17th Century Letters Reveal Refugees ‘Sense of Loss’
Art And Culture

17th Century Letters Reveal Refugees ‘Sense of Loss’

A treasure trove of 17th century letters in the Netherlands is giving researchers a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary people, many of them French refugees fleeing turmoil and persecution.
Today’s wave of migrants escaping conflict to reach European shores is able to keep in touch with loved ones back home by mobile phone.
But in the mid-1600s the only means of long-distance communication was through the written word, reports AFP.
A former postmaster’s trunk stuffed with 2,600 undelivered letters is now helping shed light on what was a turbulent period in European history, when the continent was beset by a series of wars.
“You get a sense of loss, of abandonment,” said David van der Linden, one of the experts involved in an international project to transcribe, digitize and translate all the letters.
The leather trunk lined with linen belonged to The Hague’s postmaster, Simon de Brienne and his wife Maria Germain. And it was where he kept all the letters he was unable to deliver.
Many of the missives are from Protestant French Huguenot families fleeing persecution under the Catholic monarch Louis XIV.
They are mostly written in French, although some are also in Dutch, Swedish and Danish and a few in English.
Down through the centuries, the trunk and its contents were eventually passed to the Dutch finance ministry, which bequeathed it to the Museum of Communication in The Hague in 1926.
Although it was brought out for occasional exhibitions, until now no team of researchers has been able to devote time to the painstaking work of examining the contents in depth.
Touchingly, many of the missives are badly written, peppered with spelling errors and grammatical mistakes, indicating “that these were people who were barely literate” but took up a pen they were so still desperate for news from home, Van der Linden told AFP.
“Usually when you go through archives you find elite correspondence by diplomats, merchants, those kinds of people. But this collection really contains letters written by very simple men and women.”


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