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A trunk containing 2,600 historic letters has been opened and the contents revealed.

Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered: Letters in Trunk Reveal Scandals and Intrigues of 17th Century Lives


A sealed leather trunk stored in a museum in the Netherlands has been opened, and the treasure within was found to be thousands of perfectly preserved letters dating to the 17 th century. The undelivered letters are now being opened, and the personal details of people from all walks of life are being studied by researchers. The correspondences reveal personal anguish, financial dealings, lost opportunities, and complicated relationships.

The chest, long-hidden in a postal museum in The Hague, contains an accidental archive of stories from “aristocrats, spies, merchants, publishers, actors, musicians and more,” reports The Guardian . This work is hoped to shed light on European society more than 300 years ago.

An international team of researchers including scholars from Leiden, Oxford, MIT and Yale are involved in the ground-breaking project, dubbed Signed, Sealed and Undelivered , and they have been examining the 2,600 letters—600 as yet unopened.

The sealed letters will be read for the first time using advanced x-ray scanning technology, according to the press release at the project website, Brienne.org. The missives will be scanned without opening the letter or damaging the contents.

The collection includes letters from aristocrats, spies, merchants, publishers, actors and musicians.

The collection includes letters from aristocrats, spies, merchants, publishers, actors and musicians. Photo: Museum voor Communicatie

Hidden Chest Reveals Personal Details of Everyday Life

According to The Guardian, “The collection includes letters from aristocrats, spies, merchants, publishers, actors, musicians, barely literate peasants and highly educated people with beautiful handwriting, and are written in French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Latin.”

The letters are all unique slices of 17 th century life. Some of them are happy and loving greetings to friends and family, while others reveal painful personal situations.

Daniel Starza Smith, of Oxford University told The Guardian, “Something about these letters frozen in transit makes you feel like you’ve caught a moment in history off guard. Many of the writers and intended recipients of these letters were people who travelled throughout Europe, such as wandering musicians and religious exiles. The trunk preserves letters from many social classes, and women as well as men.

“Most documents that survive from this period record the activities of elites – aristocrats and their bureaucrats, or rich merchants – so these letters will tell us new things about an important section of society in 17th-century Europe. These are the kinds of people whose records frequently don’t survive, so this is a fantastic opportunity to hear new historical voices,” said Smith.

Scandals and Intrigues, Loves and Lives

One of the letters reportedly reveals the plight of a Dutch opera singer who had left the Netherlands for Paris and learned she was pregnant. She apparently had implored a wealthy merchant friend to write to the father of the child.

The letter reads: You can divine without difficulty the true cause of her despair. I cannot put it into so many words; what I ought to say to you is so excessive. Content yourself with thinking on it, and returning her to life by procuring her return.”

The letter is marked “niet hebben”, meaning the man refused to accept the letter (and perhaps the pregnancy). Thus, the fate of the singer and her child remains unknown—like the fates of so many of the letter writers, as the notes never found their destinations, sealed in the trunk for centuries.

The Guardian writes that some of the letters reflect the political turmoil of the time, or such perils as highway robbery or religious discrimination.

In 1702 a man wrote to warn his musician brother to not try to come through Paris while travelling in France as musicians had been conscripted into the army there. He wrote: “If you come here, do not bring your instrument or anything else.”

Another letter reveals the agony of a jilted woman, seemingly returning the cut-out paper dove she had once received, with the bitter accusation: “the fidelity which you promised me and which I have given with all my soul”.

The man never received the evidence of her broken heart through the mail.

A beautiful paper dove was found in one of the letters.

A beautiful paper dove was found in one of the letters. Photograph: Hague Museum for Communication

A Treasure Trove of Cultural Details: Personal Lives and Postal Paraphernalia

Researchers have also uncovered the background of Simon de Brienne and his wife, Maria Germain, postmasters at The Hague from 1676 until 1707, who were responsible for the delivery of all letters to and from Netherlands, France and Spain.

Yale News writes that letter recipients at the time were expected to pay postage upon receipt of a letter. But if they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay, the postmaster held the letter in hopes that eventually the recipient would want to pay the debt to get their mail. Sometimes mail couldn’t be delivered or paid for because the intended recipient had changed address, or even died.

De Brienne and wife were the owners of the trunk until it came to The Hague’s Museum voor Communicatie in 1926 .

This cache of undelivered, unopened mail was archived in the linen-lined, sealed trunk which was waterproofed with sealskin. The excellent preservation of the letters provides a wealth of information on 17 th century people and their lives and times.

Rebekah Ahrendt, assistant professor of music at Yale University, part of the international team of researchers investigating the accidental archive, told Yale News, “The letters that were in the trunk were a sort of postal piggybank. It just blew my mind.”

“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. It came together by accident.”

Not just a trove of personal details, the letters also give researchers a sampling of papers, seals, folding techniques and postal marks from 300 years ago that require study. Letters were folded in special ways at the time so that the page served as its own envelope.

Ahrendt explained that if the letter was folded in an esthetically pleasing way, it was more likely to be a love note, but if it was folded in a way that was complicated or more difficult to open, it was probably for security purposes, and likely a spy letter, or an important political message. 

The project team believes the letters provide an extremely rare opportunity to learn about the hidden facets of early modern history through first-hand testimony of those who lived it.

One of the well preserved letters from the archive.

One of the well preserved letters from the archive.  Photo: Museum voor Communicatie

Featured Image: A trunk containing 2,600 historic letters has been opened and the contents revealed.  Photo: Museum voor Communicatie

By: Liz Leafloor

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