Europe has a long tradition of awarding merit. Even if the orders and honours conferred by individual countries vary, even if their form has changed over the centuries and the circles of people they could be granted to has expanded, it has always been about the same thing: The recognition of demonstrated service. Recognition that comes neither in the form of material possessions nor in powers of authority. State honors bring their bearers honour and renown that cannot be compensated with either money or influence.
The individual countries in Europe appreciate "honour and renown". It reflects particular national traditions, differing historical developments and cultural uniqueness. But it also is proof of an all-encompassing unifying element - the relationship between service and honours. The motto of the European Union, "In Varietate Concordia (Unity in Diversity)," holds true for faleristics as well. Honours and orders have gone through a long development. The once-exclusive insignia of closed knightly communities have gradually transformed, have grown more varied and have "democratised" into the forms of state honours accessible to all citizens. But they have maintained their exceptional character in awarding individual service conferred by the appropriate authority. Nowadays, orders and medals serve as a very necessary reminder to mass consumer democracies: Not everything important in this world can be bought, and not everything meaningful can be voted on.
The term 'faleristics' is based on the Greek word phalera, which indicated the metal decorations on helmets. The Romans adopted the word from the Greeks as phaleare, a term for military honours worn on armour. The term faleristics developed from these words to mean the scientific field, auxiliary to historical science, which is concerned with the orders, medals and insignia conferred upon individuals or groups of people for merit in all fields of human endeavor. The most valuable visible decorations of merit are orders, which now exist in nearly all countries worldwide. Their birthplace, however, was Europe, in whose civilisational framework the originally spiritual-chivalric orders developed over the centuries into orders as decorations of merit.
The first order societies began in the second half of the 11th century and were related to the military conflicts between Christianity and Islam in the Holy Land and on the Iberian Peninsula. The first society, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, was formed in the year 1059, in St John's Church in Jerusalem; it cared for pilgrims visiting the Holy Sepulcher and protected them with arms in hand. At the same time, the Military Order of Alcantara was formed as part of the reconquista taking place on the Iberian Peninsula. Other chivalric orders were formed later; in the Holy Land there were the Order of the Temple (the Templars), the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Order of the Hospital of St Mary of Jerusalem (the Teutonic Knights). On the Iberian Peninsula there were the Military Order of Calatrava, the Order of St James of the Sword, the Order of St Benedict of Aviz and others. During the 12th century, the order movement expanded throughout Europe; in the Czech lands, the Knights of Malta, the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights were all established in that period.
Influenced by the successful activities of religious-chivalric orders in the 14th and 15th centuries, European rulers started to surround themselves with the most faithful of their noblemen and decorated them with visible insignia. Order societies were also gradually founded, and membership in them was a symbol of merit and loyalty. In England, the Order of the Garter was founded in 1348, the Order of the Bath in 1399; in Savoy, the Order of the Collar in 1360; in Hungary, the Order of the Dragon in 1408; in Burgundy the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1430; in Denmark the Order of the Elephant in 1462 and in France, the Order of St Michael in 1469. As opposed to the religious-chivalric orders, their symbols were not limited to the cross only as a generic symbol of Christianity; mythological, exotic and fairy-tale figures began to appear. The new order societies were often named after Christian saints. With regard to the connection between order organisations and rulers, these orders gradually joined with dynasties, and some of these exist to this day as family orders.
Another transformation of these orders occurred in the 18th century, when they ceased to be societies and became honours. The end of knighthood and the emergence of modern states with their extensive systems of officials, officers and diplomats led to the need to bestow the visible honours represented by the new orders. Bearers of orders are no longer accepted into order societies on the basis of merit, but now have the honour conferred upon them. Military orders were the first to be formed at that time - the Military Order of St Louis in France was founded in 1693; the Military Order of St Henry in Saxony in 1736; the Order of the Sword in Sweden in 1748; the Military Order of Merit in Prussia in 1740; the Military Order of Maria Theresa in Austria in 1757; the Military Order of St George in Russia in 1769. Along with the military orders, however, a number of orders for the appreciation of civil merit were formed in most countries at the same time - the Order of the Dannebrog in Denmark in 1671, the Order of the Red Eagle in Prussia in 1705, the Order of St Alexander Nevsky in 1725, the Royal Hungarian Order of St Stephen in 1764 and the Imperial Austrian Order of Leopold in 1808. Some of these order decorations kept some of the Christian saints' markings, but markings also began to appear according to their founders or according to symbols close to the reasons for the award. Moreover, these orders were also gradually structured into classes, so the variability of the award according to the importance of the merit also rose significantly.
The definitive step toward modern honours was taken after the French Revolution by Napoleon Bonaparte, who in 1802 founded the Legion of Honour as a universal order of merit. The order was divided into five classes and individuals were honoured without regard to status, faith or state citizenship for merit shown in all spheres of human endeavour. The Legion of Honour became the first decoration of its type and in later years inspired heads of state and governments of countries worldwide to start similarly-conceived merit honours. Influenced by the Legion of Honour, dozens of order decorations were begun in the 19th century not only in Europe, but also in non-European states. After the end of World War I, the Legion of Honour became the model for the creation of honours in the new European countries; for example, in 1922, the order's rules were used in Czechoslovakia for the creation of the Order of the White Lion. The Legion of Honour became the model for the creation of similar honours in African and Asian countries in the second half of the 20th century. The order also strongly influenced European order decorations that already existed, and they were modified into universal orders of merit along the lines of the French model.
In today's world, individual states' decorations of merit number in the thousands, and there are hundreds of orders. As a rule, they are conferred upon individuals, but sometimes they are conferred on organizations of various types (such as cities or military units) for their demonstrated merit. For this reason, these orders are a continuation of the chivalric tradition of service, which is illustrated by the motto of the Czech King John, "Ich dien! (I Serve!)." After the battle of Crecy, in which the blind ruler met a heroic death, this motto was handed over by the English King Edward III to his son, Edward, which was then included not only in the insignia of the Prince of Wales, but also as the motto on the badge and star of the British military group the Order of the Bath.
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