Hoaxes Throughout History
Middle AgesEarly Modern1700s1800-1840s1850-1890s
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Early Modern Hoaxes
(1500-1700)

The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious book consisting of pages of hand-written text and crudely drawn illustrations that depict plants, astrological diagrams, and naked women. The text has defied all attempts at translation. One theory is that the book's text was simply gibberish that an alchemist used to impress clients. But no one knows for sure what the book's purpose was. More…
Early modern naturalists used the term "Lusus Naturae" (Jokes of Nature) to describe any creature or object that defied classification. The concept represented the belief that Nature was an active, sentient force that enjoyed playing jokes on man by confounding his expectations and subverting his classification schemes — in other words, that Nature played hoaxes on man. One famous example of a Lusus Naturae was the "Vegetable Lamb." Believed to be a real creature, this was a lamb from whose belly grew a thick stem firmly rooted in the ground. Thus, it was part plant, part animal, but didn't belong wholly in either category. Inanimate objects, such as rocks and pieces of wood that displayed patterns resembling crosses or faces (what today we would call 'pareidolia') were also considered Lusus Naturae. The belief was that Nature had purposefully placed meaningful patterns in these objects as a kind of game, intending for men to find them. More…
Michel de Notredame, better known as Nostradamus, rose to prominence as an astrologer supported by the patronage of Queen Catherine de Médici. He wrote prophecies in an ancient form of French worded so ambiguously that it could be interpreted to mean almost anything a reader desired. This artful ambiguity has allowed his followers to credit him with predicting many events. Although his supposed predictions are only ever noticed after the events have occurred. More…
Martin Guerre, a French peasant, married Bertrande de Rols in 1538. But in 1548, he disappeared. Eight years passed, and then Martin suddenly returned. Or did he? Bertrande accepted him as her husband, but the uncle became suspicious and accused him of being an imposter. The case went to trial. The court was about to declare him genuine, when suddenly the actual Martin Guerre showed up. He had been serving in the army, where he had lost a leg. More…
In the late 16th C, reports spread of a young Silesian boy, seven-year-old Christoph Müller, who had miraculously grown a golden tooth. Jakob Horst, a professor of medicine at Julius University in Helmstedt, investigated and determined that the boy did indeed have a gold tooth. He attributed its growth to an unusual alignment of the planets that had increased the heat of the sun, causing the bone in the boy's jaw to turn to gold. He suggested that the tooth was a portent of the dawn of a new golden age for the Holy Roman Empire. But Duncan Liddell, a Scottish physician living in Helmstedt, published a more skeptical analysis of the case in which he argued that the boy's golden tooth had to be man-made, and time proved Liddell correct. The daily pressure of chewing eventually wore down the gold, revealing it to be a thin layer of metal skillfully fitted over the tooth. Although a fraud, it was the first documented case of a gold crown fitted for a tooth. More…
A pamphlet published in Paris described the case of a woman who had given birth to a son, even though her husband had been absent for four years. When charged with adultery, the woman claimed innocence, explaining that her husband had impregnated her in a dream. The court accepted this argument. The report of this ruling caused an uproar throughout Paris, but upon investigation the pamphlet was revealed to be a hoax. More…
Mother Shipton was said to be a sixteenth-century Yorkshire seer who made a number of startlingly accurate predictions. However, it is uncertain whether she actually existed, and many of the predictions attributed to her are outright hoaxes written long after the sixteenth century. During the period when she was supposedly alive, there were no written references to her or her predictions. More…
The Cerne Abbas Giant is a chalk figure of an enormous naked man wielding a club carved into the side of a hill in Dorchester, England. The giant is widely believed to have been carved thousands of years ago. But in recent years historians have suggested that the Giant may date only to the seventeenth-century, since the first written reference to it only dates to 1694. Furthermore, its creation may have been intended as a prank. More…
A case of suspected poltergeist activity in the mid-17th C. John Mompesson of Wiltshire claimed to hear strange noises in his home such as a drum beating, scratching, and panting noises. Objects, he said, moved of their own accord. Many people came to witness the spirit activity for themselves. But skeptics suggested Mompesson himself may have been behind the haunting, either to profit from those who came to see the spirit, or to decrease the value of the house (which was rented). More…
Jean Hardouin was a respected scholar, librarian of the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, who in 1693 came up with the theory that virtually all classical texts, and most ancient works of art, coins and inscriptions, had been forged by a group of 13th-C monks whose goal was to "establish Atheism amongst men, by paganising all the facts of Christianity." Hardouin claimed he "detected the whole fraud" by spotting a series of clues embedded in classical works, clues such as poor writing and anachronisms. Other scholars initially tried to argue his theory with him, but as he persisted in his views, he came to be seen as a crackpot. His critics referred to his theory dismissively as "Harduinismus." Although Hardouin was definitely an eccentric, his theory nevertheless did indicate the growing awareness amongst 17th-C scholars of the number of errors, exaggerations, and inventions in the historical record. More…