Secrets of 17th-century letters finally laid bare

The archive of a 17th-century postmaster has been discovered in the Museum for Communication in The Hague. Using new scanning techniques, the international research team Signed, Sealed & Undelivered, headed by literary scholar Nadine Akkerman from Leiden University and historian David van der Linden from the University of Groningen, has unlocked the archive’s secrets.

2,600 sources of gossip and scandal

The postmaster's nest egg

The postmaster's nest egg

The 2,600 letters were kept by Simon de Brienne, a postmaster in The Hague, and his wife Maria Germain. When an addressee had moved house, died or simply refused to accept a letter, the postmaster was unable to deliver the correspondence. De Brienne and his wife kept all these undelivered letters. ‘We want to know what’s in the letters,’ Akkerman explains. ‘They are a treasure trove of information completely untouched by time: 2,600 letters full of gossip, scandal and intrigues. Akkerman’s and Van der Linden’s research team is analysing the letters together with researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Yale, MIT and Queen Mary University of London.


Nest egg

One of the letters kept by the postmaster in The Hague.

One of the letters kept by the postmaster in The Hague.

One of the first discoveries was that the postmaster kept the letters, mostly from France, as a potential source of extra pocket money. He referred to the box of letters fondly as his ‘little nest egg’, as became apparent from notes made by one of his staff that were found in the Municipal Archive of Delft. ‘In the 17th century, the recipient of a letter had to pay part of the cost of postage,’ Akkerman explains. ‘The postmaster hoped that one day someone would come and claim the letters, and that he would eventually receive some payment for them.’


Personal style of folding

One of the unique aspects of these letters is that they were kept in their original folded state. Akkerman: ‘How a letter was folded was very personal, in the same way as a signature. We call it letterlocking: a method of folding and securing letters so that they could not be read secretly. This is a revolutionary new field of research. The letters in this collection offer us unprecedented opportunities to explore these folding techniques.’ The researchers will not be opening the sealed letters: thanks to X-ray tomography, the same advanced scanning technology that was used to study the Dead Sea scrolls, the letters can be read without breaking the seals. The advantage of this is that the material evidence of how the letters were secured can be preserved.

Insight into the Huguenots

The letters also shed light on the lives of ordinary people from the past, in particular Huguenot families who were fleeing their home country. Many of them were escaping the religious persecution they suffered under Louis XIV, but they still had family members who remained in France. Correspondence was the only means they had of staying in touch. Van der Linden: ‘The letters in this collection really bring out the emotional toll that fleeing and separation from their loved ones had on these people.’

Research team

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

NWO

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

(11 November 2015)

Read more

Project site
Nadine Akkerman
Article in de Volkskrant (in Dutch)
Nadine Akkerman and David van der Linden in Nieuwsshow NPO Radio 1 (in Dutch)

Last Modified: 11-11-2015