Recently, in some old German records, I found for the first time the signature of my earliest known ancestor, Pierre Chastain. This discovery was exciting enough on its own, but then I noticed something curious after his name. At first, I thought it was just a fancy way of terminating the signature, perhaps a symbol of some significance to the family. Whatever it was, to me, it looked purely ornamental. For a day or two, I was focused solely on how it would have been written. I had the image zoomed in so close I could see the pen strokes, three loops connected without the pen being lifted, the middle loop created last.
I sent this image to a good friend of mine to see what he could make of it. He has a PhD in history and is an all around smart guy. To him, he said, it was clearly the number 98. I looked again and had to laugh at myself. It was absolutely a 98, but I never saw it until he pointed it out. (Hey, they don’t hand out PhDs to just anyone.)
I next compared Pierre’s signature to some other Chastain signatures from Vesc, France circa 1680. Vesc was Pierre’s hometown, which he had fled in 1685. These signatures all had a 98 as well.
And The Chastains weren’t the only ones…
I even checked other towns and villages around Vesc from that period. All of the records had at least some signatures that consistently included a 98, some so ornamental the 98 was almost hidden. What was going on?
I stared at these signatures until a light bulb appeared over my head, lit up, and exploded. The 98 was actually a ’98, which represented the year 1598. What was so special about the year 1598 you ask? Not much really, except that King Henry IV signed the Edict of Nantes which granted Huguenots religious freedom and, for the most part, put an end to the religious civil wars that had ravaged France for decades.
Adding a 98 to one’s signature was a way of claiming Huguenotship. It was a proud symbol of the hard-won freedom to worship as conscience, not the state, dictated. It was a celebration of heritage.
In 1685, King Louis XIV revoked his grandfather’s edict, causing hundreds of thousands of Huguenots to flee from France. Despite this loss of freedom, in 1695, in another country, Pierre Chastain still signed his name with a 98.
This is my theory anyway. I’ve so far been unable to discover an official explanation. I’ll update this post if I am ever able to confirm or deny. In closing, I’d like to add that I’m probably the first person to ever use the word Huguenotship. Of that, I am proud.
Update (23 August 2016): I’ve heard back from some experts from France on this matter. My theory was wrong. It’s not a 98. Hives are the name given to this part of the signature in France. The three interlocking loops stand for SubScriptiS or “undersigned”. Pierre’s signature demonstrates the simplest form. They could be personalized as the signer pleased and were often used to show off their skill with a feather pen. I’ll give a few examples in a lengthier update and link to it here.
Update (5 September 2016): As promised, here is the full explanation.