decorations, civil and military, honors bestowed by a government to reward services or achievements, particularly those implying valor. The practice of bestowing such decorations dates back at least to the laurel wreaths of the ancient Greeks and Romans and gained prevalence with the medieval custom of conferring knighthood (see knight).
Orders of knighthood, such as the Order of the Bath and the Order of the Garter, still exist in Great Britain. British orders created in modern times—e.g., the Distinguished Service Order (1886), the Royal Victorian Order (1896), the Order of Merit (1902), and the Order of the British Empire (1917)—are decorations for civil and military service rather than true feudal orders. In the rest of Europe the old orders of knighthood, where they still exist, have also tended to lose their feudal connotations. Among the best known orders of chivalry are the Order of the Golden Fleece, created (1429 or 1430) by Philip the Good of Burgundy and conferred by Austria and by Spain; the Danish orders of the Dannebrog (1219) and Elephant (1462); the Italian orders of Annunziata (1362) and of Saints Maurice and Lazarus (1434); the papal order of the Golden Spur (1559); the Prussian orders of the Black Eagle (1701) and Red Eagle (1734); the Swedish Order of the Seraphim (1748); and the Polish orders of the White Eagle and of Polonia Restituta (1919). The French Legion of Honor, created by Napoleon I in 1802, is composed of an unlimited number of knights and headed by a grand master (the president of France).
In the late 19th and 20th cent., countries in many parts of the world followed the lead of the European nations and instituted elaborate systems of honors. Most European orders are graded in several classes, and the stars, crosses, ribbons, and other insignia corresponding to different classes vary greatly in aspect and value. Major military decorations include the Medaille militaire (France, 1852); the Croix de Guerre (Belgium and France, 1915); the Iron Cross (Germany, 1813; revived in 1939); and the Victoria Cross (Great Britain, 1856).
The highest decoration for exceptional heroism in the United States is the Congressional Medal of Honor, instituted in 1861 for the Navy and 1862 for the Army. Among other decorations awarded by the Congress are the Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal (1917) and the Distinguished Flying Cross (1942). The Purple Heart (created by George Washington, 1782; revived 1932) is awarded for wounds received in action; the silver star and bronze star are awarded, respectively, for heroism and for outstanding service. Each service has its own cross that ranks above the silver star. Oak-leaf clusters (in the Navy, gold or silver stars) are marks of repeated awards of the same decoration. In the United States and Great Britain a ribbon, indicating by its colors the corresponding medal, rather than the medal itself, is worn over the left breast pocket of the uniform. In some other countries, e.g., Russia, the medals themselves are worn suspended on ribbons.
Several countries award decorations to entire units; an example is the Presidential Unit Citation in the United States. Campaign ribbons and battle stars are decorations awarded automatically for presence in certain battles or theaters of operations. Some countries also give awards for civilian service, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the United States.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.