Thieves Wash - My 14th Century "Hand Sanitizer"

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Ruinar Hrafnakveðja
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Thieves Wash - My 14th Century "Hand Sanitizer"

Postby Ruinar Hrafnakveðja » Wed Jan 23, 2019 11:05 pm

As we all know, cleanliness while ranging is key to ensuring that we are all fighting fit. Though it often gets forgotten as an important component for our kits. Less so for day tripping with your gear, but especially when camping for an extended period of time. Even if it is only a one night camp, if you don't take care of your basic hygiene a fun outing or overnight could become a nightmare. Often time the big issues can be solved by a bar of soap and whatever body of water you may be camped near. But what happens if you are on the trail, or are forced to camp far from an abundant source of water? I certainly wouldn't waste the drinking water I was carrying. Most times people in our group of rangers rely on those little bottles of hand sanitizer, but those really aren't period in any way.

So I was doing some research into various Medieval concoctions (i.e. perfumes and toiletries) that I could make to sell at one of our fall events. It was more of a Medieval event, but it involved various battles and we rangers formed a corps of archers. Part of the event was an expanded market village scenario with vendors and medieval street food, music, bonfires, and later on cramming into a small tavern building to enjoy some good ale and wine. I wanted to make a little extra silver (yes we also use reproduction currency as well as modern for our transactions :wink: ) so I decided to do some research and make a few concoctions.

image1 (4)-min.JPG
Apologies for the poor quality! The candles were not only cool and ambient, but also necessary due to a power outage at the time. These are the jars of my various concoctions, including perfumes and mouth rinses.
image1 (4)-min.JPG (77.94 KiB) Viewed 3040 times


So back to the point! In my research I came across a reference to thieves during the Black Death that would wash their hands, faces, and the jewelry they stole from plague victims with this combination of spices and alcohol. Rumour has it that the thieves had actually been perfume and spice merchants before they went out of business (due to the Plague) who then turned to crime. It was documented that their wash included expensive spices such as cloves and cinnamon bark. So after finding this I decided to make my own version of it.

So I got some whole cloves, some bark cinnamon that I broke up into smaller pieces, and I took a few big pieces of lemon peel off a lemon with a potato peeler. I combined all of these in a mason jar and then filled them with alcohol. For the alcohol I used to different kinds so I had two different batches. The first I used was a cheap brandy, very historically accurate. The second I used was vodka. Vodka is less accurate to Medieval Europe, but considering that 'tater's exist in Middle Earth - at the very least in the Shire and I believe Bree - there is some plausibility in the existence of a vodka-like alcohol. I then let the jar sit, shaking it whenever I remembered to, for about 3 weeks. Then I strained a bottled it.

In terms of my choice of ingredients, they were largely based on the evidence I found...but in doing further research I found they have amazing health benefits perfect for this type of use. I also played around with the ingredients, namely adding the lemon peel.

Alcohol:
Alcohol, rather obviously, kills bacteria. Thus why modern hand sanitizers are alcohol based. The alcohol is also very good at extracting the beneficial oils and nutrients from the spices.

Bark Cinnamon:
Not only does it smell amazing and give off a rich brown colour when infused, but it also has antibacterial, antifungal, and antiseptic properties.

Whole Cloves:
Much like cinnamon, clove has the same sort of antibacterial, antifungal, and antiseptic properties, but can also help with acne and in pain relief. I've also heard of clove being good as a mosquito repellent, but I need to test that next spring/summer

Lemon Peel:
The lemon peel I added mostly for the scent, and because I had some spare lemons. But I find it actually helps if you have any kind of discomfort with your hands (i.e. dry skin, sores, etc.).

So a secondary benefit to making something like this from scratch with all good ingredients is that it is also 100% safe to drink. I found it was sort of like having and instant hot toddy - just add it to tea! It smells of autumn and winter and there is no reason you couldn't also use it in cooking.

All in all it was a successful endeavor. Perhaps the ingredients are not so very ME, but I would argue a certain amount of plausibility in terms of trade with the east. And this is a much more appropriate kit item than a plastic bottle of hand sanitizing gel. It works beautifully, smells excellent and I'll be carrying a bottle of this around with me whenever I range through woodlands or wastelands.
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Peter Remling
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Re: Thieves Wash - My 14th Century "Hand Sanitizer"

Postby Peter Remling » Thu Jan 24, 2019 2:40 am

With Brandy or Vodka, I gotta ask, What are you cleaning the insides or the outsides ? :D

A little sand from a stream bed will also provide some cleaning effect for the hands and extremities. Won't want to use it on any more sensitive areas though.

Your lemon or orange peel wiped on the face will remove a lot of oil and dirt from the skin.

A little wine on a cloth is a nice astringent.
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Re: Thieves Wash - My 14th Century "Hand Sanitizer"

Postby Elleth » Thu Jan 24, 2019 4:01 am

Interesting. I have been spoiled by modern sanitizers. Interesting thought.

.... I know some primitive soaps are kind of soupy themselves, so might be adaptable to a limited water scenario.
Not nearly so nice smelling a concoction though. :)

The trade fair thing sounds AWESOME. :mrgreen:
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Re: Thieves Wash - My 14th Century "Hand Sanitizer"

Postby Iodo » Thu Jan 24, 2019 6:54 am

Fascinating and well researched :P I find it interesting how so long before "modern science" some people still worked out that use of things like alcohol worked to prevent illness
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Re: Thieves Wash - My 14th Century "Hand Sanitizer"

Postby Odigan » Thu Jan 24, 2019 5:04 pm

Like a lot of people, I first heard of the legend of the Four Thieves because of Gary Young's use of it in marketing his Young Living products. I hold particularly strong views on him and his MLM enterprise, which in full disclosure I will say are not positive. That doesn't negate the legend itself though, which certainly predates his use of it, though it is so far as I've ever seen, completely unverifiable as to its origin. It is variously attributed to the "medieval" period, or often the 15th C., but time and place and recipe all vary. Perhaps it has some grain of truth to it, or it is simply a mis-translation of a popular herbal concoction. For our purposes here, it probably doesn't matter. The earliest print references to it turn up in (I think) in the 19th C., and all of these have vinegar rather than oil or alcohol as a carrier. This one is from The Elements of materia medica and therapeutics, Volume 2, from 1854. Note their opinion on its efficacy.

1854_The Elements of materia medica and therapeutics.png
1854_The Elements of materia medica and therapeutics.png (107.44 KiB) Viewed 2980 times

The Scientific American cyclopedia of formulas from 1913 also has a recipe. Whatever its value, it does smell nice!
1913_The Scientific American cyclopedia of formulas.png
1913_The Scientific American cyclopedia of formulas.png (76.17 KiB) Viewed 2980 times
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Ruinar Hrafnakveðja
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Re: Thieves Wash - My 14th Century "Hand Sanitizer"

Postby Ruinar Hrafnakveðja » Thu Jan 24, 2019 10:42 pm

Peter Remling wrote:With Brandy or Vodka, I gotta ask, What are you cleaning the insides or the outsides ? :D

A little sand from a stream bed will also provide some cleaning effect for the hands and extremities. Won't want to use it on any more sensitive areas though.

Your lemon or orange peel wiped on the face will remove a lot of oil and dirt from the skin.

A little wine on a cloth is a nice astringent.


Hahaha! I use it for both! :wink: But those are really neat tricks for good field hygiene! I've definitely used the sand trick before, though where I am in Canada sand usually becomes more like small rocks :P I love the peel trick though, very useful not just for ME reenacting but for daily life as well.
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Ruinar Hrafnakveðja
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Re: Thieves Wash - My 14th Century "Hand Sanitizer"

Postby Ruinar Hrafnakveðja » Thu Jan 24, 2019 11:07 pm

Odigan wrote:Like a lot of people, I first heard of the legend of the Four Thieves because of Gary Young's use of it in marketing his Young Living products. I hold particularly strong views on him and his MLM enterprise, which in full disclosure I will say are not positive. That doesn't negate the legend itself though, which certainly predates his use of it, though it is so far as I've ever seen, completely unverifiable as to its origin. It is variously attributed to the "medieval" period, or often the 15th C., but time and place and recipe all vary. Perhaps it has some grain of truth to it, or it is simply a mis-translation of a popular herbal concoction. For our purposes here, it probably doesn't matter. The earliest print references to it turn up in (I think) in the 19th C., and all of these have vinegar rather than oil or alcohol as a carrier. This one is from The Elements of materia medica and therapeutics, Volume 2, from 1854. Note their opinion on its efficacy.

1854_The Elements of materia medica and therapeutics.png
The Scientific American cyclopedia of formulas from 1913 also has a recipe. Whatever its value, it does smell nice!
1913_The Scientific American cyclopedia of formulas.png


Yes, I completely agree. I stayed away from those kinds of sources, mostly because I have an aversion to anything related to marketing or consumerism - especially when they co-opt historical things for their own purposes. To be honest the whole thing is very much history's mystery, and hard to trace. I came across one reference to it when I was researching medieval perfumes in a Hungarian document, but it didn't go into specifics beyond the use of cinnamon and cloves. But despite the vagueness of its historical roots, I would argue that something effective and easily made with period ingredients and technologies should not be discounted in the world of ME Reenactment.

The use of vinegar instead of alcohol in the 19th Century sources probably has more to do with the time period it was written in. During the Victorian Era the temperance movement gained great sway and its followers began to alter many traditional recipes. For example, shrub was a drink from the 18th & early 19th centuries that included both brandy and white wine among other ingredients. But later in the 19th c. they substituted vinegar for the alcohol.
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Re: Thieves Wash - My 14th Century "Hand Sanitizer"

Postby Odigan » Fri Jan 25, 2019 4:45 pm

Ruinar Hrafnakveðja wrote:But despite the vagueness of its historical roots, I would argue that something effective and easily made with period ingredients and technologies should not be discounted in the world of ME Reenactment... The use of vinegar instead of alcohol in the 19th Century sources probably has more to do with the time period it was written in. During the Victorian Era the temperance movement gained great sway and its followers began to alter many traditional recipes.

It's an interesting notion to connect this with the temperance movement, but so far as I'm aware, all these recipes and names purport to indicate the original composition, not a contemporary one - and this was of vinegar (i.e. vinaigre des quatre voleurs). From the Medieval/Renaissance perspective I think this also perfectly fitting given the Biblical connotations with healing/life of wine and vinegar. The vinegar-wine (posca) offered to Christ on the Cross (described by Mark as being mixed myrrh), was done not in mockery but out of compassion, it being a common drink of the lower classes. Thieves, then, might also only be expected to be able to afford sour wine or vinegar rather than distilled spirits, and might even embrace them for such associations given who Christ shared the cross with.

That is conjecture on my part, but this is very much in keeping with the mindset of the era. In Middle-earth however, given our knowledge of the existence of fortifying cordials by various races, I absolutely agree that alcohol does seem more appropriate.

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