Signs constitute that universal language of which the commentator on the Leland Manuscript was that "it is a thing rather to be wished than hoped for." It is evident, however, that such a substitute for a universal language has always existed among mankind. There are certain expressions of ideas which, by an implied common consent, are familiar even to the most barbarous tribes. An extension forward of the open hands will be understood at once by an Australian savage or an American Indian as a gesture betokening peace, while the idea of war or dislike would be as readily conveyed to either of them by a repulsive gesture of the same hands. These are not however, what constitute the signs of Freemasonry. It is evident that every secret society must have some conventional mode of distinguishing strangers from those who are its members, and Freemasonry, in this respects must have followed the universal custom of adopting such modes of recognition.
The Abbé Grandidier (Essais Historiques et Topographiques, page 422) says that when Josse Dotzinger, as architect of the Cathedral of Strassburg, formed, in 1452, all the Master Masons in Germany into one body, "he gave them a word and a particular sign by which they might recognize those who were of their Confraternity." Martene, who wrote a treatise on the ancient rites of the monks (De Antiquis Monachorum ritibus), says that, at the Monastery of Hirsehau, where many Masons were incorporated as Lay Brethren, one of the officers of the monastery was called the Master of the Works; and the Masons under him had a sign which he describes as pugnam super pugnam pone uicissim quasi simules constructores marum; that is, they placed alternately fist upon fist, as ef imitating the builders of ways. He also says, and other writers confirm the statement, that in the Middle Ages the monks had a system of signs by which they were enabled to recognize the members of their different Orders.
Krause (Kunsturkunden iv, page 420) thinks that the Freemasons derived their custom of having signs of recognition from this rule of the old monks. But we can trace the existence of signs to remote antiquity. In the Ancient Mysteries, the initiates were always instructed in a sign. Thus, when a wreath was presented to an initiate of the Mysteries of Mithras by another, instead of receiving it, he east it upon the ground, and this gesture of casting down was accepted as a sign of recognition.
So, too, Apuleius (Metamorphoses) describes the action of one of the devotees of the Mysteries of Isis, and says: "He walked gently, with a hesitating step, the ankle of the left foot being slightly bent, in order, no doubt, that he might afford me some sign by which I might recognize him. " And in another work (Apologia) he says:
"If any one happens to be present who has been initiated into the same rites as myself, if he will give me the sign, he shall then be at liberty to hear what it is that I keep with so much care."
Plautus, too, alludes to this custom in one of his plays (Miles Gloriosuos iv, 2) when he says: Cedo Signum si horune Bacohorum est.
Give me the sign, if you are one of these Bacchantes.
Signs, in fact, belong to all secret associations, and are no more peculiar to Freemasonry than is a system of initiation. The forms differ, but the principle has always existed.