There has never been a time when more messages are being sent. Every day we get texts, WhatsApp notifications and Snapchats, and nobody is sure how secure they are. Earlier this year, a data breach at WhatsApp exposed the messages of millions of users to hackers. Only old-school messages are safe from attacks like these. The security-conscious and hopeless romantics alike know a letter is the way to go for secrecy. The worst thing that can happen to a letter is your nosey little sister reading it, and it’s unlikely she’ll sell the information to the highest bidder.
Historically, letters containing secrets were cyphered for an extra touch of security. These cyphers ranged from just swapping letters around to sophisticated methods like complicated cypher tables. Letters were also censored after they had been read to protect the information they contained. This is what happened to letters written by Marie Antoinette.
Marie Antoinette was married to King Louis XVI of France, wore many beautiful and extravagant clothes and was beheaded, in that order. In her lifetime, she was unpopular with the French people. Not only did they believe she was flaunting her unimaginable wealth in a time of widespread poverty, but she had also committed the terrible crime of being Austrian. By 1792, Marie Antoinette was under house arrest at Tuileries Palace. In that time she wrote a series of letters to Swedish aristocrat Axel von Fersen the Younger.
Axel von Fersen did two things with these letters. Firstly, he made copies of them. Then he censored parts of the letters. You might wonder why he bothered with the copies when he was going to censor them anyway, and you can go on wondering. A different mystery has puzzled historians for years: were Marie Antoinette and von Fersen friends, or were they lovers?
Researchers managed to de-censor eight of the fifteen letters available to them.
This mystery has now been partially solved thanks to X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy. This is a method that has been previously used to read rolled scrolls and folded sheets of papyrus. XRF spectroscopy works by identifying differences between pigments used in old documents and the material they were written on. These differences are due to the differing levels of X-Ray absorption in each material.
Marie Antoinette’s letters were both copied and censored in gall ink. This type of ink contains Iron and other impurities such as sulphur and potassium. Luckily for us, the letters were censored using ink with slightly different levels of these impurities- which means the inks used in copying and censoring the letters could be told apart. In a paper published in October, this work was carried out. Researchers managed to de-censor eight of the fifteen letters available to them. The remaining seven letters were censored using inks too similar to the underlying writing to tell apart.
Even 200-year-old secrets aren’t safe in the modern world
And what was hidden under the censoring? Some of the letters revealed how close Marie Antoinette and von Fersen were, with Antoinette describing him as her ‘beloved’ and a ‘tender friend’. Antoinette also describes how a letter from von Fersen ‘made her happiness.’ Saucy stuff, I know. While the censored passages certainly show a fondness between them, it is still unclear whether Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen were romantically involved. During her lifetime, Marie Antoinette was subject to many rumours about her alleged affairs- von Fersen may have censored his letters to prevent any more. Regardless of what they reveal, the fact that these letters have been de-censored opens the door to other artefacts becoming readable.
So even 200-year-old secrets aren’t safe in the modern world. Does this mean you should give up on communicating entirely and go live in the wilderness? Not at all! I believe that all letters should be written to scandalise future generations. So go ahead! Write that love letter to the guy you’ve been checking out in the library. Tell your housemates what you really think of them on a sheet of A4. Just remember, a few centuries from now, someone might be writing an article about your secrets…