Monthly Archives: May 2020

Decipher the duchess. Part 1

We would like to give our blog readers the chance to work with the Elbeuf Letters for themselves – with a little help from us. As you will see, the duchess’ script has idiosyncrasies in shape, spelling and grammar that are a challenge when it comes to transcribing her writing. Why not have a go yourself at deciphering this entry from 16 July 1789? In it, the duchess reflects on scenes of violence and tension on the streets of the capital in the aftermath of the storming of the Bastille two days previously.

Detail from AN F7 4775/1

Click on the image to enlarge it. And here are some clues to help get you started:

  • Line 1 is an entry heading. A very similar (and more legible) heading can be seen below     line 6
  • The first sentence (line 2) reads: J’[essai] Mde que ce petit papier vous passe. Translation: ‘I will try to get this note to you, Madame.’ [Square brackets] indicate a questionable or assumed reading of the manuscript by the Project team.

We will post more clues next week, followed by the full transcription complete with our English translation. Why not subscribe to this Project Blog (see right) to receive updates automatically?

If you are interested in learning more about palaeography (the study of old handwriting), there is an excellent interactive guide to reading English scripts from c.1500-1800 on the National Archives website: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/default.htm. See also the Newberry Library’s offering for French scripts: https://paleography.library.utoronto.ca/.

What did the duchess of Elbeuf look like?

Simon Macdonald writes:

Although her Letters survive, and a lot can be traced about her life history elsewhere in the archives, we have no portrait of the duchess of Elbeuf. In the eighteenth century, pseudo-scientific theories were emerging which linked the shape of the face to character, intelligence, and so on — and the links (or not) between beauty and virtue were an endless subject for poets. Our interest is born of a simpler curiosity: we’d like to put a face to the name!

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