Researchers read sealed 17th-century letter without opening it | Manuscripts and letters

In a world first for the research of historic paperwork, an unopened letter written in 1697 has been read by researchers without breaking the seal.

The letter, dated 31 July 1697 and despatched from French service provider Jacques Sennacques in Lille to his cousin Pierre Le Pers in The Hague, had been closed utilizing “letterlocking”, a course of through which the letter is folded to develop into its personal envelope, in impact locking it to maintain it personal. It’s a part of a group of some 2,600 undelivered letters despatched from throughout Europe to The Hague between 1689 and 1706, 600 of which have by no means been opened.

The worldwide workforce of researchers from universities together with MIT, King’s School London, Queen Mary College London, Utrecht and Leiden, labored with X-ray microtomography scans of the letter, which use X-rays to see contained in the doc, slice by slice, and create a 3D picture. They utilized computational flattening algorithms to the scans to allow them to nearly unfold the letter without ever opening it, and found that Sennacques had been asking his cousin for a licensed copy of a dying discover of 1 Daniel Le Pers.

Computer-generated unfolding sequence of a sealed letter.
Laptop-generated unfolding sequence of a sealed letter. {Photograph}: Unlocking Historical past Analysis Group archive

“It has been a couple of weeks since I wrote to you as a way to ask you to have drawn up for me a legalised excerpt of the dying of sieur Daniel Le Pers, which befell in The Hague within the month of December 1695, without listening to from you,” runs the letter. “I’m writing to you a second time as a way to remind you of the pains that I took in your behalf. It is very important me to have this extract & you’ll do me an awesome pleasure to acquire it for me & to ship me on the identical time information of your well being & of all of the household.”


The Unlocking History research group, which incorporates historians, conservators and scientists, revealed their findings on Tuesday in an article in Nature Communications. They are saying that is the primary time an unopened letter from Renaissance Europe has been read without breaking its seal or damaging it in any approach. It’s a breakthrough for the research of historic paperwork as a result of the papers’ folds, tucks, and slits present helpful proof for historians and conservators.

“This algorithm takes us proper into the guts of a locked letter,” write the analysis workforce within the paper, led by Jana Dambrogio and Amanda Ghassaei. “Typically the previous resists scrutiny. We may merely have lower these letters open, however as a substitute we took the time to review them for his or her hidden, secret and inaccessible qualities. We’ve realized that letters is usually a lot extra revealing when they’re left unopened. Utilizing digital unfolding to read an intimate story that has by no means seen the sunshine of day – and by no means even reached its recipient – is really extraordinary.”

The letters had been preserved by the chief postmasters of The Hague, Simon de Brienne and Marie Germain and donated to the postal museum in 1926. When letters couldn’t be delivered within the seventeenth and 18th century, they had been held on to by workers as a result of the recipient, quite than the sender, paid for a letter. Undelivered letters could possibly be price one thing if somebody got here to assert them.

The letters within the Brienne assortment, say the researchers, “bear witness to the fragility of strains of communication at a time when Europe was torn by conflict, financial disaster, and non secular variations”, and the place “individuals moved ceaselessly, generally in haste, leaving no forwarding tackle as a result of they didn’t have one, or they weren’t at liberty to reveal it”.

More than 2,600 17th century letters, including 600 which had never been opened, found in a leather trunk donated to a postal museum in the Hague in 1926.
Greater than 2,600 17th-century letters, together with 600 which had by no means been opened, present in a leather-based trunk donated to a postal museum within the Hague in 1926. {Photograph}: The Museum Voor Communicatie, the Hague

“The chance to review a letter in its closed state is de facto uncommon. When you open a letter, you may’t research it as an unopened letter any extra, so it is extremely treasured historic materials to have the ability to research a letter packet in its closed state,” mentioned Dr Daniel Starza Smith, a lecturer in early fashionable English literature at KCL and a part of the Unlocking Historical past workforce. “We’re really eager about how letters work as engineered objects, and how they’re made into packets. That is actually poignant materials. Individuals pour their hearts out into letters, they construct emotional connections over huge distances. To think about these messages by no means fairly getting by way of it is de facto evocative.”

The researchers imagine that digital unfolding will have an effect “far past” the Brienne assortment, as a result of so many collections world wide comprise unopened paperwork.

“One necessary instance is the a whole lot of unopened objects among the many 160,000 undelivered letters within the Prize Papers, an archive of paperwork confiscated by the British from enemy ships between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries,” they write in the article, titled Unlocking Historical past Via Automated Digital Unfolding of Sealed Paperwork Imaged by X-ray Microtomography. “If these may be read without bodily opening them, a lot uncommon letterlocking information may be preserved.”

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