An article by a French research team led by Anne Michelin reports about very interesting experience of revealing redacted sections of correspondence between French Queen Marie-Antoinette to Swedish Count Axel von Fersen. The letters were written between 1791 and 1792, in the midst of the French Revolution. During this time, Queen Marle-Antoinette and her husband, King Louis XVI, were living under strict security in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Nevertheless, Marie-Antoinette managed a secret correspondence with Axel von Fersen, her close Friend and rumoured lover. He even helped in the attempt to organise the escape of the royal family. The French national archives purchased the letters from the Fersen family in 1982.

An unknown censor had scribbled out dozens of passages in 15 of letters. In the 1990s, historians attempted to read the words beneath the ink scribbles, but the near-complete overlap made it impossible. In 2014, the attempt was repeated based on “the leading hypothesis, that a difference in the chemical composition of the original text and redaction ink would allow discriminating the redacted contents.” The researches spent one year testing different approaches to reading the text. They finally decided for x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, a non-destructive approach that uses x-ray radiation to analyse the original and the censoring ink. However, the required equipment became available for the team only in 2018. It took another year of very careful work to reveal redacted passages from eight letters. Sometimes the researchers had to use different data analysis strategies from one passage to the next, or from one word to the next. For the remaining seven letters, both inks have similar compositions that makes it impossible to read the redacted passages with the available methodological tools. 

The redacted phrases include such romantic statements as “Not without you”, “You, I love”, or “Your tender heart has made me happy”. Actually, that was not such a surprise for historians. More interesting is the finding that it was most likely Count Axel von Fersen himself who censored the letters.

“Revealing hidden, faded, or degraded graphical contents of historical artefacts is an important topic in cultural heritage research”. The used approach could therefore be useful for other cases of handwritten documents.  

Read more in „Science Advanced“: Anne Michelin, Fabien Pottier, and Christine Andraud “2D macro-XRF to revel redacted sections of French queen Marie-Antoinette secret correspondence with Swedish count Axel von Fersen”