Since we outgrew the pastime of sitting in the tree house with playmates and throwing fragrant, blue eucalyptus pods at children down on the ground, we have not had much interest in the tangled-web ways of secret societies. There are many, however, who never quite made it out of the tree house and the tribalism of childhood.
There is a flurry of discussion among a group of French genealogists just now -- though it has come up many times before this -- about a particular sign added to signatures and what it could mean. The sign is one we have come across as well and we, too have been puzzled by it.
The sign is of two slanted bars with three dots between them. Though the number of dots may vary, three is more common. The above signatures were all made in 1782 by three brothers. The general consensus, but by no means the definitive ruling, among French professional genealogists is that this sign indicates the person was a Freemason. This is apparently because the Freemasons were also known as "The Brotherhood of Three Dots", or Les Frères Trois-Points, and because they reputedly had a triangular arrangement of three dots tattooed onto themselves.
However, this triangular arrangement is the very reason some genealogists think that the sign on the signature does not indicate the person is a Freemason, because the dots are always in a line, never a triangle. Occasionally, there are two dots, or five or seven or even twelve. Some of those who think this is a sign of Freemasonry believe that the number of dots indicates the level achieved in the society's hierarchy. We have seen also the bars with no apparent dots, as in this example from 1756:
Opponents to the theory point out that there are some departments in France where no signatures with this sign can be found at all, yet Freemasonry exists throughout France. Alternative possibilities that they posit are that the sign may indicate:
- that the person held a public office, such as mayor,
- that he held an important post such as a bailiff or notaire,
- that it indicates something to do with the military,
- that he was a Compagnon du Tour de France,
- that the sign was just a way to clean the pen nib before signing
Many say that the sign was not used until after the Revolution. Clearly this is not the case for the examples above come from a few years before the Revolution. Current French Freemasons have been questioned about the sign (which, by the way, seems to be no longer in use) and they, too, are divided as to whether it indicates membership in their society or not, though Jean-Frédéric Daudin, author of l'ABCdaire de la Franc-Maçonnerie, insists that it is, indeed, a mark to indicate Freemasonry. Yet some Freemasons say they have never seen it used in their lodges.
The uncertainty is such that it may be taken as a possible clue. Should you find the mark among your ancestors' signatures, it may be worth pursuing. A few Departmental Archives have in their holdings, in Series M, the archives of some Freemason lodges and their activities. The only way to know is to look. If you do, by all means tell us what you find.
©2014 Anne Morddel