Man Claims He Decoded the Voynich Manuscript, But Experts Don't Buy It

The Internet Archive // Public Domain
The Internet Archive // Public Domain

Nicholas Gibbs, a historian and TV writer, claims he has solved one of the most confounding mysteries facing medieval scholars—one that has stumped researchers for at least 100 years. The handwritten Voynich manuscript was written in a still-unknown language (and alphabet) sometime around the 15th century, and features illustrations of plants that, for the most part, scientists haven't been able to identify. Theories about why it was created in the first place are still just speculative. But according to Gibbs, it's about women's health. In a recent issue of The Times Literary Supplement, Gibbs claims to have cracked the code to translating the Voynich.

The problem? Most scholars who specialize in medieval texts and linguistics say he's full of hot air, according to The Atlantic. If Gibbs had sent his theory to the Yale library that holds the manuscript, "they would have rebutted it in a heartbeat," the Medieval Academy of America's Lisa Fagin Davis, a professor of manuscript studies, told The Atlantic.

The Voynich manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a rare book dealer who bought it in 1912, bringing it back into the public eye after it was forgotten for centuries. According to Gibbs, it is a “reference book of selected remedies lifted from the standard treatises of the medieval period, an instruction manual for the health and wellbeing of the more well to do women in society, which was quite possibly tailored to a single individual.” To support his translation, Gibbs argues that every letter in the manuscript is not just a letter, but a Latin abbreviation for a word, like how the ampersand was formed out of the letter "e" and "t," for the Latin "et," or "and."

Gibbs only provides two lines of decoded text to support his hypothesis, but in Latin, the decryption doesn't make grammatical sense. Many of his other revelations about the book, such as similarities in its illustrations to the "Balneis Puteolanis" ("The Baths of Pozzuoli")—a 13th-century poem that served as a guide to thermal baths—have already circulated among those studying the manuscript. Voynich obsessives have previously pointed out that the illustrations indicate that the manuscript probably has something to do with health, for instance. So even beyond the translation attempts, his theory on the whole isn't entirely groundbreaking.

The Internet Archive // Public Domain

For years, linguists, cryptographers, theoretical physicists, computer scientists, amateur detectives, and others have been working on breaking the code. During World War II, some of the U.S. Army's cryptanalysts even spent some of their off hours trying (in vain) to crack it.

Gibbs isn't the only person to claim he has solved at least part of the mystery. In 2014, British linguist Stephen Bax proposed a partial decoding of just 10 words, including the word for Taurus near an illustration of part of the constellation. Earlier this year, medievalist Stephen Skinner claimed to have pinned down the origins of the author, who he believes was a Jewish doctor in northern Italy. On the other hand, some scholars argue that the book is meaningless, and is just one big hoax.

If you want to get in on the search for the book's meaning (provided one exists), you don't need to flip through online scans of the manuscript. It was recently released in replica for the first time.

[h/t The Atlantic]

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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When a Long Island Housewife Handed Out Arsenic to Kids on Halloween

This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
Douglas DeNatale, Lowell Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

On October 31, 1964, 13-year-old Elsie Drucker and her 15-year-old sister Irene returned to their Long Island home after an evening of trick-or-treating and dumped their spoils onto the table. Among the assortment of bite-sized sweets were two items that looked like bottle caps and bore the warning: “Poison. Keep away from children and animals.”

It wasn’t an ill-conceived, Halloween-themed marketing ploy—the tablets were “ant buttons,” which contained arsenic and could help rid a house of insects and other pests. They could also seriously threaten the life of any small child who accidentally swallowed one.

Alarmed, the girls’ father called the police.

A Criminally Bad Joke

The authorities notified the community, and people immediately began spreading the word and inspecting their own candy bags, unearthing another 19 ant buttons around town. Meanwhile, Elsie and Irene helped the police trace the toxic treats to 43 Salem Ridge Drive, where a 47-year-old housewife named Helen Pfeil lived with her husband and children.

Once other trick-or-treaters confirmed that Pfeil had indeed doled out the poison—and police discovered empty boxes of ant buttons in her kitchen—she was arrested. Fortunately, none of her would-be victims ingested any hazardous material, which meant that Pfeil was only charged with child endangerment. If convicted, however, she could still face prison time.

At her arraignment on November 2, Pfeil tried to explain to a baffled courtroom that she “didn’t mean it maliciously.” After having spent most of Halloween bestowing actual candy on costumed kids, Pfeil had started to feel like some of them should’ve already aged out of the activity.

“Aren’t you a little old to be trick-or-treating?” she had asked the Druckers, according to the New York Post.

So Pfeil had assembled unsavory packages of ant buttons, dog biscuits, and steel wool, and dropped those into the bags of anyone she deemed “a little old” to be trick-or-treating. She maintained that it was a joke, and her husband, Elmer, reiterated her claim to reporters at the courthouse. While she had been “terribly thoughtless and she may have used awfully bad judgment,” he said, she hadn’t planned to cause harm. Elmer himself wasn’t in on the scheme; at the time, he had been out trick-or-treating with their two sons—who, ironically, were both teenagers.

Her spouse may have been sympathetic, but Judge Victor Orgera was not. “It is hard for me to understand how any woman with sense or reason could give this to a child,” he said, and ordered her to spend 60 days in a psychiatric hospital.

Dumb, Not Dangerous

The following April, Pfeil went on trial in Riverhead, New York, and switched her plea from “Not guilty” to “Guilty” when proceedings were already underway. With about two months until her sentencing date—and the possibility of up to two years in prison looming overhead—Pfeil’s neighbors got busy writing character references to send to the judge.

Though Judge Thomas M. Stark was just as bewildered by Pfeil’s indiscretion as everyone else, the letters convinced him that she was not a danger to society, and he suspended her sentence. “I don’t understand why she had done such a stupid thing as this,” Stark said, “but I feel incarceration is not the answer.”

So Pfeil got off with nothing more than a guilty conscience, and Long Island teenagers continued to pound the pavement for Halloweens to come. But the misguided ruse did scare at least one child into giving it up forever: Little Elsie Drucker never went trick-or-treating again.