Science: A Chemist Unlocks Hidden Words from a Doomed Queen

The Story:

A chemist in Paris has uncovered the words long obscured in letters written by a doomed French Queen, Marie Antoinette, in the period when she and her family were in ‘house arrest’ in Tuileries Palace. She managed to conduct a secret correspondence with a Swedish Count. The extant correspondence is much redacted. By whom? We will come back to that. Historians have long wondered what they said to one another — was she spilling state secrets? was he plotting a rescue? were they lovers who were simply exchanging sweet nothings?

Science to the Rescue of the Historians: 

Anne Michelin, a chemist, and her team at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, shot an X-ray beam at each of several of these documents. In a process known as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRY), the X-rays kicked the atoms in the ink into a higher-energy state, so that they emitted their own X-rays along a spectrum that indicates their elemental make-up. This told the scientists much about the ink used to write the letters and to blot them out in strategic places. It also allowed Michelin et al to read what was written.

Strange New Worlds: 

The team says it has successfully read the full contents of eight of the letters. It isn’t yet telling the world what the Queen and Count Axel von Fersen had to say to one another, though. That “will be the subject of a different publication.” The final stages of that work will have to be “supervised by curators and historians.” But this team does tell us in an Oct. 2021 paper who did the censoring.

It was Axel von Fersen (AF) himself. We can be confident of this because we have documents we know to be in AF’s own hand, in the same period, and the ink used to blot out much of Antoinette’s letters is chemically identical to the ink AF used to write his own notes. Fortunately, in many of the letters the underlying ink (in the Queen’s handwriting) is of a very different chemical composition, which is what allows scientists to distinguish which was which and so uncover the contents.

AF decided, the chemists conclude, to “keep his letters instead of destroying them but redacting some sections, indicating that he wanted to protect the honor of the queen (or maybe also his own interests).”




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