Lavender has a central place in our folklore and horticultural mythology.
Go back far enough and the world picture of the educated and uneducated alike was based on simple observations that blurred the natural and the supernatural into a single understanding. So, for example, if lavender proved effective as a strewing herb to discourage bugs and insects, what else might it help deter…
Well, ghosts for one and many a medieval keyhole was stuffed with lavender to ward off apparitions entering after dark. Farmers having thus survived the night would place lavender flowers under their hat the following morning to prevent sunstroke and headaches.
Lavender – presumably because of its fragrance – has long been associated with love and romance. On St Luke’s day (October 18th) in the 15th and 16th centuries, unmarried women would drink lavender tea while reciting a charm – St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me, In my dreams, let me my true love see – in the belief that their intended would appear in their dreams that night. Once happily married, either party might then sprinkle lavender water on their spouse’s head to keep them faithful or place it under the mattress to encourage a more enthusiastic response. If, however, a lady – married or not – wished to preserve her virtue, then lavender would be mixed with rosemary.
The herb was also used to safeguard the good people of many European countries including England against evil and, in particular, the evil eye. Lavender crosses were hung on doors and sprigs worn on clothes, particularly by young children. Some wearers also thought lavender would protect them from violent attack. Even today, Pagans throw lavender on Midsummer’s Day bonfires to ward off evil – just as was done long ago in Spain and Portugal in celebration of the birth of St. John.
Before the truly scientific age, the line between evil and disease – between magic and medicine – was ill-defined at best. So where lavender’s genuine, if gentle, antiseptic properties ended and its more mysterious powers began was not really an issue. Especially when the population was faced with something as terrifying as the plague. From the earliest times, lavender was used to cure its symptoms and combat its spread and has given rise to the Legend of Four Thieves Vinegar…
There are many versions to this tale but the setting is always France, generally Toulouse or Marseille and always during an outbreak of the plague. The tale is variously set at any time between 1300 and 1750 though there is a slight preference for the 1630s. A gang of four thieves have been caught looting households after the plague has struck and find themselves in front of the judge knowing that they would be sentenced to hang. However, the judge was so surprised that the men had themselves remained in perfect health, he offered them a deal – if they revealed the secret of their immunity, the charges would be dropped. The thieves did not need to be asked a second time and happily explained the answer – a vinegar infusion of equal parts of thyme, rosemary, sage, and lavender.
Such herbal concoctions may go as far back as the plague’s first visitations to Europe but it is the Vinaigre des Quatre Voleurs (or Acetum Quator Furum) that has stuck in the imagination and in those areas that can claim any association with the story, bottles of the mixture are separating tourists from their Euros to this day.