MIT Libraries explore 17th-century postal archive in “Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered”

2,600 recently rediscovered early modern letters to be analyzed in groundbreaking international digital humanities project.

A recently rediscovered trunk containing 2,600 letters sent from France, Spain, and the Spanish Netherlands between 1689 and 1706 will soon provide a fascinating glimpse into the plight of the early modern European everyman. These letters remained undelivered — including 600 letters never opened — because their recipients could not be found or would not pay outstanding postage costs. The trunk has been stored in The Hague’s Museum voor Communicatie since 1926. Now, an international team of experts from MIT, Yale University, University of Leiden, University of Groningen, and Oxford Univeristy is exploring each missive in a ground-breaking project called “Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered.”

The researchers are employing a range of innovative techniques — such as 3-D X-ray microtomography, a technique developed by the Apocalypto team at Queen Mary University of London, for use on some of the Dead Sea Scrolls — to explore these often complexly folded letters and to read the unopened letters without breaking their seals. Using the latest advances in X-ray technology from the field of dentistry, the team will read the letters for the first time without damaging this unique archive. Nadine Akkerman, from the University of Leiden, says: “Because early modern ink contained iron, incredibly delicate scanning can detect it on the paper. By scanning each layer of paper in a letter packet, we should be able to piece the letters back like jigsaw puzzles and read them without breaking the seals.”

The seals and the unique ways the letters were folded are crucial to understanding the letters’ dissemination, reception, and use. Akkerman and Daniel Starza Smith, from Lincoln College at Oxford University, approached Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson conservator at MIT Libraries, to join the project team because of her expertise in minimal intervention repair approaches to the conservation of library and archival materials and “letterlocking” — the tradition of folding and securing a writing surface to function as its own envelope. Dambrogio says of this cache of letters, “The inventiveness and complexity here is like nothing we have ever seen. ‘Letterlocking’ is an entirely new area of study, so the trunk offers us amazing research opportunities.”

Her pioneering work in “letterlocking,” which was recently featured in an article in The New York Times, impacts the research methodology of social historians, book historians, conservators, and digital humanities scholars. She has deduced there were a variety of techniques used throughout history to secure letters, and the types of seals and folds reveal information about how the sender and recipient felt about the contents. Individuals, such as Queen Elizabeth I, for instance, had at least five different systems for locking her correspondence — levels of physical security actually built into the folding to create the enclosure depended on the political or personal nature of the letter. Dambrogio has dedicated her energy to breaking these codes, and her findings have been game-changing for conservators and cultural historians who deal with documents. Where before conservators may have opted to steam out creases in a letter, repair torn corners, or break seals, they are now  keeping this significant material evidence intact.

Dambrogio is developing a number of resources to help scholars and the general public understand the history and technology of letter writing and document security, including instructional videos that show how to lock and unlock letters found in historic collections. She has also created an effective and highly engaging teaching tool, the so-called, “locked letter” give-away, which allows people to experience tearing the security tab to read the letter’s content. A favorite format is one modeled after a highly secure structure used by Queen Elizabeth I and her spymasters during the imminent arrest of Mary Queen of Scots. Dambrogio has given away more than 4,000 “locked” letters to students, professionals in allied disciplines, and the general public to convey the nuances that are hard to put in words. She and Starza Smith lecture and teach “letterlocking” workshops around the world to varied audiences — from elementary school children to PhD candidates.

For “Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered,” MIT Libraries will collaborate within the Institute to develop digital and physical tools used to image manuscripts — in this case, handwritten missives collected by the postmasters of the Dutch city of The Hague, Simon de Brienne and his wife Maria Germain. The Briennes were at the heart of European communications networks, serving William of Orange both before and after The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw William and his wife Mary depose King James II following a successful Dutch invasion of England, Scotland, and Ireland — which shocked the world and changed Europe forever.

The letter-writers come from all levels of society, from aristocrats to wandering musicians, women as well as men, each with their own stories to tell. David van der Linden, from the University of Groningen — who, together with Rebekah Ahrendt, from Yale, rediscovered the trunk in 2012 while they were researching Hugenot exiles and itinerant entertainers — points out how letters in the collection sent between Huguenot family members indicate “the emotional strains of exile and separation” and “the emotional toll that displacement and migration could take.” Ahrendt adds, “So many of the concerns expressed in these letters are the same as today: Parents worried about their children, wives [were] angry at delinquent husbands.” She told BBC History Magazine of the tantalizing professional gossip that peppers the collection. Actors and musicians, who were often socially marginalized in this period, write about “the mistresses, the pregnancies, the guy who drank too much,” as well as “genuine concern for the welfare of friends and colleagues.”

The research team, who will transcribe, translate, and edit the opened letters, comprises Rebekah Ahrendt, assistant professor in music at Yale University; Nadine Akkerman, lecturer in English at Leiden University; Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson (1957) Conservator at MIT Libraries; David van der Linden, the NWO Veni Fellow and Lecturer in History at the University of Groningen; Daniel Starza Smith, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Lincoln College Oxford; and Koos Havelaar, curator of postal history at the Museum voor Communicatie in The Hague; with assistance from David Mills of Queen Mary University of London.

Posted on December 2, 2015 by Sharon Lacey