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Sealed Letter Virtually Unfolded to Reveal Forgotten Renaissance Story

Sealed Letter Virtually Unfolded to Reveal Forgotten Renaissance Story

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For the first time ever, researchers have virtually unfolded a sealed letter from Renaissance Europe. It has remained unopened for 300 years, and thanks to their innovative computational approach, they didn’t need to break any seals or damage the artifact in any way to unlock the personal story of a real person who wrote it centuries ago.

Tooth Scanner Gains a New Usage – X-Raying History

The interdisciplinary team used an  X-ray scanner,  which is more commonly applied in dental research, to 'virtually unfold' the sealed letter and read the contents. They used an extremely sensitive X-ray microtomography scanner, which was developed at Queen Mary University of London's dental research labs, to scan unopened letters that come from a 17th-century postal trunk which is full of undelivered mail. One of these had been unopened since 1697.

Unopened letterpacket DB-1627 in the Brienne Collection, Sound and Vision The Hague, The Netherlands (UH0217). (Credit: Sound and Vision The Hague, The Netherlands)

Unopened letterpacket DB-1627 in the Brienne Collection, Sound and Vision The Hague, The Netherlands (UH0217). (Credit: Sound and Vision The Hague, The Netherlands)

Discussing the new application of the tooth tool, Professor Graham Davis from Queen Mary University of London  said, “We designed our X-ray scanner to have unprecedented sensitivity for mapping the mineral content of teeth, which is invaluable in dental research. But this high sensitivity has also made it possible to resolve certain types of ink in  paper and parchment.  It's incredible to think that a scanner designed to look at teeth has taken us this far.” Dr. David Mills, also of Queen Mary University, further  explained:

“We've been able to use our scanners to X-ray history. The scanning technology is similar to medical CT scanners, but using much more intense X-rays which allow us to see the minute traces of metal in the ink used to write these letters. The rest of the team were then able to take our scan images and turn them into letters they could open virtually and read for the first time in over 300 years.”

Getting to the Heart of a Locked Letter

After completing the detailed X-ray scan, other members of the team applied computational algorithms to the scan images and identified the different layers of the sealed, folded  letter – essentially opening and unfolding it virtually. Amanda Ghassaei of Adobe Research in San Francisco  says that the X-ray worked because 17th-century ink contained a lot of metal, which makes the writing show up “as a very bright region on the scan, kind of like the way that your bone would show up really bright on an X-ray.”

So the difficulty wasn’t necessarily getting images of the writing in the sealed letter, but in handling the jumbled data that appeared thanks to the intricate folding, which has been described as “especially lovely” and was used to close the letter so long ago. But the research team  states that their algorithm can take us “right into the heart of a locked letter.”

Sealed Letter’s Contents Revealed for the First Time in Three Centuries!

Even though the sealed letter had a deceptively “lovely” folding pattern it’s contents are not something loving or scandalous or even especially remarkable on their own. This was just a letter from someone trying to take care of some family business.

The Nature Communications  paper discussing the study results says that when the team examined the contents of the letter they found it was dated July 31, 1697 and was a request from a man named Jacques Sennacques to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, who was a French merchant in The Hague. Jacques wrote to Pierre to ask him to send him a certified copy of a death notice for another family member, named Daniel Le Pers.

Letterpacket DB-1627 was virtually unfolded and read for the first time since it was written 300 years ago. The letter contains a message from Jacques Sennacques dated July 31, 1697, to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, a French merchant, for a certified copy of a death notice of one Daniel Le Pers. (Credit: Unlocking History Research Group)

Letterpacket DB-1627 was virtually unfolded and read for the first time since it was written 300 years ago. The letter contains a message from Jacques Sennacques dated July 31, 1697, to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, a French merchant, for a certified copy of a death notice of one Daniel Le Pers. (Credit: Unlocking History Research Group)

While it’s not the kind of letter that causes one to gasp or sigh, this kind of  correspondence still holds value because it is another chance for historians to get a glimpse into the lives of real, everyday people who lived in Europe during  the Renaissance.

Since the letter remained in a postmaster’s trunk, one also has to wonder if the sender ever managed to obtain that certified copy of his family member’s death notice…

Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered: More Stories in the Letters that Never Made it to Their Final Destinations

The sealed letter written by Jacques more than 300 years ago isn’t the only one in that postmaster’s trunk. It was taken from  the Brienne trunk,  a leather chest that contains more than 2600 similarly folded and “locked” letters. The letters came from all over Europe and none of them were ever delivered.

The trunk’s owners  were a postmaster and postmistress couple called Simon and Marie de Brienne. They worked in The Hague from 1676 until 1707 and were responsible for delivering all the letters to and from Netherlands, France, and Spain. The thousands of letters stayed in the trunk simply because the letter recipients either wouldn’t or couldn’t pay to receive them. Paying postage upon receipt of a letter was common practice at the time.

Brienne trunk: a seventeenth-century trunk of letters bequeathed to the Dutch postal museum in The Hague. (Credit:  Unlocking History Research Group)

Brienne trunk: a seventeenth-century trunk of letters bequeathed to the Dutch postal museum in The Hague. (Credit:  Unlocking History Research Group)

One of  the more scandalous letters  that was found is the plea of a pregnant Dutch opera singer imploring a wealthy merchant friend help her to write to the father of the child – that letter was marked  “niet hebben,”  meaning the man refused to accept it.

Another letter tells the story of a man warning his musician brother to leave his instrument at home if he chooses to travel to Paris because musicians were being conscripted into the army there in 1702. Hopefully his brother had heard that story from somewhere else.

Want to Try Your Hand at Letterlocking?

The research team  explains that even though cutting open the letters in the trunk would have been an easy way to get at the juicy content within:

“Instead we took the time to study them for their hidden, secret, and inaccessible qualities. We've learned that letters can be a lot more revealing when they are left unopened. Using virtual unfolding to read an intimate story that has never seen the light of day - and never even reached its recipient - is truly extraordinary.”

This brings us to a final point of interest about this research - letterlocking – the intricate folding and securing of a flat sheet of paper to make it into its own envelope. This was the norm for sending secure correspondence before modern envelopes were created.

The website  Letterlocking.org explores the tools and techniques to letterlocking, providing a useful resource if you want to learn an intricate way to lock your own letters and create some physical  cryptography from the past. One of the authors of the current study, Jana Dambrogio, a conservator with MIT Libraries in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, was involved in that project’s creation.

The full study of the 300-year-old sealed letter and the other contents that were virtually unfolded from the postmaster’s trunk is published in  Nature Communications

Top Image: Computer-generated unfolding sequence of sealed letter DB-1538. A new paper describes how “virtual unfolding” was used to read the contents of sealed letterpackets from 17th-century Europe without physically opening them. Source: Unlocking History Research Group

By Alicia McDermott

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