Phaleristics

The expression Phaleristics is said to have sprung in former Czechoslovakia, around 1937, deriving from the Latin word Phalerae, one of the honorific military awards used by the Romans [1]

Phaleristics is commonly defined as the science devoted to the study and collecting of the insignia of orders of chivalry and of merit; medals and other decorations, which for a long time were regarded, and still are by many, as a branch of Numismatics[2]

Indeed, Numismatics in its origins had a wider scope of study including not only coins, but also a vast range of metallic pieces with an artistic or collectible value. 

However, the development of Numismatics and the increment of studies of the several metallic specimens concerned with this science gradually led to the creation of specialized areas of study which in turn became increasingly 

Medallistics and Medals 

But, few attempts have been made to conceptualize these terms and areas of study and that is why we welcome the writings of the Cuban researchers Maikel Arista Salado y Hernández and Professor Avelino Víctor Couceiro Rodríguez [3]

Making an effort to clarify matters these authors while agreeing with the general definition of Medallistics as the science concerned with the study and collecting of «medals», go a step further. 

The term – «medal» – being an ambivalent expression which has several meanings and being often confused with its homonymous, an honorific distinction and a part of the vast concept of decorations, needs a better and more precise definition. So, we have two expressions often commonly used as synonyms – medals and decorations – but whose object of study differs making it necessary to define the concepts. 

After analyzing the several definitions given by several Spanish dictionaries and encyclopedias, the Cuban authors mentioned above advance a new concept for Medals object of Medallistics: «as an ostensible metallic piece without fiduciary value, struck with an emblem». 

Decorations 

Again, the expression decoration derives from the verb decorate which in turn comes from the Latin «condecorare» (decorate with ornaments), being used in multiple senses[4]

Very often the expression is used, at least in Latin languages, in a broad sense which include all kind of honorific medals, as signs of distinction and insignia of orders, civil or military, awarded by sovereign States or by entities recognized by International Law or custom as having that power. 

Thus, firstly, the expression can be used as a synonym of an honorific distinction awarded for services or individual or collective merits. In this sense we have the «orders of knighthood, orders of merit and various civil and military decorations». 

Secondly, the term is also often used as a synonym of an insignia or medal – distinctive symbols which signify the membership of an order or corporation or to any other institution allowed to confer such distinctions, or the possession of a given honorific distinction (vg. Star of the Legion d’Honneur, the Riband of the Grand Cross of the Order of Christ, the War Cross, Military Medals, Campaign Medals, the Red Cross Medal, etc.) 

In the case of military orders, orders of knighthood or of merit, military or civil medals, insignia are the external sign which identifies the award, and in the case of orders, its classes or grades[5]

Finally, decoration can refer to the act or ceremony of decorating someone or investing someone with an insignia or medal. 

So, as the quoted Cuban authors rightly point out, some medals fall also in the category of decorations, but many are not, as there are decorations which are medals and many that are not! 

Phaleristics 

In Phaleristics a medal is always studied as a decoration, whereas in Medallistics, medals are studied regardless having or not an honorific value. 

Therefore, to Phaleristics, a decoration means the metallic piece which symbolizes or denotes certain honours attached to an honorific award (used in the second sense above). 

This said Phlaeristics can now be defined as the science which studies, classifies and catalogues decorations (used in the first broad sense mentioned above). 

Within decorations studied in Phaleristics, there are many types or categories, commonly defined according to the type of services or deeds for which the awards were conceived or according to the recipients, civil or military, although some can have a mixed nature, and whatever their designation, namely: insignia of orders of merit or of chivalry, military medals, commemorative or campaign medals and gallantry medals. 

Also included in its scope of study are some insignia of office, if having a metallic nature, which certain institutions – cultural, scientific, academic, religious or professional – confer to its members or as an honorific distinction to non-members. 

Societies 

The rising number of collectors of phaleristic items and the consciousness of the importance of this field of study led to the creation of autonomous societies, dedicated to Phaleristics in the USA and in several European countries namely, in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, The Netherlands, United Kingdom, and lately, in Portugal. In other countries, Phaleristics continues to be dealt with in Numismatic and Heraldry societies or as a branch of Historical societies of an academic nature. 

Collectors, with their vast and varied interests and being, as they are, aware of the importance of deepening their knowledge, have been a striking force in the development of phaleristic studies, generally dedicated to particular decorations of a given country and epoch. 

Academic studies are scarce and usually stressing more on the historical or social context of decorations, its ends and legislation. In countries, like the United Kingdom, where the provenance of decorations is considered by collectors and researchers as a vital element of Phaleristics, the Medal Rolls have also been regularly researched and published. Fortunately, this tendency has been followed by phalerists in other countries even if provenance due to lack of sources is not so common or easy to establish. 

The manufacture of decorations of historical value also attracts an increasing interest from phalerists. But here the difficulties are greater since it involves research in Archives. 

Nevertheless, several lists of manufacturers of insignia of orders and medals, specially of jewellers or of gold or silversmiths, have been published compiled from pieces which have appeared on the market, but lacking a systematic study which only an investigation of the firm’s archives could allow. 

by José Vicente de Bragança 


[1] See André Charles Borné. Distinctions honorifiques de la Belgique 1830-1985, Bruxelles, N. Servais, pp. 5-6. 

[2] Alexander J. Laslo. A glossary of terms used in phaleristics the science, study, and collecting of the insignia of orders, decorations, and medals, Dorado Pub. Albuquerque, N.M., 1995; The American Numismatic Society for instance defines itself as an organization dedicated to the study of coins, currency, medals, tokens, and related objects from all cultures, past and present. 

[3] Medallas, Condecoraciones y Derecho Honorífico, published in «Plus Ultra: Simbologia Cubana» Blog; Maikel Arista Salado y Hernández. Estudio mínimo de Falerística cubana y otras piezas ostensibles, y Aproximaciones al Derecho Honorífico cubano. Inéditos. 2005. 

[4] Cf. Luís d’Orey Pereira Coutinho, «Condecoração»,in Enciclopédia Luso-Brasileira da Cultura, Vol. V, Lisboa, Verbo Editora, 1967, pp. 1262 – 1263; Claude Ducourtial, Ordres et Décorations, 2ª Ed., P.U.F., Paris, 1968, pp. 5-7; A. C. Borné, op. cit., p. 12. 

[5] Vg. Badges, Collars, Ribands or Sashes, Neck Ribbons and Stars.

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