We study Lavender and the other plants of homeopathy and aromatherapy in recognisably Scientific, experimental ways these days, analysing their Biochemistry, assessing their efficacy, looking for their side-effects and assessing possible dangers.
If we go back to the mid-1700s however, the epidemics of Plague which had faded out of London were still decimating France. But Science itself was too new to be an effective tool of investigation. So investigations tended to be empirical rather than experimental – by which I mean, we look at what happens and make a guess about why! If we see that two things happen in a regular sequence, we tend to believe that the first event caused the second one. The idea of casual relationship rather than causal relationship had not yet developed.
And yet the process was just beginning. Harvey had formulated his ideas about the Circulation of Blood, Newton was thinking about Gravity, and so on.
And where this Biological Scientific progress was underway, especially for Human Medicine, bodies were needed, to be cut up to be investigated. So people snatched bodies from graveyards to supply the quacks and chirurgeons and almost-scientists.
Not surprisingly the greatest supply of bodies – and the times of least security around graveyards – came with epidemics of the Plague. If you dared to take the risk of digging around in a Plague Pit, there really was money to be made.
Toulouse holds an important strategic position in France. The River Garonne flowing through it had, strangely, two different purposes. It is – and certainly it was, before the metalling of roads – an important transport route. And at times of danger from Politics or Plagues, a big river is a useful barrier, stopping the spread of trouble. We do forget what impassable blocks rivers could be, before there were many bridges – and if people cannot cross them, nor can their infections.
There were four Toulouse Grave Robbers in particular who drew attention to themselves – mostly by not being dead. They were captured and sentenced to death. No-one could work out why they weren’t dead already. If there were any such thing as divine justice, they should be six-feet down already.
They were offered their lives in exchange for their secret. It turned out that they had been gathering Lavender, Rosemary, Thyme and Sage and steeping them intensely in vinegar.
They might have stumbled upon this ‘prophylactic’ just through the fact that the leather of gloves (and I imagine they wore gloves for work like this!) was generally made supple and strong by such Lavender Vinegar. Anyway, so far as they and their peers were concerned, it worked. They were given their lives. Everybody tried the same precautionary use of Lavender.
Of course, the next step was that the Provence authorities, in 1770, promptly recognised that they had growing on their doorstep at least one plant with a wealth of enormously beneficial attributes. So, like governments everywhere, they took control of Lavender – planting, cutting, processing, essential-oil extraction, selling – the lot…
And it still seems to work!