Scientists Used X-rays To Peek Into Marie Antoinette’s Secret Love Letters

Nancy J. Delong

Even prior to losing their heads, the French Revolution was a significant discomfort in the royal family’s collective necks. For one particular, as the state shifted toward a constitutional monarchy, Louis XVI was instantly anticipated to govern in cooperation with a parliamentary system. But on major of that, the royals had been also pressured to move from the glittering Palace at Versailles to one particular that no person appreciated — Tuileries Palace — in the center of Paris.

“​​Marie Antoinette hated all of this,” suggests Rebecca L. Spang, ​​a professor of historical past at Indiana College Bloomington and creator of Things and Cash in the Time of the French Revolution. For individuals who thought kings to be anointed by God, Spang provides, it was regarded outrageous that a crowd of persons could pressure the king to do nearly anything. Marie Antoinette “sensed that their world was collapsing all around them and that persons who ought to be having a sturdy placement, like Louis XVI, had been not.”

Whilst she was kept underneath close surveillance following a botched escape attempt, the queen sought solace by exchanging magic formula letters with a close companion, the Swedish depend Axel von Fersen, involving the summers of 1791 and 1792. “Historians have recognized, definitely for a lot more than 200 a long time, that he and Marie Antoinette had been extremely, extremely, extremely close. And there is been speculation about just how close,” Spang suggests.

The French nationwide archives procured some of the exchanged letters from the Fersen household in 1982, but sure words and lines had been redacted by an unidentified censor — presumed to be the count’s excellent-nephew — and ongoing to puzzle historians for many years. That is, until eventually past month: A staff of scientists led by Anne Michelin at the Analysis Center for Conservation in Paris released a study that unraveled a portion of this historic secret with the assistance of X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. Their method unveiled the redacted information and facts contained in eight of the 15 letters.

This discovery, which was published in Science Developments, sheds mild not only on the romance involving France’s past queen and her curiously close depend, but also the identification of the redactor and the nuances of the era’s aristocratic culture.

Fluorescent Fingerprints Inform All

A 50 percent-century in the past, archaeologists turned to chemical analyses to reveal hidden, pale or degraded historic artifacts but these procedures held a bigger possibility of ruining the artifacts in issue. Additional just lately, portable instruments that instead rely on the interactions involving mild and issue inside of the electromagnetic spectrum offer you a non-invasive alternate.

Feel of an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer as an particularly impressive flashlight that permits experts to see the different features inside of a offered content. Each and every of these features produces a attribute established of fluorescent X-rays, kind of like a distinctive fingerprint, when struck by an X-ray of sufficient vitality. Michelin and her colleagues employed XRF spectroscopy and a host of knowledge processing instruments to map the ratio of sure features (such as copper-to-iron or zinc-to-iron) inside of the inks employed to compose, and afterwards redact, the letters. 

The recovered redactions contain emotionally charged language such as “beloved,” “tender pal,” “adore” and “madly.” Probably a lot more importantly, the composition of the inks implies that numerous of the letters are essentially copies created by Fersen, probable for report-preserving uses, and that his pen is also responsible for the abundant redactions through these copies. 

“To read underneath the censorship does not make it doable to know the truth of the matter about the mother nature of their feelings as the interpretation of texts is normally questionable,” the study’s authors compose. “But for the historian, this correspondence stays a cherished testimony of a troubled time and of the way in which the tragic political occasions affect the transformation of the feelings.”

Without a doubt, it stays unclear why Fersen selected to obscure sure passages rather than leaving them be or even destroying the letters solely experts and historians alike have their suspicions, having said that. The French persons held excellent resentment toward Marie Antoinette simply because she was Austrian, suggests Spang, who was not included in the study. For centuries, France and Austria engaged one particular a different as bitter enemies — significantly like the U.S. and USSR in the course of the Cold War.

“There’s a whole slander marketing campaign towards her that suggests she has lesbian orgies,” Spang suggests. “There’s definitely no evidence of that, but … these are the types of things that had been circulating in print, in caricature and in tune about her and continuously linking her name to that of this younger Swedish nobleman.” She postulates that Fersen may possibly have redacted the letters to protect the queen’s status, rather than his very own.

Chivalry Isn’t Lifeless

Whilst the letters are not definitive evidence that the romance involving Marie Antoinette and Fersen was one particular of a sexual mother nature, they do divulge a good deal about the attitudes pervading French culture at the time. While we picture the epitome of aristocratic manhood to be a bunch of dandies putting on lace, shiny colors and embroidery on their waistcoats, suggests Spang, there was also a culture of “so-named chivalry” inside of the European nobility. This is evident in Fersen’s selections.

The letters also “give us a little bit a lot more of an insight into the types of things that persons in the 18th century assumed required to be kept magic formula, that we could not sense the exact way about currently,” Spang suggests. It’s not probable to make anybody blush if you inform a close pal that you “adore” them presently. “But individuals types of statements about who you are, in your very own handwriting, had been definitely assumed to be rather revelatory in the 18th century — in a way that maybe currently we would not picture them.”

Relocating ahead, the procedures used by Michelin and her colleagues offer you a wealth of choices in finding out both past occasions and fashionable crimes. “Beyond the specific circumstance of [Marie Antoinette] and [Fersen’s] correspondence,” compose the scientists, “the improvement of methodological instruments to handle this kind of unredaction challenge is of excellent great importance for historic and forensic sciences.” Spang provides that we know of a good deal of obscured writings from the 18th century, like diplomatic and trade insider secrets that had been the result of industrial-period espionage, that await increased scrutiny.

As for the seven of Marie Antoinette and Fersen’s letters that continue being, the inks employed to compose and redact the letters are utterly indistinguishable — even by XRF spectroscopy. It appears to be that the past queen of France will get to retain some of her mysteries, for now.

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