Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Let's play... "Is it period?"

So as I've mentioned elsewhere on the blog,  I am a real life herbal educator and consultant, also.    One of the  tasks ahead of me now is to decide what puzzle out which of  my concoctions are "period" and which are more modern.    I took two  of the more ubiquitous preparations in herbals and attempted to trace them back to see how the legends stood up to scrutiny.  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:


Source- The Saturday magazine Volume 18 -1841

Queen of Hungary's Waters
While the formula to the left is undoubtedly is "period"  It should be pointed out that this  preparation  in no way resembles the acetum formula that Rosemary Gladstar has popularized in modern herbal publications. The original formula is a fairly typical rosemary water preparation which are mentioned in herbals as old as Bankes Herbal published in 1525 and making it requires distillation of an alcohol preparation. 
Some scholars in early publications question if distillation would have been known in Hungary at that time, but as the alembic was most likely  invented by the  Arab Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan Al-Azdi  (or someone who studied under him)  who  lived from 721-815 C.E.  and aqua vitae has been distilled since the late 9th century, it seems a safe assumption to me.    I wonder if those people who question the timeline are confusing  Queen Elizabeth wife of Charles  with St. Elizabeth, an earlier queen of Hungary.   Or perhaps people confuse the history of distilling alcohol as a beverage, with earlier distillations used as medicines in apothecaries which were in fact alcohol, but not served socially.   For example in Irish history it is difficult to distinguish this because aqua vita or "uisce beatha" as the Irish called has come to be known as Irish whiskey, however the  the first preparations were probably used medicinally by the monks who produced them.  
Source : Pharmacologia Vol. II -1825   John Ayrton Paris


Four Thieves Vinegar 
The legend here goes is that it was a recipe originally commissioned by Elizabeth wife of Charles Robert King of Hungary. What I discovered is that the formula can be dated back to an herbal published in 1586  but the link to Queen Elizabeth is not mentioned in that manuscript (see left).    Reference to this relationship  can be found recorded in  an herbal published in posthumously 1656.  The author, John Prevot,  who died in 1636, Prevot reports that it was in the year  1606 that he  saw the receipt in a breviary in  the library of Francis Podacather.  It was reportedly handed down in his family having been given to his ancestor by said Queen who would have written it in perhaps, 1380?  (Beckmann)  However, no one has found this document in the subsequent years, so taking Prevot at his word, the earliest we can confidently date the receipt to is 1606.  



Four Thieves' Vinegar  -  The story behind this preparation is outlined in the excerpt on the left.   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.   (Limbird)  
 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, so cannot verify his source.    So if  Valnet is to be believed, the story may be true.   Regardless the use of these aromatic vinegars such as the  "Acetum Aromaticum"  has been documented  as "period" preparations.  I would probably opt for that name as being more appropriate for SCA purposes.



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.
Valnet, J. (1980). The Practice of Aromatherapy. London: White Crescent Press Ltd.

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