Perse teacher helps solve mystery of historical letters

Perse history teacher Alex Courtney is playing an important role in unlocking the secrets of a centuries-old mystery.

The Perse Assistant Head (Teaching & Learning) is helping to transcribe a series of letters written in code by Mary, Queen of Scots in the late 16th century after they were recently discovered and deciphered by cryptanalysts George Lasry, Norbert Biermann and Satoshi Tomokiyo.

Dr Courtney heard about their work through Perse Head of History Nuala Long earlier this year and contacted George Lasry after being intrigued by the group’s research findings in an online journal.

He said: “There is always a buzz around Mary, Queen of Scots. She is one of those historical figures whose dramatic life and tragic fate just command attention, but that can also mean trivial things connected with her receive much publicity.

“However, in this case the significance of the discovery was immediately apparent. The article, which includes abstracts of the letters and some whole transcriptions, showed that George and his colleagues had uncovered material of great importance for anyone studying British political history in that period.”

Indeed, Dr Courtney was already carrying out his own research for a biography on Mary’s son James VI of Scotland/I of England and Ireland and found the newly discovered letters reflected extensively on her relations with James.

With his understanding of the historical context and the Middle French in which the decoded text is written, Dr Courtney has helped uncover what Mary had to say.

He said: “I have enjoyed this immensely. I am used to working in archives with original manuscript sources from the 16th and 17th centuries, and that is great. There can be ‘eureka’ moments where so many strands seem to come together through the transcription of one document.

“This work has been totally different in form, but equally thought-provoking and rewarding. The process of interpretation and discovery happens while editing a GoogleDoc, line-by-line checking through the text of a letter, trying out different approaches to problematic phrases, posting comments to George and debating alternative solutions. It is like completing a Middle French word puzzle online!

“However, the feelings are the same as with any historical research I have done, with the added satisfaction that I am the first historian to read most of these letters, which is just astonishing.”

Inspired by the project, Dr Courtney added that he recently ran a lesson in which he asked his Year 8 group to try to decode one of the original texts, without revealing the identity of the writer.

He said: “They did not decipher the whole thing in five minutes, of course, but they did make many sensible inferences and started to spot possibly significant patterns. Curiosity and collaboration got them a long way.

“When given an initial decryption, without spacing, in 16th-century French, the students worked out what they could, picking out individual words and whole phrases, and they started to speculate about the identity of the author.

“When given the next stage along – a clean, punctuated transcription – they kept going, interrogating, inferring and pooling their knowledge of French vocabulary to discern the letter’s meaning. One even translated the whole thing for herself that evening!

“I want students to see history as an interpretative and collaborative endeavour. Weaving some of the ‘raw’ material of live historical research into their learning is just one way of encouraging them to see that and, hopefully, to experience something of just how exciting academic study can be.”

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