I took two of the more ubiquitous preparations in modern herbals and attempted to trace them back to see how the stories told by herbalists stand up to scrutiny. I am not holding my breath. I wrote an article about this that will be published in the March/April issue of The Essential Herbal, but I thought I would share some of my research here:
Queen of Hungary’s Waters
This is an excerpt from a 19th century medical journal describing what is undoubtedly an early modern receipt. The preparation in no way resembles the acetum, by the same name that modern herbalists have popularized.
The original Queen of Hungary water is a typical rosemary distillation like those mentioned in Bankes Herbal published in 1525. Making it requires distillation of alcohol preparation which undoubtedly accounts for the change.
The text that seems to have to have taught distillations techniques to most Western European practitioners, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus was published by Hieronymus Brunschwig in 1500 and had been translated into English by Laurens Andrew in 1527. Conrad Gessner’s Thesaurus Euonymi Philiatri which also covered distillation techniques had been translated into English by 1559 and a lesser-known book The True and Perfect Order to Distill Oyles, authored by John Hester in 1575 even covered using distillation to extract essential oils, so there’s no doubt that the methodology discussed would have been well understood by 1586.
Four Thieves Vinegar
The story behind this preparation is outlined in the excerpt from volume two of John Ayrton Paris’ Pharmacologia written in 1825. Another publication around this time attributes the formulation of this preparation to one Mr. Robert Forthave who lived in 1749, claiming the name of the preparation is just a “corruption” of his name.
Jean Valnet, a noted aromatherapist, claims to have found the original formula in the archives of the Parliament of Toulouse 1628-1631 as follows: 3 pints white wine vinegar, a handful each of wormwood, meadowsweet, juniper berries, wild marjoram and sage with 50 cloves, 2 oz each of elecampane root, angelica, rosemary, horehound and 3 grams of camphor. (Valnet). I’ve not been able to locate a translation of these documents to verify his source.
Regardless, as Paris mentions, the use of these aromatic vinegars has a long history which probably predates written history. Dioscórides wrote of using brine vinegar which is a mixture of salt and vinegar used to brine olives, infused with Creten thyme, barley groats, rue, and pennyroyal for driving out thick black humors. The following receipt was included in most of the Pharmacopeia of the 19th century.
Beckmann, J. (1846 ). History of Inventions, Discoveries and Origins. London: Henry G Bohn.
Hartshorne, H. (1881). The Household Cyclopedia.Thomas Kelly.
Limbird, J. (1828). Four Thieves’ Vinegar. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction.
Paris, J. A. (1825). Pharmacologia: corrected and extended…. Volume 2. New York: Samuel Wood & Son.