Science & Nature

Scientists decipher Marie Antoinette’s redacted love notes

Marie Antoinette despatched these expressions of affection — or extra? — in letters to her shut pal and rumored lover Axel von Fersen. Someone later used darkish ink to scribble over the phrases, apparently to dampen the effusive, maybe amorous, language.

Scientists in France devised a brand new methodology to uncover the unique writing, separating out the chemical composition of various inks used on historic paperwork. They examined their methodology by analyzing the non-public letters between the French queen and the Swedish depend, that are housed within the French nationwide archives.

That allowed them to learn the unique phrases and even determine the one that scratched them out — Fersen himself.

“It’s all the time thrilling whenever you uncover that you could know extra in regards to the previous than you thought you may,” stated historian Rebecca L. Spang, who research the French Revolution at Indiana University, and was not concerned within the research.

The letters have been exchanged between June 1791 and August 1792 — a interval when the French royal household was stored below shut surveillance in Paris, after having tried to flee the nation. Soon the French monarchy can be abolished, and the following yr each Marie Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI, can be beheaded.

“In this time, folks used lots of flowery language — however right here, it is actually sturdy, actually intimate language. We know with this textual content, there may be love relationship,” stated Anne Michelin, a cloth analyst on the Sorbonne’s Research Center for Conservation and co-author of the analysis revealed Friday within the journal Science Advances.

The wide-ranging letters, penned on thick cotton paper, talk about political occasions and private emotions. The redacted phrases, reminiscent of “madly” and “beloved,” do not change the general which means, however tone of the connection between the sender and receiver.

Marie Antoinette and Fersen met in France once they have been each 18. They stored in contact till her loss of life.

“In 18th century western Europe, there’s a type of cult of the letter as a type of writing that provides you entry to an individual’s character like no different,” stated Deidre Lynch, a historian who research the interval’s literary tradition at Harvard and was not concerned within the research.

“Like a metaphorical state of undress, they’ve let their hair down and present are who they are surely,” she stated.

But savvy writers have been additionally conscious that their letters could also be learn by a number of audiences. Some correspondents in 18th century Europe famously employed secret codes and so-called “invisible ink” to cover their full which means from sure eyes.

The letters exchanged between Marie Antoinette and Fersen, who by no means married, have been altered after the actual fact. Certain parts of textual content have been scribbled out in darkish ink. His household stored the correspondence till 1982, when the letters have been bought by the French nationwide archives.

In eight of the 15 letters the researchers analyzed, there have been adequate variations within the chemical composition of the inks — the proportion of iron, copper and different parts — that they might map out every layer individually, and thus get well the unique textual content.

“This is superb,” stated Ronald Schechter, a historian who research Marie Antoinette’s library at William & Mary and was not concerned within the research. He stated that the method may additionally assist historians decipher redacted or censored “phrases and passages in diplomatic correspondence, delicate political correspondence, and different texts which have eluded historic evaluation resulting from redactions.”

Michelin stated essentially the most shocking discovering was that her crew may additionally determine the one that censored the letters. It was Fersen, who used the identical inks to jot down and redact a number of the letters.

His motivations, nonetheless, stay a matter of hypothesis.

“I wager he was attempting to guard her advantage,” stated Harvard’s Lynch. “To throw out her letters can be like throwing out a lock of her hair. He needs two incompatible issues: He needs to maintain the letters, however he additionally needs to alter them.”


Follow Christina Larson on Twitter: @larsonchristina


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives assist from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely liable for all content material.

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