Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities



Court practices

Archival practices

Practices in communication

Practices of seafaring

Postal practices

Letter formats

The Prize Papers collection comprises more than 160 000 letters. In the pictures, we can see parts of the mail in transit, mostly Spanish letters, that were stored in mailbags on the French ship Le Fort de Nantes before it was captured in January 1747. The letters all show the same format and size although sent by different actors and to different locations. The letters also reveal similar sealing methods of imprinted seals, albeit using different adhesives. This letter size, format, and seal was typical for letters sent from or to Spain or the Spanish overseas territories and typical for the Bourbon postal system. Another typical feature for Spanish letters and its (overseas) postal system are the long address lines. TNA, HCA 32/111E

Learn more about these letters and their writers here

Letter folding and letter locking techniques

Letter writers during the early modern period used various forms of folding letter paper and locking techniques preparing their letters for postal despatch. During an age when envelopes were not yet invented in its present form, people used the letter paper itself to create dispatchable postal items. As pioneer research performed by our colleagues from Letterlocking.org has convincingly shown, the people of the age found impressively innovative ways and means, various material techniques to fold paper and adhere different materials to their letters in order to lock it and secure it from prying eyes.   In the Prize Papers collection, due to the fact that thousands of letters have survived in their original folded condition, also hundreds of different forms, formats, folds and letter locks used for early modern letters have survived. In the project, we preserve these historical folding and locking techniques and document them in pictures, as materiality shots or videos, as well as in text as part of the materiality reports and in metadata.   The reasons why people used certain letter folding techniques or locks or preferred some techniques over others, or used different techniques for different occasions, is currently one of the burning questions in research on early modern letters. With the research conducted in the Prize Papers Project and our focus on materiality, we are actively participating in this ongoing discussion, not least because the Prize Papers collection offers quantitative material in this regard. First results indicate that folds, formats, and locks could have symbolic meaning, like in the case of invitation letters from freemasons found in the collection; some techniques were chosen for practical purposes, as in all cases letters needed to enclose other letters or inserted artefacts; some reacted to postal conditions or were the result of personal affinities, regional traditions, or professional requirements, as in the case of merchants, whose complete letter archives are to be found in the collection. 

Left: Conservator Angelina Bakalarou unfolding a triangle fold, TNA, HCA 30/311

Learn more about the work of our cooperation partners from letterlocking.org.

Read the groundbreaking new open access article by our cooperation partners of the Unlocking History Team including Jana Dambrogio (MIT Library), Daniel Starza Smith (King’s College London) and David Mills (Queen Mary University London) on the virtual unfolding of sealed letters:
Dambrogio, J., Ghassaei, A., Smith, D.S. et al. Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography. Nat Commun 12, 1184 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-21326-w

Right: Most intriguing letter formats and letter folding techniques were found on the Danish ship Scielland (TNA, HCA 30/759). In the picture, we can see a letter folded and locked in a hexagon shape.

Below: Clickto see two exemplary materiality videos of two intriguing letterfolding techniques we encountered in the collection of the Bordeaux-Dublin letters (TNA, HCA 32/249/11)

Find these letters here.

Court practices

Bound volume of court papers

Books have a materiality of their own. One very typical material feature of the books we encounter in the Prize Papers collection is finding large volumes of neatly bundled and bound together court papers. In the pictures we can see a large bound volume of court records in the fascinating case of the ship Santa Catherina, a French merchant ship leased to Armenian merchants from New Julfa. Tying up court records by means of threading strings through court papers and pieces of evidence was an archival practice that was performed over centuries, not just limited to the early modern period. TNA, HCA42/25

Learn more about the ship, its history and the records in this case here.

Learn more about research in these letters in Sebouh Aslanian's groundbreaking book From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa. Berkley: University of California Press, 2011.

Court bundles

A typical contemporary record keeping practice of the High Court of Admiralty was to bundle together pieces of evidence taken from captured ships. In order to document the original material arrangements of these court bundles, which are still intact today, the Prize Papers imaging operators take materiality shots of the original bundles. Furthermore, the Prize Papers sorting team pays especial attention to these material arrangements via in-depth cataloguing. On the pictures, we can see original court bundles regarding the case of the French ship L'Ocean bound from Bayonne to Cartagena de Indias or Martinique. These bundles include inter alia French church registers, account books, sets of navigation exercises from on board, a leather wallet, 'Memoires d'un voyage de L'Amerique', collections of songs in French, and a bundle of letters addressed to members of the crew, all showing the great variety of document types in the collection. The different colours of the ribbons used in some instances indicate different kinds of documents used before court or in different stages of the hearing of evidence. TNA, HCA 32/140

Learn more about these court bundles here.

See more of these intriguing court bundles here: APPROACH Materiality Shots

Practices of seafaring

Bound volumes of ships' journals

Books have their very own kind of materiality. One very typical material practice and feature of early modern books that we encounter in the Prize Papers collection is books that actually consist of several individual booklets or journals which were first used individually and later bound together into large and heavy bound volumes, often in leather covers. In the pictures we can see a large bound volume of several ships' journals that were kept by ship's captain Rieweert Frerecks during his voyages in the years 1733-1745. Frerecks' book was found among his personal papers on board the Hamburg ship Die Hoffnung. In the book, we also find various illustrations and drawings by Frerecks, of Turkish galleys, ships with different rigs, or calligraphic designs. TNA, HCA 30/660

For more information check here.

For more information on the ship Hoffnung and its precious cargo see the upcoming book by Lucas Haasis, The Power of Persuasion. Becoming a merchant in the 18th century. Bielefeld: transcript, 2021.