300-year-old letters found in leather trunk shed light on life in the 17th Century

Thousands of undelivered letters from the 17th Century are to be studied by researchers hoping to learn more about life in early modern Europe.

Carl Anka
Monday 09 November 2015 10:30
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The postmaster's treasure chest, containing 2,600 letters from the 17th Century.
The postmaster's treasure chest, containing 2,600 letters from the 17th Century.

A leather trunk containing 2,600 letters written in the 17th Century is to be studied by an international team of researchers after being granted access from a postal museum in The Hague.

Containing a vast collection of stories from aristocrats, spies, merchants, publishers, actors, musicians and more, it is hoped the research project, dubbed “Signed, Sealed and Undelivered” will help form a cohesive picture of the cultural make-up of what society was like more than 300 years ago.

One letter that has already been translated and transcribed comes from a woman writing to a Jewish merchant in The Hague.

Apparently writing on behalf of a “mutual friend”, a Dutch opera singer who left for Paris, the letter details of the singer discovering of her pregnancy and appeals for money to make a return trip home.

“You can divine without difficulty the true cause of her despair,” it reads. “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.”

Letter from the “Signed, Sealed and Undelivered” project

The letter itself is marked “neit hebben”, meaning the merchant (and most likely the father of the child) declined to accept it, as researcher Dan Starza Smith, of Oxford University told The Guardian.

Special scanning techniques will help unlock the stories held within the letters, of which 600 are unopened.

This past weekend, project leader David van der Linden of the University of Groningen told members of the media why the trunk was such a fascinating research opportunity. Writing on the University of Groningen’s website, Van der Linden explained his belief that the letters will shed light on the lives of those living in the period, especially that of French Protestant families on the run at the time.

Many Huguenots fled religious persecution under Louis XIV, while others remained in France. Letter traffic was the only way to keep in touch.”, Van der Linden said on the University of Groningen’s website. “The letters in this collection beautifully show what an emotional toll flight and separation had on these families.”

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