Scientists Decipher Marie Antoinette's Redacted Love NotesHistorians in the News
tags: historic preservation, Marie Antoinette, primary sources
“Not without you.” “My dear friend.” “You that I love.”
Marie Antoinette sent these expressions of affection — or more? — in letters to her close friend and rumored lover Axel von Fersen. Someone later used dark ink to scribble over the words, apparently to dampen the effusive, perhaps amorous, language.
Scientists in France devised a new method to uncover the original writing, separating out the chemical composition of different inks used on historical documents. They tested their method by analyzing the private letters between the French queen and the Swedish count, which are housed in the French national archives.
That allowed them to read the original words and even identify the person who scratched them out — Fersen himself.
“It’s always exciting when you discover that you can know more about the past than you thought you could,” said historian Rebecca L. Spang, who studies the French Revolution at Indiana University and was not involved in the study.
The letters were exchanged between June 1791 and August 1792 — a period when the French royal family was kept under close surveillance in Paris, after having attempted to flee the country. Soon the French monarchy would be abolished, and the next year Marie Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI, would be beheaded.
"In this time, people used a lot of flowery language — but here, it's really strong, really intimate language. We know with this text, there is love relationship," said Anne Michelin, a material analyst at the Sorbonne's Research Center for Conservation and co-author of the research published Friday in the journal Science Advances.
The wide-ranging letters, penned on thick cotton paper, discuss political events and personal feelings. The redacted phrases, such as “madly” and “beloved,” don’t change the overall meaning but the tone of the relationship between the sender and receiver.
Marie Antoinette and Fersen met in France when they were both 18. They kept in touch until her death.
“In 18th-century western Europe, there’s a kind of cult of the letter as a form of writing that gives you access to a person’s character like no other,” said Deidre Lynch, a historian who studies the period’s literary culture at Harvard and was not involved in the study.
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