Poland||75,000||Great Northern War plague outbreak|
|1709–13||Baltic||300–400,000||Great Northern War plague outbreak|
|1720s||Marseille||100,000||Great Plague of Marseille|
|1738–40||Hungary &c||50,000||Great Plague of 1738|
|1770s||Moscow||75,000||Russian plague of 1770–72|
Earlier refences to vinegar infusions predate this to the time of Hippocrates.
Historically, this vinegar was an infusion of herbs, spices, flowers, plants, and animal productions, steeped from days to weeks. Marseille’s Vinegar is theorised to be so effective because the blend is a natural pest deterrent. Repelling fleas, and rodents that carried the plague. It is now established that the common flea is the carrier for the plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis.. Marseille’s vinegar has naturally occurring insecticide properties, deterring these pests and the blend was heavily used by undertakers and plague doctors to mask the orders of death, decay, and decomposing human remains. Other renditions exist stating dried sage flowers, dried lemon peels, dried rosemary, fresh rue, dried cinnamon and distilled apple wine vinegar.
Todays versions of Marseille’s vinegar tend to lean heavily of the history of the Thieves’ of Marseille. The ingredients include Eucalyptus, lemon peel, clove, cinnamon, rosemary, thyme, sage, and mint. They are generally diffused as an essential oil mixed with garlic and vinegar as a preventative from infection and pestilence. Earlier recipes call for up to a dozen herbs and the story accompanying it generally reflects each herb to represent a thief.  The idea of there being four thieves is attributed to a 1749 advert misprint of Dick Forthave’s name.
This misprint was later referenced in a satirical publishment “The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Volume 12, 1828, p89”
The lore of the four thieves did stick, as can be seen by this Marseille’s Vinegar recipe that hung on the wall of a the Louvre in 1937, when Paris hosted " Arts et des Techniques appliqués à la Vie moderne " as part of a public health alert.
The stories vary greatly but they all are derived from the great plagues. There are many historical references to the later plagues in Germany, Spain, and London where variations of the Thieves’ vinegar were adopted.
The stories have a common theme, the thieves, vinegar, specific herbs and a Marseille’s origin. It was common practice to burn vinegar as a masking agent to clear what they though to be bad air. The thieves’ infusion allowed them to rob the plague victims in the mists of the Great Marseille’s outbreak. The number of thieves is unclear, as well as if the blend was developed before, or during their incarceration. Marseille’s vinegar was made public possibly in the 14th or 15th century, leading way to the hauntingly iconic plague doctors.