Tom Versélewel de Witt Hamer
A sociological study of the functioning of contemporary Orders of Chivalry in the Kingdom of the Netherlands In recent decades academic interest in nobility and chivalry has increased noticeably. Nobility and orders of chivalry, once synonymous with nobility, have been mostly studied from a historical, biographical or prosopographical perspective. Only little attention has been paid to the contemporary activities of the Dutch nobility. Dronkers was one of the first to look at present-day nobility from a sociological perspective. His study on the social relevance of contemporary Dutch nobility made an oblique reference to the domain of orders of chivalry. Orders of chivalry are as old as the crusades, as they originated from religious orders whose main purpose was to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. In the centuries following the crusades they developed from religious military orders into monarchical lay orders. These were created by emperors, kings, and other sovereigns who gathered a group of vassals around themselves. During the post-medieval period, orders evolved increasingly more into orders of merit, be it state orders or otherwise, which enabled sovereigns to recognize and reward meritorious persons.
Nowadays, the Dutch orders of chivalry are the recognized successors of the old religious military orders from the time of the crusades, not to be confused with orders of knighthood, which are state merit orders. Chivalry is a criterion of the Dutch Supreme Council of Nobility. It refers to a noble order which has formulated a clear admission policy in its charter like the Order of Saint John in the Netherlands and the Order of Malta. Any organization in the Netherlands is free to call itself an order of chivalry, although the guidelines of the Supreme Council of Nobility state that it will belong to the unrecognized orders. Studies on unrecognized orders of chivalry mostly focus on the question of their legitimacy. The aim of this study is to gain a better understanding of the contemporary functioning of recognized as well as unrecognized orders of chivalry in the Netherlands from a sociological and anthropological perspective. A study of that sort does not yet exist.
Viewed over a longer period of time, class differences in the Netherlands have become smaller. In contrast, orders of chivalry are symbols of inequality in a democratized society and refer to a feudal past. Although the Dutch orders of chivalry all are 20th century re- invented institutions (with one exception), their present functioning is based on certain traditions which implies continuity with that feudal past. In conclusion, the objective of this study is a comparative analysis of present-day recognized and unrecognized orders of chivalry in the Netherlands in order to answer the question as to why and how they continue to exist in modern Dutch society. To this end, new theoretical insights will be developed on the basis of empirical quantitative and qualitative research and studies on social stratification and distinction, religious affiliation / spiritualty, social cohesion and invention of tradition. The research period covers the mid-1960s (post-pillarisation) till present.
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