17th century letters reveal refugees' sense of loss

2015-11-11 21:01


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The Hague - A treasure trove of 17th century letters in The Netherlands is giving researchers a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary people, many of them French refugees fleeing turmoil and persecution.

Today's wave of migrants escaping conflict to reach European shores are able to keep in touch with loved ones back home by mobile phone.

But in the mid-1600s the only means of long-distance communication was through the written word.

A former postmaster's trunk stuffed with 2 600 undelivered letters is now helping shed light on what was a turbulent period in European history, when the continent was beset by a series of wars.

"You get a sense of loss, of abandonment," said David van der Linden, one of the experts involved in an international project to transcribe, digitise and translate all the letters.

The leather trunk lined with linen belonged to The Hague's postmaster, Simon de Brienne and his wife Maria Germain. And it was where he kept all the letters he was unable to deliver.

Many of the missives are from Protestant French Huguenot families fleeing persecution under the Catholic monarch Louis XIV.

They are mostly in written in French, although some are also in Dutch, Swedish and Danish and a few in English.

Down through the centuries, the trunk and its contents was eventually passed to the Dutch finance ministry, which bequeathed it to the Museum of Communication in The Hague in 1926.

Although it was brought out for occasional exhibitions, until now no team of researchers has been able to devote time to the painstaking work of examining the contents in depth.

X-ray scans

Touchingly, many of the missives are badly written, peppered with spelling errors and grammatical mistakes, indicating "that these were people who were barely literate", but took up a pen they were so still desperate for news from home, Van der Linden told AFP.

"Usually when you go through archives you find elite correspondence by diplomats, merchants, those kinds of people. But this collection really contains letters written by very simple men and women."

De Brienne took over the privileged position as postmaster in The Hague in 1676 after himself fleeing from France.

Back then, there were no stamps and both the sender and the recipient had to pay for their mail.

But the cost was steep - in some cases amounting to half a week's wages - so the recipient might refuse to accept the letter. Or they may have died, or moved away.

Many of the letters have "niet hebben" (refused) or "naar Engels" (gone to England) written on the back.

Stuck with unwanted mail, many postmasters just destroyed it. But de Brienne kept the letters in his trunk - dubbed a "piggy bank" - in the hope that one day he would be paid.

Six hundred of the letters have never been opened and will be scanned with X-ray tomography - a technology used on the Dead Sea Scrolls - to try to reveal their secrets without risking damage by opening them.

The project is being led by researchers from the Dutch universities of Leiden and Groningen, as well as MIT and Yale in the United States and Lincoln College, Oxford University.

It has been awarded a €15 000 grant, but the team believes they will need about a €1m to complete the work over the next four to five years.

Read more on:    holland

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