Lost Writings Found.

1) Massive trove of centuries-old undelivered mail seized by British warships going online:

Somewhere in the U.K. National Archives in London, there are 4,000 boxes containing more than 160,000 undelivered letters from ships captured by the British during the naval wars of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Now those letters — some of which are bundled in old mail bags and affixed with wax seals that have never been broken — are about to go online.

“You can imagine the excitement being confronted with such a treasure,” said historian Dagmar Freist, director of the Prized Papers project, which aims to digitize the entire collection. “These letters have not been filtered, they have not been censored, nothing has been thrown away. Quite a few have not been opened.” […]

The documents shed new light on world history, with detailed ship logs of climate conditions, cartography, trade ledgers and correspondence about major events, including colonialism and the American and French Revolutionary wars. There are records from the slave trade, listing the names of enslaved people, their costs, and what slave owners paid for them. But what fascinates Freist the most are the personal letters between ordinary folks — a part of history she says is often overshadowed in favour of stories about powerful people.

There are some touching stories mentioned in the piece.

2) Discovery of Galileo’s long-lost letter shows he edited his heretical ideas to fool the Inquisition:

It had been hiding in plain sight. The original letter — long thought lost — in which Galileo Galilei first set down his arguments against the church’s doctrine that the Sun orbits the Earth has been discovered in a misdated library catalogue in London. Its unearthing and analysis expose critical new details about the saga that led to the astronomer’s condemnation for heresy in 1633.

The seven-page letter, written to a friend on 21 December 1613 and signed “G.G.”, provides the strongest evidence yet that, at the start of his battle with the religious authorities, Galileo actively engaged in damage control and tried to spread a toned-down version of his claims. […]

The letter has been in the Royal Society’s possession for at least 250 years, but escaped the notice of historians. It was rediscovered in the library there by Salvatore Ricciardo, a postdoctoral science historian at the University of Bergamo in Italy, who visited on 2 August for a different purpose, and then browsed the online catalogue.

My hat is off to all diggers in archives!


  1. Thanks for sharing this very nice article.

  2. Hat: I wish to third Marie-Lucie’s thanks. Letters in 19 different languages (which ones, I wonder?), written by ordinary people, between 1652 and 1815? Nice! A *lot* of historical linguists whose work is centered upon Early Modern English/French etc. will find the letters as interesting (on account of grammar, word choice, misspellings and the like) as historians will (on account of their content), I am certain.

  3. I agree!

  4. Hey that’s one of those what’dyoucallem headlines! Do these warships use a Captain’s Log-in when they go online? Do they have as much trouble as I do with my port settings?

  5. LH, Etienne: Actually the very nice article I referred to was the one in LH’s comment: Imagining lost books in the age of Cambridge Analytica which is more literary than linguistic But the finding of the letters from the war ships is indeed a wonderful find for both linguists and historians, as Etienne explains.

  6. which ones, I wonder?

    Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Basque, Yiddish, Ladino, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Mandarin, Hindi.

    (From here.)

  7. I often wonder how such large “projects” are financed. This one is “assigned” to the Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, which “betreut” the project – whatever that may mean in this case. Betreuen is an extremely vague word, something like “take care of, advise, help but not for free”. But what does it mean here ? Organize the midnight oil deliveries ? Dole out the money ? Scrub and console ? (Altenbetreuung in old folks’ homes).

    There is an “umbrella organisation” for Göttingen and seven other academies – the Akademieunion. It has an (annual ?) budget of 67 million euros. This may in part go towards financing the individual academies.

    At least there are budgets, so people can plan. Not like the American cycle of alternately “shutting down the government” and providing temporary funds.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Often, betreuen just means “supervise” – another vague word.

  9. The Prize Papers Project is funded by the Meertens Instituut; a lot of them are in Dutch.

  10. ktschwarz says

    2023 update: another story on the Prize Papers archive was linked at Language Hat under Long-Lost Letters. Lots more personal letters revealed. More updates, podcasts, stories, and videos at https://www.prizepapers.de/.

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