Decorations of 19th century France
Honorary decorations were handed out widely and frequently throughout the history of France, and especially under the Ancien Régime.
However, although they were abolished during the French Revolution, under the guise of Equality, it was in the 19th century, at the instigation of the then First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, that the most famous of all, the Order of the Legion of Honor, was created.
Here is what he had to say to the Conseil d’Etat on the matter in 1802:
“The Romans had patricians, knights, citizens, and slaves. They had moreover for each class divers costumes, and different manners. They decreed as recompenses all sorts of distinctions; names which recalled the particular service, mural crowns, public triumphs! I defy anyone to point out a republic, ancient or modern, in which there is no distinction of ranks. They call all that children’s rattles: be it so! It is with children’s rattles that men are led.”
From this century, with its multiple empires and republics, we are left with the realization that aristocracy is no longer based on blood, but indeed on merit.
The proposal was finally adopted on May 19, 1802, and it was not until the Empire in 1804 that the first lapel rosettes appeared.
The Bourgeoisie, in particular, became enamored of decorations and medals honoring individuals and distinguishing them for their virtue, courage, or merit.
Orders and decorations
In France, there are two types of honors which can be awarded to express the State’s recognition of individual citizens.
The first are national decorations, which are presented for “devotion, courage, or sacrifice”. They have a symbolic function, since each of these qualities is, by definition, priceless.
The second are French honors, the highest being the national orders, including, of course, the prestigious Order of the Legion of Honor. These orders have precise rules and ranks, and those admitted also undertake a moral commitment.
This concept existed long before the notion of the modern order: there were medieval chivalric orders such as the Order of the Garter in England or the Knights Templar in France, for example.
More “classical”, the medal comes in second and is awarded to reward an individual’s actions without demanding a long-term commitment.
It can be awarded to military personnel and civilians and may be worn with or without a ribbon. It is a decoration generally awarded for services rendered. Above, for example, we see a medal created by Louis Napoleon and awarded to non-commissioned officers and soldiers for their exploits.
In summary, an honorary decoration may be a medal, cross, or plaque, worn with or without a ribbon, belonging to an order or not, individual or collective, civil, military, or both, but it must always reward, distinguish, and pay tribute to an exception.
It is often the done thing to wear this decoration as a lapel rosette, on a necklace, or on a tie, depending on the custom and rules, suspended from a ribbon, the material, motifs, and colors of which are well codified.
There were several types of honorary awards in the 19th century. Here comes a non-exhaustive list...
The Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur (Order of the Legion of Honor)
The most prestigious ! Decorations are awarded for “eminent merit”, which may be civilian or military.
The order comprises three ranks: knight, officer, and commander, and two dignities: grand officer and grand cross.
The insignia of the Order of the Legion of Honor is a wreath of oak and laurel. Below it is a five-pointed white enamel star encircled by oak and laurel. The center of the obverse varies from period to period, with Napoleon, Henry IV, Bonaparte, and Ceres, representing the Republic, appearing all over the place. The reverse features two tricolored flags and the motto “Honneur et Patrie” (Honor and Country).
The first awards ceremony was held on July 15, 1804, a few months after Napoleon was proclaimed emperor, to great pomp and circumstance in the chapel of the Hôtel des Invalides. Among the recipients were the Comte de Rochambeau and the Cardinals Fesch and Caprara. A second ceremony was held at the Camp of Boulogne in August of the same year and saw almost 2,000 people honored, including Admiral Bruix and Marshals Ney and Soult.
Between 1802 and 1814, there were 48,000 legionaries, of whom just 1,400 were civilians. These included artists, engineers, and scientists as well as politicians: Ingres, Foucault, Ader, Corot, and Jules Renard were all members.
However, there were also occasions where this decoration was refused for a variety of different reasons. In 1864, Hector Berlioz was offered a knight’s membership in lieu of being paid 3,000 francs for a commission. He is reported to have responded curtly: “I couldn’t give a damn about your cross. Give me my money!”
George Sand and the Curies similarly declined the honor.
These include the Ordre des Palmes Académiques (Order of the Academic Palms), created in 1808, and the Ordre du Mérite Agricole (Order of Agricultural Merit), established in 1883.
The ranks of the Order of the Academic Palms have evolved over the years. In the 19th century, there were Officiers de l’Université (University Officers), who became Officiers de l’Instruction Publique (Officers of State Education) in 1850, and Officiers d’Académie (School Officers).
At the beginning, the palms were simply embroidered; the version with a metal decoration suspended from a purple ribbon dates only from 1866. The palms were then made of silver or gilt silver, and the violet ribbon was adorned with a rosette for the Officiers de l’Instruction Publique.
As its name indicated, the Order of Agricultural Merit is awarded by the Ministry of Agriculture and was created in July 1883 by the then minister, Jules Méline.
“The agricultural population is considerable: more than 18 million French people make their living in this industry (...) and contribute to the development of public wealth. (...) Among this immense workforce of farmers, agronomists, professors, and scholars, the work is constant, devotion widespread, and rewards rare.”
The order took direct inspiration from the Order of the Legion of Honor. First, you could become a knight. Then an officer in 1887. And, finally, a commander as of 1900.
The inspiration didn’t stop there, though, as Lemoine Fils, a jeweler, was chosen to create the original model. This same jeweler was selected for the insignia of the Order of the Legion of Honor.
It rewards both scientific accomplishments and workers “in the field”. One of its most notable recipients was Louis Pasteur.
This new decoration, with its very rural inspiration, provoked some ridicule from the press and the opposition in its day.
The nickname “leek” stuck – inspired by its green ribbon over a white enamel star.
In the 19th century, there were two decorations intended exclusively for military personnel: the Médaille Militaire (Military Medal), created in 1852, and the Médaille Coloniale (Colonial Medal), created in 1893, and, of course, no longer awarded today, having evolved into the Médaille d’Outre Mer (Overseas Medal) in 1962.
Fifty years after the Order of the Legion of Honor, definitely a figure of reference, Napoleon III created the Military Medal in 1852, with the aim of expanding the range of options available to him to reward the merits of his troops. Adorned with a yellow and green ribbon, it bears the motto “Valeur et discipline” (Valor and Discipline) and was intended for both non-commissioned officers and ordinary soldiers.
We should also mention the special case of the Médaille de Sainte-Hélène (Saint Helena Medal), created by Napoleon III in 1857 pursuant to Napoleon’s will as dictated during his exile on the island of the same name.
This medal came with a small pension and rewarded all the soldiers who fought “for the glory and independence of France” between 1792 and 1815. At the time, there were around 405,000 veterans still alive.
Decorations intended for both military personnel and civilians
The 19th century French decoration intended for both military personnel and civilians was the Honneur pour Acte de Courage et de Dévouement (Honor Medal for Courage and Devotion).
It was awarded to those who came to the aid of one or more persons in mortal danger, risking their own lives in the process.
For once, its story does not originate with royalty. Although traces of the medal can be found under Louis XIV and Louis XVI, it was Louis XVIII who formalized its existence in March 1820 and appointed the Ministry of the Navy to award it.
Originally a non-wearable medal, it became one under a tricolored ribbon in 1831.
Louis Philippe I said at the time:
“Intended to introduce and maintain a noble emulation among seafarers, these medals can only achieve said goal if they are displayed for all to see. It is in this way that by perpetuating the memory of generous deeds in families and maritime communities, they truly become for the rescuers, whom they bring to the attention and esteem of their fellow citizens, the most flattering reward of their efforts.”
Initially administrated by the Ministry of the Navy and named the Médaille de Sauvetage (Lifesaving Medal) or Médaille des Belles Actions (Medal for Good Deeds), it was renamed by the Ministry of the Interior in 1833, taking the name Médaille pour Actes de Courage et de Dévouement (Honor Medal for Courage and Devotion).
Three ministries were then responsible for awarding it: the Ministry of the Navy for state sailors, the Ministry of the Interior for civilians and military personnel, and the Ministry of Public Works for workers in mines, ports, and quarries.
Originally only made of silver, it appeared in gold as of 1843 and, finally, in bronze from 1899.
Its evolving design reflects the variety of different political landscapes during the century, with a portrait of Louis Philippe I, the simple inscription République Française (French Republic), Napoleon III, or the unmistakable figure of Ceres...
It was not until the early 20th century that the engraver Coudray gave it its current appearance, with an allegorical figure of devotion in the foreground and a fire, a runaway horse, and a drowning scene in the background.
Last but by not least, there are the many and varied civilian decorations, often awarded for a long career and a specific dedication to one’s work...
In 19th century France, these included the Médaille d’Honneur des PTT (Medal of Honor for Post and Telecommunications) (1882), the Médaille d’Honneur Forestière (Medal of Honor for Forestry) (1883), and the Médaille d’Honneur Douanière (Medal of Honor for Customs) (1894), the Médaille d'Honneur du Travail du Ministère de la Guerre (Medal of Honor for Work in the Ministry of War) (1888) and its sister medal, the Médaille d’Honneur du Travail pour le Personnel Non Militaire de la Marine (Medal of Honor for Work for Non-Military Navy Personnel) (1894), and the Médaille d’Honneur de l’Administration Pénitentiaire (Medal of Honor for Penitentiary Administration) (1869).
Behind these multiple awards and decorations, the majority of which still exist today, having evolved with reforms over the years, is the story of a century headed towards progress and the Industrial Revolution as well as that of a society finding its way through the post-revolutionary political chaos, which stabilized bit by bit as the century passed, between empires, restorations, and republics.
- "Man with red bow tie" by the AI program Midjourney (2023) (All rights reserved)
- "Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, in the Uniform of a General in the Army of Italy" by Andrea Appiani (1801) (CC)
- " First distribution of the decorations of the Legion of Honor, made by Bonaparte, in the church of the imperial hotel of Invalides" by Jean-Baptiste Debret (1812) (Public domain)
- "A classroom" by the AI program Midjourney (2023) (All rights reserved)
- "Farm at Recouvrières, Nièvre" by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1831) (Public domain)
- "Portrait of Jules Ménine" recreated by the AI program Midjourney (2023) (All rights reserved)
- "The leek" by the AI program Midjourney (2023) (All rights reserved)
- "Bataille de Solférino" by Adolphe Yvon (1861) (Public domain)
- "Portrait of Louis Philippe I" by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1841) (Public domain)
NB: Please note that as specified above some images have been generated/recreated with the help of AI.