- Letters sent from 1791–92 were partially censored by an unknown party
- The analysis of ink composition allowed the separation of reductions from text.
- Overwritten sections included suggestive words like ‘dear’ and ‘love’
- Furthermore, the team concluded that the count rewrote the letters himself.
- And many of the letters were not actually originals, but copies that they wrote
Revised contents of letters between Marie Antoinette and her rumored lover, Swedish Count Hans Axel von Fersson, have been uncovered using X-ray scans.
The identity of the one who censored the exchanges—which were sent between 1791–92, at the start of the French Revolution—has puzzled historians for 150 years.
Experts at the Center de Recherche sur la Conservation (CRC) in Paris were able to distinguish between the ink used in the reduction and the underlying text.
From this, they were able to map a long-hidden text – hinting at a close relationship between the pair, using words such as ‘dear’, ‘love’ and ‘crazy’.
In addition, the team found evidence that it was the count who redacted parts of the letters, many of which appear to be copies rather than originals.
According to the team, their method provides a new way to unveil the modified material and could find various historical and forensic applications in the future.
Revised contents of letters written from Marie Antoinette (left) to her rumored boyfriend, Swedish Count Hans Axel von Fersson (right) have been revealed using X-ray scans. The team found that it was the count who re-edited parts of the letters, which were copies of the originals.
Experts at the Center de Recherche sur la Conservation in Paris were able to distinguish between the ink used in the reduction and the underlying text. Pictured: A letter from Marie Antoinette to Count von Ferssen, January 4, 1792, with the corrections shown on the left and the restorations of the researchers on the right
The identity of the one who censored the exchanges—which were sent between 1791–92, at the start of the French Revolution—has puzzled historians for 150 years. Image: a partially revised letter by Count von Fersson to Marie Antoinette, dated 25 October 1791, subject to microscanning X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy
X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy
X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy is a non-destructive technique used to determine the chemical composition of materials.
It works by stimulating the sample with X-rays and measuring the secondary X-rays produced as a result.
Each element in the sample gives a unique X-ray fingerprint, which allows it to be identified.
In their study, the team – led by physical chemist Anne Michelin – studied a selection of letters exchanged between Marie Antoinette and Count von Fersson between June of 1791 and August of 1792.
They used a technique called microscanning X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to analyze the revised volumes of 15 of the landmark papers.
In eight notes, the researchers found consistent chemical differences between the inks used to write the original texts and those later used to strike through apparently sensitive material.
By mapping these variations—which are visible in the ink’s copper-to-iron and zinc-to-iron ratios—the team was able to reveal the original, underlying text.
They further used multivariate statistical analyzes to illustrate difficult-to-understand sections, allowing the revised text to be read in eight letters.
In addition, the team’s investigation revealed that the chemical composition of the ink used in von Ferssen’s letters was relatively similar and that the same ink was used to write some of the letters from ‘Mary’ and make several revisions.
This suggests that some of the letters sent to the count were not originals, but copies that he himself made – and that it was he who censored the material.
The team found evidence that the Count himself had rewritten parts of the letters, many of which appeared to be copies rather than originals. Image: a photograph of the second, partially censored page of a letter from Marie Antoinette to Count von Ferssen, January 4, 1792
The researchers used microscanning X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to analyze the revised sections of 15 of the landmark papers. Image: X-ray Scanner
By identifying von Fursson as the censor, the researchers wrote in their paper, the findings ‘highlight the importance of letters received and sent to them – whether by emotional attachment or political strategy.’
‘ He decided to keep his letters rather than destroy them, but modified some sections, indicating that he wanted to protect the Queen’s honor (or perhaps his own interests).
‘In any case, these reforms are a way of identifying the parts he considered private,’ he continued.
‘The mystery of these revised excerpts, which makes this correspondence special, is probably the reason why this correspondence was abandoned when the rest were largely destroyed.’
The full findings of the study were published in the journal science advance.
About Marie Antoinette
Pictured: Marie Antoinette in 1790
Marie Antoinette – born Maria Antonia Josefa Johanna and an Austrian archer – was the wife of Louis XVI and the last Queen of France before the French Revolution.
She became increasingly unpopular with the public when French ‘offenders’ – political pamphlets – accused her of favoring France’s enemies (including her native Austria) and giving birth to illegitimate children.
(According to Evelyn Farr, her correspondence with Count von Fürsen suggests that this last allegation may have been largely true – with the historian …