Works in Progress - Summer 2013

International Men of Mystery

By Jessica Wilde | June 10, 2013


European diplomats in the 16th century, who had few options for transporting official correspondence, employed couriers. Notoriously unreliable, these messengers frequently extracted payment from both sides, readily accepted additional bribes, and were not above destroying a package’s contents and hiding out. Governments resorted to multiple couriers and secret codes to get information through safely.

Despite many cultural, religious, and political differences, Spain, England, and Scotland employed similar methods of diplomatic communication, says Denice Fett, author of a book to be titled “Lying Abroad: Information and the Culture of Diplomacy in Reformation Europe.” What started out in 2010 as Fett’s history dissertation at Ohio State University is now an almost complete account of diplomacy in the early modern period.

Piecing together Europe’s network of spies during the Reformation, Fett has deciphered codes in journals, diaries, memoranda, working papers, and the secret financial accounts of diplomats. In all, the correspondence transported by courier, diplomacy’s “lifeblood,” as she calls it, has proved the most valuable. Not all the messages are easy to read, Fett says, and certain shady characters reappear as couriers in numerous letters from different European archives.

Once deciphered, one pieced-together narrative, written in onion juice by a prisoner, revealed an assassination plot. The letters read “like a bad spy novel,” Fett says.

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