17th century letters @ Museum voor Communicatie reveal refugees 'sense of loss'
Simon de Brienne and his wife Maria Germain, the postmasters of the Dutch city, collected these letters just after William of Orange’s invasion of England, Scotland and Ireland. Now academics from the universities of Oxford, Leiden, Groningen, Yale and Massachusetts are preparing to use x-ray technology from dentistry to read the closed letters without breaking their seals.
“People ask ‘are you going to open them?’ Well, no. Once you break the seal, it’s broken forever – unique material evidence about the past is gone, just like that.
“The letters that were in the trunk were a sort of postal piggybank. It just blew my mind,” Ahrendt says.
In addition to Ahrendt, the team working on the “Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered” project includes David van der Linden (University of Groningen), Nadine Akkerman (University of Leiden), Jana Dambrogio (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries), Daniel Starza Smith (Lincoln College, University of Oxford), and Koos Havelaar (Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague)."
“One of the great things about this collaboration,” says Ahrendt, “is that we have the curator of the collection, a professional conservator, and academics, and we can all learn from each other. And this research is right in line with the courses that I already teach.”
"The archive was established by the postmasters in an attempt to profit from their business. At that time, recipients were responsible for paying for any letters they received, and if the letters were undelivered, the postmasters would keep them in the hope that someday the recipient would search for the letter and pay them what was owed. The letters were stored in a trunk that had been waterproofed with sealskin. “Somehow, these letters managed to survive all these years,” Ahrendt says. “This collection challenges our notion of what an archive is because it was never intended to be one,” says Ahrendt, adding, “It came together by accident.”
"Ahrendt describes a letter written by a woman on behalf of a friend who is an opera singer. The letter is addressed to a wealthy merchant in The Hague and reads: “I am writing on behalf of your friend and mine and she realized as soon as she left the opera company in The Hague to go to Paris that she had made a terrible mistake. Now she needs your help to come back to The Hague. I could tell you the true cause of her pain, but I think you can guess.”
"As a music historian, Ahrendt found the correspondence between musicians especially interesting and says the information these missives contain casts a different light on the development of the musical labor industry: “This archive is truly a cultural history of musicians. I was surprised to learn that musicians traveled so much during that time period. We have so few witnesses to describe what daily life was like for your average musician, and these letters tell of large networks of these musicians traveling frequently. This is completely different from what we previously believed about the history of musicians.”
"Even the unopened letters have stories to tell. Dambrogio has been studying the method that the senders used to secure the letters and has coined the term “letterlocking.” Dambrogio and the team are looking for a correlation between the various formats and the contents of the letters, and are creating a dictionary to describe the specific formats that people used and why. For instance, explains Ahrendt, if the missive is folded one way it is more likely to be a love letter because it is more esthetically pleasing than secure, and one with a fold that is more difficult to open is likely to be a spy letter because of the various layers of security built into it. “The materials used to secure the unopened letters are just as important as the contents within,” notes Ahrendt.
"Ahrendt says that the letters are a “tape recording” of how people sounded at the time and that she read them aloud in order to understand the contents. At that time if you received a letter it was expected that you would share your correspondence so the letters include greetings to friends and family, she notes. “This material generated an almost unconscious response in me that I imagine the person 300 years ago — if they had actually received the letter — would have felt.” (Source: Yale News)
“These are the kinds of people whose records frequently don’t survive, so this is a fantastic opportunity to hear new historical voices. It’s very moving to discover the emotional responses of the past.” “ Dr Smith describes their encasing trunk as “vary rare and extremely cool.” "It’s gorgeous, looks like a treasure trunk, and really seems to stir people’s emotions,” he says.
‘We’ve noticed a striking and quite wonderful variety of folding and sealing techniques used on these letters.” “Our team wants to preserve all of this archive’s fascinating material evidence for further study. What can the way a letter was secured shut tell you about its writer, recipient or the era in which they lived?”
Today's wave of migrants escaping conflict to reach European shores are able to keep in touch with loved ones back home by mobile phone.
But in the mid-1600s the only means of long-distance communication was through the written word.
A former postmaster's trunk stuffed with 2,600 undelivered letters is now helping shed light on what was a turbulent period in European history, when the continent was beset by a series of wars.
"You get a sense of loss, of abandonment," said David van der Linden, one of the experts involved in an international project to transcribe, digitise and translate all the letters.
The leather trunk lined with linen belonged to The Hague's postmaster, Simon de Brienne and his wife Maria Germain. And it was where he kept all the letters he was unable to deliver.
Many of the missives are from Protestant French Huguenot families fleeing persecution under the Catholic monarch Louis XIV.
They are mostly in written in French, although some are also in Dutch, Swedish and Danish and a few in English.
Down through the centuries, the trunk and its contents was eventually passed to the Dutch finance ministry, which bequeathed it to the Museum of Communication in The Hague in 1926.
Although it was brought out for occasional exhibitions, until now no team of researchers has been able to devote time to the painstaking work of examining the contents in depth.
Touchingly, many of the missives are badly written, peppered with spelling errors and grammatical mistakes, indicating "that these were people who were barely literate" but took up a pen they were so still desperate for news from home, Van der Linden told AFP.
"Usually when you go through archives you find elite correspondence by diplomats, merchants, those kinds of people. But this collection really contains letters written by very simple men and women."
De Brienne took over the privileged position as postmaster in The Hague in 1676 after himself fleeing from France.
Back then, there were no stamps and both the sender and the recipient had to pay for their mail.
But the cost was steep -- in some cases amounting to half a week's wages -- so the recipient might refuse to accept the letter. Or they may have died, or moved away.
Many of the letters have "niet hebben" (refused) or "naar Engels" (gone to England) written on the back.
Six hundred of the letters have never been opened and will be scanned with X-ray tomography -- a technology used on the Dead Sea Scrolls -- to try to reveal their secrets without risking damage by opening them.
The project is being led by researchers from the Dutch universities of Leiden and Groningen, as well as MIT and Yale in the United States and Lincoln College, Oxford University.
It has been awarded a 15,000 euro ($16,000) grant, but the team believes they will need about a million euros to complete the work over the next four to five years. (Source: AFP)