WASHINGTON – “Not without you.” “My dear friend.” “You I love. “
Marie-Antoinette sent these expressions of affection – or more? – in letters to his close friend and alleged lover Axel von Fersen. Someone then used black ink to scribble over the words, apparently to tone down the effusive, possibly amorous language.
French scientists have developed a new method to discover the original writing, by separating the chemical composition of the different inks used on historical documents. They tested their method by analyzing the private letters between the Queen of France and the Count of Sweden, which are kept in the French national archives.
This allowed them to read the original words and even identify the person who crossed them out – Fersen himself.
“It’s always exciting to find out that you can learn more about the past than you thought,” said historian Rebecca L. Spang, who studies the French Revolution at Indiana University and does not participated in the study.
The letters were exchanged between June 1791 and August 1792 – a period when the French royal family was kept under close surveillance in Paris, after attempting to flee the country. Soon the French monarchy would be abolished and the following year Marie-Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI, would be beheaded.
“Back then people used flowery language a lot – but here it’s really strong, really intimate language. We know that with this text, there is a romantic relationship, “said Anne Michelin, materials analyst at the Sorbonne Conservation Research Center and co-author of the research published in the journal Friday. Scientists progress.
The large-scale letters, written on heavy cotton paper, discuss political events and personal feelings. Written sentences, such as “madly” and “beloved”, do not change the general meaning, but the tone of the relationship between sender and recipient.
Marie-Antoinette and Fersen met in France at the age of 18. They remained in contact until his death.
“In 18th-century Western Europe, there is a sort of cult of the letter as a form of writing that gives you access to a person’s character like no other,” said Deidre Lynch, a historian who studies literary culture of the time at Harvard and was not involved in the study.
“Like a metaphorical state of undressing, they put their heads down and show who they really are,” she said.
But savvy writers were also aware that their letters could be read by multiple audiences. Some correspondents from 18th century Europe used secret codes and so-called “invisible ink” to hide their full meaning from some eyes.
The letters exchanged between Marie-Antoinette and Fersen, who never married, were changed after the fact. Some portions of the text have been scribbled in black ink. His family kept the correspondence until 1982, when the letters were purchased by the French national archives.
In eight of the 15 letters the researchers analyzed, there were enough differences in the chemical makeup of the inks – the proportion of iron, copper, and other elements – that they could map each layer separately and thus retrieve the text. original.
“It’s amazing,” said Ronald Schechter, a historian who studies the Marie-Antoinette library at William & Mary and was not involved in the study. He said the technique could also help historians decipher “phrases and passages from diplomatic correspondence, sensitive political correspondence, and other texts that have escaped historical analysis due to the drafting.”
Michelin said the most surprising finding was that his team could also identify the person who censored the letters. It was Fersen, who used the same inks to write and write some letters.
Its motives, however, remain a subject of speculation.
“I bet he was trying to protect his virtue,” said Harvard’s Lynch. “Throwing away her letters would be like throwing away a lock of her hair. He wants two incompatible things: he wants to keep the letters, but he also wants to change them.
Follow Christina Larson on Twitter: @larsonchristina
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