17th-century secret letters revealed at last

In the Museum for Communication in The Hague, the archive of a 17th-century postmaster has been rediscovered...

In a casket, 2600 letters were found that were never delivered; 600 of them still sealed. With the help of new imaging techniques, the international research team Signed, Sealed & Undelivered, led by Dr. Nadine Akkerman (Leiden University/NIAS) and Dr. David van der Linden (University of Groningen) will reveal the secrets of this archive.The letters, mostly from France, were kept by the Hague postmaster Simon de Brienne and his wife Maria Germain. If recipients moved, died, or simply refused the letter, it could not be delivered. The Briennes, however, did not throw away undelivered letters, in the hope that people would still collect them. They now form a treasure chest untouched by time: 2600 messages full of gossip, scandal and intrigue.

Folded, sealed letters

For the first time, researchers from the Universities of Leiden, Groningen, Oxford, Yale and MIT will read and analyse the letters. They not only examine the content of the correspondence, but also the way in which the letters have been sealed and folded.
In addition, the sealed letters will remain unopened. Thanks to X-ray tomography, an advanced scanning technology that was also used to study the Dead Sea Scrolls, the letters can be read without breaking the seals. As such, the material proof that the letter was secured is maintained.
What makes the collection so unique is that the letters were kept in a folded state. Akkerman: 'The way in which a letter was folded was very personal; much like a signature. We call this letterlocking: folding and securing letters so that no one could secretly read them. This is a revolutionary new field of research - and the letters in this collection offer us unprecedented opportunities to map these types of folding.'

Huguenot families

The letters also shed light on the lives of ordinary people from the past, especially Huguenot families on the run. Van der Linden: 'Many Huguenots fled religious persecution under Louis XIV, while others remained in France. Letters were thus the only way to keep in touch. The letters in this collection wonderfully show the emotional toll that flight and separation could take on these families.'

Research team

The research team includes Dr. Nadine Akkerman (Leiden University / NIAS),  Dr. David van der Linden (University of Groningen), Drs. Koos Havelaar (Museum of Communication), Jana Dambrogio (MIT Libraries), Dr. Rebekah Ahrendt (Yale University ) and Dr. Daniel Starza Smith (Lincoln College, Oxford).

The project is funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) via Alfa Meerwaarde and MIT Libraries (United States).

Find Out More
Project Website: www.brienne.org
Twitter: #signedsealedundelivered

More high-resolution images are available at: http://muscom.pr.co/ and http://www.muscom.nl/nieuws/

Contact Info: Nadine Akkerman

Last Modified: 11-11-2015