The linen-lined leather trunk, covered in official seals, showed up at a postal museum in The Hague in 1926. Only recently, however, did an international team of scholars begin to examine the 2,600 pieces of correspondence—written between 1680 and 1706—that comprise its contents. Many of the letters remain unopened, sealed with distinctive wax emblems and folded into intricate designs. Composed in French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Latin, they tell the stories of ordinary people living during a war-torn and tumultuous period in European history.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688, a successful Dutch invasion of England, Scotland and Ireland, saw William of Orange depose England’s King James II and grab his throne. Simon de Brienne and his wife Maria St. Germain, postmasters of the Dutch city of The Hague, served William both before and after the revolution, a position that placed them at the very heart of 17th-century Europe’s communication networks. Thanks to this savvy couple, an international team of scholars is currently poring over an invaluable record of their era: a leather trunk packed with 2,600 letters sent between 1680 and 1706, all of them undelivered and many still unopened.
Because recipients, and not senders, paid for the delivery of letters at the time, many letters remained undeliverable because the recipient changed his or her address, refused to pay the postage or died before delivery. Postmasters usually destroy these “dead letters,” but Brienne and Germain apparently kept thousands of them in a linen-lined leather trunk, probably in the hopes that someday they would be collected and paid for. In 1926, the trunk in question was bequeathed to the Museum voor Communicatie, a postal museum in The Hague. It remained nearly untouched by historians until recently, when a team of academics from Oxford, Leiden, MIT and Yale began to examine the contents.
Many of the 2,600 letters—600 of them still unopened—record the political turmoil of the time, as well as the more personal passions, heartbreaks and anxieties of their writers. A number of them are written without much punctuation, conveying the particular rhythms of the spoken speech of the day. The letters come from a cross-section of social classes, and are written by women as well as men, providing a uniquely textured glimpse into history. As Daniel Starza Smith of Oxford University told the Guardian: “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.”
One poignant letter was addressed to a Jewish merchant in the Hague from a woman writing on behalf of a friend of hers, a singer with the Hague opera. The singer had traveled to Paris and needed money to return for an unstated (but seemingly desperate) reason. “You can divine without difficulty the true cause of her despair,” the friend wrote. “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.” Unfortunately for the singer, her friend’s letter to the merchant was marked “niet hebben,” meaning that the recipient refused to accept it.
Many of the letters contain other sealed missives folded inside or additional objects, such as forget-me-nots or samples from merchants, including textile swatches. The letters themselves are intriguing to scholars beyond their contents: Many are folded in an intricate fashion known as “letterlocking,” in which the letter itself is fashioned into its own envelope. The seal of a letter, which in some cases preserved the sender’s fingerprint, as well as the way in which it was folded, provides an additional source of information for scholars. Rather than risk tearing the paper along the folds, the researchers are using techniques such as X-ray technology to read the unopened letters without unfolding them.