When performing research for my book The Conjure Cookbook, I came upon some interesting findings regarding Four Thieves Vinegar, the famous formula used in conjure as a protective agent mirroring its medicinal use as a disease-killer. My entry in the Cookbook reads as follows:
8. Four Thieves Vinegar
Red Wine Vinegar
Powder all the herbs and spices except for the camphor and garlic. Use fresh sliced garlic cloves and combine with the herbs. Bottle the mixture along with the vinegar, and store it in a warm place for about 1 month. Strain. Add the camphor last, dissolved.
This version of the recipe dates to the 1750s, and seems to have been standard into the 19th century. Nowadays many people like to simplify the mixture and only use any four of the herbal ingredients (one for each thief.) Interestingly, the "Journal de Sçavans" of 1740 refers to it as Three Thieves Vinegar ("fameux vinaigre des trois voleurs") and many early sources just call it Thieves Vinegar.
Four Thieves Vinegar is used for protection from undesirable influences and for enhancing any spell (usually harmful in nature) that calls for vinegar.
In addition to Four Thieves and Three Thieves, the Italians seem to prefer attribution to Seven Thieves. More thieves seems to make more potency in this case as well, and the Italian formula is reputedly strong-smelling enough to revive a person from a swoon.
Anti-pestilential vinegars go back for some time, at least to the 16th century based on my research. Their original purpose was not, evidently, to be consumed or rubbed on the body, but rather to be carried in an open container such as a pomander, or soaked into a sponge that was carried in the hand, in the belief that covering up the smell of plague-causing "vapors" would prevent infection. The Indeterminate-Number-of Thieves Vinegar was not the first nor only of these formulas, and these sorts of prophylactic vinegars seem to have been relatively well known based on the number of recipes that are to be found in old books.
The Lucky Mojo page reports that the "oldest" recipe is just garlic and sour wine and dates to the 15th century. In Girolamo Ruscelli's Secrets du Seigneur Alexis Piedmontois I did find a recipe like this among a long list of other such vinegars, though not it nor the others were specifically called Four Thieves Vinegar or any other variation of the name. In fact, I can find no contemporary references to anything called (Four) Thieves Vinegar before the 18th century. Also, the recipe in old sources is sometimes also called "Marseilles Vinegar" which apparently links it to the Great Plague of Marseilles in the 1720s. Richard Bradley, in 1721, reported of the severity of the outbreak: "On this sad occasion of the ruin of Marseilles... there is talk of burning that town." The Histoire de la Dernier Peste de Marseille mentions "Imperial Vinegar" several times as a formula en vogue during the event, and searching for this leads to more herbal vinegars employed as protection from disease. Imperial Vinegar seems to be made from "strong vinegar... white is best," with angelica root, wild angelica and cloves.
The oldest recipe I came upon for something specifically called Thieves Vinegar was from 1737, which I translate as follows:
Take two pints of white vinegar; infuse therein four ounces of thinly sliced garlic, add thereto one ounce asafoetida, two ounces of gentian root, one ounce of Mithridatum, and a handful of juniper berries. Allow this mixture to rest in some hot ashes or in the sun for 24 hours, in a wide-mouthed vessel, and then put it into bottles after it has been filtered and strained.
The text goes on to recommend consuming a daily spoonful of this mix or simmering it as an incense with other herbs. There was also a recipe from 1741 called "The Anti-Pestilential Vinegar of Bates" made from angelica root, zedoary, juniper berries and rue combined with "the best vinegar," which has underwritten "Vinaigre des Voleurs Antipestilentiel" followed by what seems to be a page number in another book. Determining the Bates in question is probably George Bates, I found his 1691 Pharmacopoeia Bateana which contains this same recipe under the title "Acet. Pestilentiale" but no mention of furum, which is another way of saying, it's a dead end on the Thieves.
An old issue of The National Druggist claims that an advertisement in 1721 for the Four Thieves Vinegar appeared in the Mercure de France and attributed its creation to the plague of Toulouse in the 17th century, almost a hundred years before the Marseilles outbreak. However, since the Mercure de France itself didn't exist till 1724, there is something fishy with this account. Various sources, all dating to the 19th century or later, claim that an account in the records of the Parliament of Toulouse confirms the story of four thieves giving up the recipe in a plea for leniency, but the only unbiased record that seems to even vaguely resemble the story I came across is in the Curiosités des Parlements de France, where it is mentioned that in the 1533 Paris outbreak, four elected officials were appointed to oversee public sanitation and hygiene. Their duties included overseeing burial of the dead, and spraying vinegar to purify the air. I am skeptical of the 19th century reports about the thieves in Toulouse, and given that some douchebag made up a whole book about Sweeney Todd being a real person that was full of "sources" that don't exist which was then quoted by a killion different people, we know that just because people say it a century later doesn't mean it was ever true. The thieves account has another hallmark of untruth, in that no one who reports the story ever gives names (it's always "four thieves were sentenced to be hanged" rather than a more sensible "Jean Leclerc, Pierre Roier, Marcel Dupin and Baby-Face McGee were convicted of theft and sentenced to hang.")
All in all, the date of the Marseilles Plague seems to match up with the first actual mentions of Thieves Vinegar pretty well, and so it seems the most likely place of invention. A 1721 book with the straightforward title Avis de Precaution Contre le Maladie Contageuse de Marseille ("Precautionary Advice Against the Contagious Disease of Marseilles") recommends several commercially available vinegars, then continues, "If you are unable to compose vinegars like the aforesaid mixtures, one can make a simple vinegar of rue leaves, flowers and seeds; another from angelica root, another from juniper berries..." and so on. Yet before the 18th century was out it seems almost every type of herbal vinegar was being attributed to the "thieves" and thus confusion was created. It sounds perfectly reasonable that with so much information available about making anti-plague vinegar that thieves or anyone else could have created such a thing without trouble; however, since it seems people can't even agree on how many thieves were involved or when/where they lived, and with the rapid variation of the recipes, I'm inclining to suspect it might not be that any specific thieves provided a recipe, and rather "thieves vinegar" became a generic term for anti-pestilential vinegars -- maybe because no one but a dirty crook aiming to rob the dead would need such strong protection.
If anyone's looking to fix their own vinegar, I found a site that sells both Absinthe and Roman Wormwoods. Meanwhile, I've already done authentic Holy Oil and Kyphi -- perhaps authentic Four Thieves Vinegar should be next?