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.

A fold-out from the Voynich manuscript shows circular, decorative illustrations.
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]

10,000 People Gathered at Stonehenge to Welcome the Summer Solstice

Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images
Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons to welcome the start of summer. Today, people visiting Stonehenge took that celebration to a whole new level.

The BBC reported that an estimated 10,000 people made the pilgrimage to the 5000-year-old site to partake in summer solstice festivities. "Stonehenge was built to align with the Sun, and to Neolithic people, the skies were arguably as important as the surrounding landscape," Susan Greaney, a senior historian at English Heritage, said in a statement. "At solstice we remember the changing daylight hours, but the changing seasons, the cycles of the Moon, and movements of the Sun are likely to have underpinned many practical spiritual aspects of Neolithic life."

These spiritual aspects are just one of the many fascinating facts about the summer solstice; the day is an extremely old calendar event recognized by ancient cultures across the globe. They include the Druids and other pagans, whose tradition of observing the solstice at Stonehenge has long been upheld by modern revelers.

Scientifically speaking, Stonehenge is an optimal viewing place for the solstice due to its structure. According to TIME, the site’s architects appeared to have kept both the summer and winter solstices in mind during its construction, as the positions of the stones are specifically tuned to complement the sky on both occasions.

The solstices were sacred to the pagans, whose modern-day followers continue to honor their rituals. Pagans in particular refer to the day as Litha, and mark it with activities such as meditation, fire rites, and outdoor yoga.

“What you’re celebrating on a mystical level is that you’re looking at light at its strongest," Frank Somers, a member of the Amesbury and Stonehenge Druids, said in 2014. "It represents things like the triumph of the king, the power of light over darkness, and just life—life at its fullest."

Those who were unable to make the journey can head over to the Stonehenge Skyscape project's website, where English Heritage’s interactive live feed fully captured the experience.

Tourists Are Picking Apart Britain's Oldest Tree

Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fortingall Yew in the Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland has seen a lot. Since it started growing at least 2000 years ago, it's been present for the Roman settlement of Scotland, the shift from paganism to Christianity, and the country's induction into the United Kingdom. But after standing for millennia, the ancient tree is facing its greatest threat yet. Tourists are removing twigs and branches from the tree to take home as souvenirs, and the tree is under so much stress that it's spontaneously changing sexes, Atlas Obscura reports.

Because of how the tree grows, it's hard to date the Fortingall Yew precisely. It comprises several separate trunks that have hollowed out over the years, making it easier for the tree to support itself in its old age. Based on historical measurements and 19th-century ring counts, the yew has been around for at least two millennia, but it could date back as far as 5000 years. That makes it the oldest tree in Britain and one of the oldest living things in Europe.

That impressive title means the tree gets a lot of visitors, not all of whom are concerned with extending its lifespan even longer. A stone and iron wall built in the Victorian era encloses the tree, but that hasn't stopped people from climbing over it to break off pieces or leave behind keepsakes like beads and ribbons.

As the abuse adds up, the tree has responded in concerning ways. It sprouted red berries this spring, a sign that the tree is transitioning to a different sex for the first time in its life. Yew trees are either male or female, and sex changes among the species are incredibly rare and misunderstood. Some botanists believe it's a reaction to stress. The change may be a survival mechanism intended to increase the specimen's chances of reproducing.

Scientists aren't sure why this particular yew, which was formerly male, sprouted berries on its upper branches, an exclusively female characteristic, but they've collected the berries to study them. The seeds from the berries will be preserved as part of a project to protect the genetic diversity of yew trees across the globe.

In the mean time, caretakers of the Fortingall Yew are imploring visitors to be respectful of the tree and keep their hands to themselves.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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