The year was 1791, and while Marie Antoinette was not favored by the French, she did have a pen mate. Her confidante, Axel von Fersson, was a Swedish count, and one of the French queen’s close friends.
Between the summers of 1791 and 1792, although the queen was kept under close surveillance after a failed escape attempt, she still managed to hide the letter to the Counts of Farson. He copied the letters, which are now in the French National Archives. But by the time the letters were written and by the time they arrived in the archives, some mysterious actor censored the letters to spell out words and lines with a tightly looped circle of ink.
The contents of the censored lines – and the identity of the flamboyant scribbler – remained undiscovered by historians for nearly 150 years. In a paper published Friday in the journal science advanceIn , scientists have now revealed the revised contents of eight letters censored between Marie Antoinette and the Count of Fersson. The researchers used a technique called X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, which can detect the chemical signatures of various inks without damaging documents.
The uncensored content of the letters reflects the depth of Marie Antoinette’s love for her close friend at a time of turmoil. But as for the gossip, the material doesn’t make it clear whether they had an affair.
Emeline Poyet, a researcher at the Sorbonne University in France who was not involved in the project, called the rediscovery raised “a real technological breakthrough” that contributes to the field of conservation science.
“I think it’s absolutely fantastic,” said Catriona Seth, professor of French literature at the University of Oxford, who was not involved in the research. “Science is teaching us things we could not have anticipated.”
Marie Antoinette, who was executed in 1793, wrote many letters in her life.
Although the content of the Queen’s later correspondence with the Count is often political, the letters capture some of the most extreme moments of her life. Dr. Seth said, “He is under house arrest, he fears for his life, he may be murdered.” “She is writing with this awareness of her destiny.”
But only a small number of papers had material modified, Dr. Seth said. And many historians have wondered whether those censored lines could provide new insight into the French queen’s relationship with the Swedish count.
The letters remained in the Count of Farson’s family until 1877, when they were published by the Count’s great-nephew Baron of Klinkostrom. Many historians suspect that the baron was the censor of the letters, perhaps to preserve his family’s reputation amid rumors that the Swedish count and French queen were secret lovers.
In 2014, the National Archives contacted Anne Michelin, an assistant professor at the French National Museum of Natural History, to see if she might be able to uncover the text.
Researchers may use X-ray tomography, or CT scans, to recover some hidden text, such as the ink inside rolled papyri. These X-rays can visualize the text without damaging the manuscripts.
But redaction is a different kind of beast in Marie Antoinette’s letters. The sensor scraped the lines using the same ink as the original writing, creating a black tangle of superimposed ink. The two inks did not have sufficient chemical contrast for a CT scan to detect the underlying text. Researchers brainstorm possible techniques that could break through censorship; All but one of the redactions failed to light up.
The prevailing method was X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, or XRF, which separated the chemical signature of the ink used by the original author and the ink used by the sensor. Preliminary XRF scans showed that both texts were engraved with metallic-bile ink, a common ink made from iron sulfate. “But ferrous sulfate is not pure most of the time,” Dr. Michelin said. “It contains other metallic elements like copper and zinc. With that little difference we can differentiate the ink.”
In some letters, copper was only present in the original ink, so isolating the element on its own would remove the sensor. “So just with the copper map, I can read the text,” Dr. Michelin said.
Other letters proved trickier. With a single elemental smoking gun, the researchers mapped the ratio of certain elements, such as copper-to-iron, to differentiate between the inks and reveal the text. And more characters are still completely enigmatic, as the original and redacting ink were too similar in composition to be different.
The ink scan may also have uncovered the true identity of the Redactor: not Grandfather Klinkostrom, but the Count of Fersen himself. Scans showed that the Count began to use the same ink for writing and reworking after 1791. In one letter, the count redacted a line and added text over it in the same ink to ensure that the line would still be readable, changing the “letter of the letter”. 28th made my happiness” to Miller “The 28th’s letter reached me.” A handwriting expert confirmed that the tweak came from counting itself.
The team eventually overcame the censorship of eight of the 15 total letters, revealing passionate displays of affection between the French queen and the Swedish count: words such as “dear, gentle friend, loved and mad”.
“Very clearly, Marie Antoinette has a very deep affection for von Ferssen, which is one of the pillars of her affection at this stage of her existence,” said Dr. Seth.
But Dr. Seth says that these flows of the moon are not proof of love affair. He compared them to the kiss-face emoji.
“You can use it to say ‘goodbye’ to a friend, and yet someone who doesn’t know about our emoji culture will assume that you must be deeply in love,” she said.
In addition, the count was a busy man.
Dr. Seth said, “At that time also he was having an affair with another woman.”
Before starting the project, Dr. Michelin was not familiar with the rumored relationship between the Count of Fersson and Marie Antoinette. Although he now has more compassion for the disgraced queen, he remains somewhat indifferent to the rumours.
“All the queens and all the kings of France had this love affair,” she said dryly on a Zoom call. “it’s common.”