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Innan kuvert, människor skyddade meddelanden med Letterlocking

Around 2:00  on February 8, 1587, Mary Queen of Scots wrote a letter to her brother-in-law, King Henry III of France. It would be her last. Six hours later, she was beheaded for treason by the decision of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. The letter has since become one of Scotland’s most beloved artifacts, the handwritten pages offering a gripping glimpse of a monarch wrestling with its impending execution.

Letter Locking Techniques

But these are not the words that fascinate Jana Dambrogio, Thomas F. Peterson conservator at MIT Libraries. For more than a decade, Dambrogio has been studying “letterlocking,” the various systems of folds, notches, and wax seals that protected written communication prior to the invention of the mass-produced envelope. To protect his last missive from prying eyes, the Queen used a ”  butterfly lock  ” – hundreds of techniques cataloged by Dambrogio, co-worker Daniel Starza Smith and their research team in a rapidly growing  dictionary of letterlocking  .

Details of workshop participants making models in Teddy Hall, University of Oxford (left); Dambrogio making a simulacrum of the “Last Letter of Mary Queen of Scots" (right).
Information about workshop participants makes models at Teddy Hall, University of Oxford (left); Dambrogio makes a simulacrum of “the last letter of Mary Queen of Scots” (right).

Maria was not the only person to note to lock her letter: Co-practitioners include Galileo, Machiavelli, Marie Antoinette, Boston philanthropist Isabella Gardner and artist Albrecht Dürer. “Everyone did it,” says Smith, associate professor at the Department of English at Kings College London. “There’s something behind the history of communication for hundreds of years, and it’s kind of mind-blowing.”

To seal a contemporary envelope (on the off chance you seal one envelope at all), it takes a lick or two, at most. Not so for Mary or Machiavelli. At that time, letters were folded in such a way that they served as their own envelope. Depending on the desired level of security, you can choose the simple, triangular  crease and tuck  ; If you were particularly ambitious, you could try the  dagger trap  , a heavily booby-trapped technique disguised as another, less secure, type of lock.

Mail locking in the western world

The practice of letterlocking in the western world is roughly bookended by the proliferation of flexible, foldable paper in the 13th century and the invention of the mass-produced envelope in the 19th century. But it also fits into a 10,000-year history of document security, one that begins with clay tablets in Mesopotamia and extends all the way to today’s passwords and two-step authentication. “We see letterlocking as part of a much broader historical study,” Smith says.

Locked models of historic originals.Locked models of historical originals.

Vatikanets hemliga arkiv

Dambrogio first encountered locked letters in 2000, in the conservation lab of the Vatican’s secret archive . Her community project included a thorough examination of the legal and accounting records spanning the 10th to the 17th centuries, all of which had survived virtually untouched. At the end of the first week, she says, “I had already begun to see slots and authentication marks and really beautiful wax seals and cut corners and folds of folds in books, folds of books of paper, folds everywhere.”

But fresh off the graduate school, Dambrogio did not immediately understand the significance of these discoveries. “It took me a long time to realize, in fact, what I do is new,” she says. “It’s not just new to me.”

National Archives and Records Administration

Over the next few years, working at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC and again at the Vatican State Secret Archives, Dambrogio continued to gather evidence of security built into archival correspondence. She began to write a book examining how 250 Acts were made; her first chapter would focus on letters (“the most basic, simplest structure,” she reasoned) and take no more than four months to complete.

A dagger-trap, with a "booby trap" hidden inside.A dagger trap, with a “trap” hidden inside.

Tio år och en kvarts miljon bokstäver senare att ”första kapitlet” har fått en eget liv. Inledningsvis var det inte ens ett ord för vad Dambrogio studerade-mandatperioden ”letterlocking” antogs av andra forskare börjar 2009. Idag Dambrogio fokuserar på konstruktion av letterlocks; Smith, som gick henne 2013, ger historiska sammanhang. Hon beskriver sitt arbete som ”evangeliska” Tillsammans har de delat ut mer än 10.000 replika låst bokstäver, sprida evangeliet till elementära schoolers och akademiker lika.

“When we do these workshops at Oxford or at the King’s Shakespeare Center,” Smith says, “what we’re trying to do is show people who work in rare books and manuscripts how to read and understand the material that passes through their hands in ways they may not have seen before. “But for its younger audience,” says Dambrogio, “it’s just a really fresh way of teaching history and preservation.”

Smith and Dambrogio studying together. Smith and Dambrogio study together.

Bevis på brevlåsning

Although evidence of letterlocking is abundant in archives, it is still a challenge to accurately reproduce these three-dimensional objects. Some of Dambrogio’s and Smith’s detective work is small-scale, focusing on the structure of a single letter. Although the creases have been erased after years of flat storage, patterns of dirt and discoloration on the paper may offer clues to what part of the folded letter would have been on the outside. To better understand the fracture of the original wax seals, their research group has experimented with historical formulas for varnish.

At other times, their research looks more like a massive, multi-year treasure hunt. There have been cases, says Smith, where they have nine injured examples, “and then find the tenth one that is damaged, but in another way, so it delivers evidence that is missing from the others. It’s going to be this kind of puzzle effect. “

Putting these clues together is a time-consuming process that requires a very large number of data points. “It sees thousands of artifacts and has the ability to remember them” to detect trends, says Dambrogio. Patience is also required, she adds, noting that certain structures have taken her as long as a decade to deconstruct.

Locked giveaway models, like these, are handed out for people in workshops to experience what it's like to tear open a locked letter.Locked foreboding models, such as these, are distributed to people in workshops to experience what it’s like to tear up a locked letter.

But sometimes the evidence is delivered in a swipe. In 2012, Yale scientist Rebekah Ahrendt traced a tribe of unpublished letters in the Dutch including 600 that had never been opened. Preserved with The Hague Postmaster in the hope that someone might be able to claim his letter (and thus pay the postage), immortalizes the last decades of the 17th century collection through the words of musicians, merchants, aristocrats and spies. Smith and Dambrogio are part of the  team  to analyze this historical correspondence.

Utveckling av brevlåsningstekniker

Although the tribe will take years to investigate, the duo has already noticed links between these letters and the other characters they have studied. “If you compare Queen Elizabeth’s letter and [English poet] John Donne’s letter and then went and looked at this tribe, you would start to see the development of a technique,” Smith says. “What you start to see is something that is starting to look more like a modern envelope. This is part of a story we can tell. “

Locking a "triangle lock," a technique used by Queen Elizabeth I and her spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham among others.Locking a “triangle lock”, a technique used by Queen Elizabeth I and her spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham among others.

Both researchers are steadfast, but there is still so much left to discover. Many questions remain: How, for example, did John Donne and Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster feel the same letterlocking technique? Were they from a parent or colleague? Do some locks mean anything about the contents of the letter?

Brevlåsning som en återspegling av personlighet

There is evidence to suggest that letterlocking may have been seen as a reflection of personality and taste. Smith points to Donne as a particularly telling example. “He uses five different letterlocking styles, and one of them, even though we’ve looked at nearly a million letters, a quarter of a million in detail — we’ve never seen anyone else use it,” Smith says. “So we’ve got this guy who is known as the most inventive and witty poet of his generation, and he makes one of the most inventive and witty and brilliant letterlocking methods you can imagine. That’s the kind of evidence you can use to say “Ah, so you can actually see some of people’s personalities the way they fold letters.”

Similarly, Mary Queen of Scott’s locked letter provides new insights into her final hours. “It’s strange that, at some point, someone writes a letter and it’s considered their last act,” Dambrogio says. “But, in fact, their last act is to choose what letterlocking technology to use to communicate with the people they love.


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