Redacted content in letters between Marie-Antoinette and rumoured lover revealed

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Scientists have revealed secret redacted content in letters exchanged between Marie-Antoinette and her rumoured lover Axel von Fersen, including words like “beloved” and “tender friend”.

Details of the correspondence, written during the French Revolution by the wife of Louis XVI and the Swedish count, have been uncovered using a combination of an X-ray technique and data processing techniques.

While the times they were living through would have lent emotional intensity to the exchanges, the discovery of choice words including “beloved,” “tender friend,” “adore,” and “madly” offers insights into the closeness of their relationship, researchers suggest.

Photo of a redacted passage of the letter of January 4, 1792 (CRC/PA)
Photo of a redacted passage of the letter of January 4, 1792 (CRC/PA)

The study also uncovered evidence to suggest von Fersen censored the letters himself, indicating they were important to him either for sentimental or political reasons.

Anne Michelin, Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation (CRC), MNHN, Sorbonne-University, CNRS, and colleagues conclude that their strategy offers an alternative to existing methods for unveiling redacted content.

They suggest it may have broader historical and forensic applications, demonstrating the power of combining advanced data processing tools with macroscopic elemental mapping to disentangle superimposed ink and to make hidden content more legible.

Some of the letters Marie-Antoinette exchanged with von Fersen between June 1791 and August 1792 are held at the French national archive.

For almost 150 years, redactions to these texts by an unidentified censor have puzzled historians.

To unravel the mystery of this content, the researchers applied X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy – a non-destructive chemical analysis – to analyse the redacted sections of 15 letters.

In a subset of eight letters, they found consistent differences in the copper-to-iron and zinc-to-iron ratios of inks in the original texts and ink in the redactions.

They mapped this to reveal the original text.

The researchers conducted further analyses to clarify hard-to-decipher sections, ultimately recovering censored writings in these eight letters.

Further examination suggested that many letters believed to have been written by Marie-Antoinette were actually copies of the originals made by von Fersen.

All of his letters had very similar ratios of ink elements, and some redactions appeared to share these same ratios, pointing to von Fersen as the censor, the scientists suggest.

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