Back in the day, the receiver of a package or letter had to pay the postage cost upon receipt. Because of this law, it was really easy to turn away unwanted correspondence. Simon de Brienne and Maria Germain, a postmaster and mistress in The Hague during the 17th Century, kept all the letters that were turned away, hoping that one day they’d be retrieved. They were not, but the words contained in these ancient letters has now been given new life.
In 1926, this enormous trunk full of thousands of letters was donated to a postal museum in The Hague, but the 2,600 letters it holds, many of them unopened, are only now being studied by an international team of academics from Leiden, Oxford, MIT and Yale.
One letter is a desperate plea from a woman who has just found out she’s pregnant. The receiver, a wealthy merchant, turned away the letter without ever laying eyes on it, probably knowing it was news that he was about to become a father.
Another letter is from a woman writing to the same merchant in The Hague on behalf of “a mutual friend.” The friend was a singer who had left for Paris, where she discovered she was pregnant. She needed money from the merchant to return. In the rejected letter, the friend begs the man to help:
“You can divine without difficulty the true cause of her despair. I cannot put it into so many words; what I ought to say to you is so excessive. Content yourself with thinking on it, and returning her to life by procuring her return.”
The letter is marked “niet hebben,” indicating that the man refused to accept it. The fate of the poor singer is unknown. Daniel Starza Smith, of Oxford University, said the merchant was beyond doubt the father of the child and the main cause of the singer’s departure.
‘Something about these letters frozen in transit makes you feel like you’ve caught a moment in history off guard,” Smith said about his work in reading and analyzing these long lost, often rejected, letters.
There are hundreds of other heartbreaking notes like the aforementioned ones. The collection also includes letters from aristocrats, spies, merchants, publishers, actors, musicians, barely literate peasants and highly educated people. They are written in French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Latin. Because Europe was in great political turmoil at the time, many of the letters reveal what it was like to be alive during war.
One man from France in 1702 tells his musician brother not to travel through Paris because a fellow musician has been forced into the army while in the city. He added the warning: “If you come here, do not bring your instrument or anything else.”
One woman wrote a love letter, enclosing a cut-out paper dove holding a flaming heart. She says, “the fidelity which you promised me and which I have given with all my soul.” Her faithless lover was rejected the letter, which remained unread until now.