Unlocking the past?

Unlocking the past?

In past times, when they wrote letters people devised various means of sending them so that the name and address of the person they were sent to could be easily seen, while their contents were protected from being read by other people. One of these was to fold the sheet of writing paper, often of a larger size than we would now use, in an intricate way so that the outside of the sheet tucked around the rest and formed a kind of sealed envelope. And then it was literally sealed with sealing-wax.

Such letters have come into the news in a big way in the last couple of days, with publicity given to a box of 577 such letters that were delivered to The Hague in the Netherlands between 1689 and 1706, lost sight of, and eventually found in a trunk of undelivered mail. This was acquired by the Museum voor Communicatie in The Hague in 1926. The letters in the trunk have been worked on recently by a group of researchers known as the Unlocking History Research Group. The box is shown below.

The letters in this trunk never reached the people they were addressed to, they remained ‘locked’. And the story to hit the news was that the conservation/research team has found a way to read one of these letters without unfolding it, using a special X-ray scanner and computer algorithms. It is shown in the photograph below. What doing this has enabled is to virtually ‘unfold’ the unopened letter, which remains ‘locked’, and capture what is written on each of its folded elements.

The particular letter in question was written on 31 July 1697 and contains a request from Jacques Sennacques to his cousin, Pierre Le Pers, for a certified (by a notary) copy of the death notice for Daniel Le Pers, perhaps in the context of dispositions in the will made by Daniel. As well as being transcribed in its original French, it has also been translated into English. There is some minor missing text, which the researchers involved have commented is likely due to wormholes, conjuring up an image of a large worm munching its way over hundreds of years through this trunk of letters!

The content of the letter is mundane and everyday, containing polite expressions around the request, and it was written in the context of Pierre having failed to reply to an earlier letter of request about the death notice. It also mentions services, ‘pains’, that Jacques had taken on Pierre’s behalf. But what happened subsequently, no one knows. Clearly this letter was never delivered, but whether another was written by Jacques and eventually found him cannot be told. The transcribed and translated letter now follows.

Dear sir & cousin,

It has been a few weeks since I wrote to you in order to ask you to have drawn up for me a legalized excerpt of the death of sieur Daniel Le Pers, which took place in The Hague in the month of December 1695, without hearing from you. This is f…g I am writing to you a second time in order to remind you of the pains that I took on your behalf. It is important to me to have this extract you will do me a great pleasure to procure it for me to send me at the same time news of your health of all the family.

I also pray that God maintains you in His Sainted graces & covers you with the blessings necessary to your salvation. Nothing more for the time being, except that I pray you to believe that I am completely, sir and cousin, your most humble & very obedient servant,

Jacques Sennacques

Last updated:  4 March 2021


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