In a previous post, I wrote about the signature of my earliest known ancestor, Pierre Chastain. A curious symbol follows his name. And it wasn’t just his. I discovered others whose signatures also included this same symbol. Not sure what to make of this, I asked a good friend for his opinion, and he pointed out that it looked like the number 98. I agreed. And I concocted, what I thought to be, a solid theory based on it being a 98. King Henry IV of France, in 1598, signed the Edict of Nantes, which gave Huguenots a measure of civil rights and religious freedom. I believed that, when signing documents, including a 98 was a way for Huguenots to commemorate this event.
Well, thanks to the good folks at the Genealogical Circle of Provençale Drôme, I finally have an official answer. To my great disappointment (for I fell in love with my own theory), it is, in fact, not a 98.
This symbol is an example of a practice referred to as “ruches”. In English, this translates literally to “hives”, which isn’t that helpful. The Oxford English Dictionary is more illuminating. Ruche is defined as “a frill or pleat of fabric as decoration on a garment or soft furnishing.” It’s not hard to see how the term came to describe this ornamental custom.
Hives first appeared in France in the 7th century as the use of signet rings gave way to manual signatures. They could be personalized however the signer deemed fit and, not coincidentally, were a way of demonstrating skill with a feather pen. This practice, which vanished by the 19th century, would have been most prominent among those whose work required the signing of documents on a regular basis, solicitors and notaries being two obvious examples.
Pierre Chastain’s signature is a specimen of hives at its most basic—three interlocking loops. It simply stood for “the undersigned”. Below is a more elaborate signature, though it is, when compared to the most ostentatious examples of hives, still fairly simple.
Manuel de Diplomatique by Arthur Giry is the authoritative work on this subject. A digital copy is available at Gallica, the digital library run by the National Library of France.