Previously honour figured largely as a guiding principle of society, functioning as part of a code of honour for a gentleman and often coming to expression in the practice of duelling. One's honour, that of one's wife, of one's (blood-)family or of one's beloved formed an all-important issue: the archetypal "man of honour" remained ever alert for any insult, actual or suspected: for either would impugn his honour.
The concept of honour appears to have declined in importance in the modern secular West. Popular stereotypes would have it surviving more definitively in alleged "hot-blooded" Mediterranean cultures (Italian, Arab, Hispanic ...) or in more "gentlemanly" societies (like the "Old South" of Dixie). Agrarian societies, focussed upon land use and land ownership, may tend to honour "honour" more than do deracinated industrial societies. Traces of the importance attached to honour linger in the military (officers may conduct a court of honour) and in organisations with military echoes, such as Scouting.
"Honour" in the case of females historically related frequently to sexuality: preservation of "honour" equated primarily to maintenance of virginity, or at least to preservation of exclusive monogamy. One could speculate that feminism may have changed some linguistic usage in this respect.
One can contrast cultures of honour with cultures of law. From the viewpoint of anthropology, cultures of honour typically appear among nomadic peoples and herdsmen who carry their most valuable property with them and risk having it stolen, without having recourse to law enforcement or government. In this situation, inspiring fear forms a better strategy than promoting friendship; and cultivating a reputation for swift and disproportionate revenge increases the safety of your person and property. Thinkers ranging from Montesquieu to Steven Pinker have remarked upon the mindset needed for a culture of honour.
Cultures of honour therefore appear amongst Bedouins, Scottish and English herdsmen of the Border country, and many similar peoples, who have little allegiance to a national government; among cowboys, frontiersmen, and ranchers of the American West, where law enforcement was often out of reach, as famously celebrated in Western movies; and among aristocrats, who enjoy hereditary privileges that put them beyond the reach of general laws. Cultures of honour also flourish in criminal underworlds and gangs, whose members carry large amounts of cash and contraband and cannot complain to the law if it is stolen. The encouragement of violent cultures of honour appears one of the drawbacks of legislation that creates victimless crimes.
Once a culture of honour exists, it is difficult for its members to make the transition to a culture of law; this requires that people become willing to back down and refuse to immediately retaliate, and from the viewpoint of the culture of honour this is a weak and unwise act.
In contemporary international relations, the concept of "credibility" resembles that of honour: when the credibility of a state or of an alliance appears at stake, honour-bound politicians may call for drastic measures.
For a similar concept with many connotations opposite to honour, see shame.
In many countries an honour is an award given by the state. It may refer to a military medal, but more typically it means a civilian award, such as a British OBE, a knighthood or membership of the French Légion d'honneur.
See also: British honours system.
In medieval England, an honour could consist of a great lordship, comprised of dozens or hundreds of manors. Holders of honours (and the kings to whom they reverted by escheat) often attempted to preserve the integrity of an honor over time, administering its properties as a unit, maintaining inheritances together, etc.
The typical honour had properties scattered over several shires, intermingled with the properties of others. Usually, though, there was a more concentrated cluster somewhere. Here would lie the caput (head) of the honor, with a castle that gave its name to the honour and served as its administrative headquarters.
A lordship could consist of anything from a field or two to vast territories all over England. Thus honour can be used to distinguish the large from the small. The term has particular usefulness for the eleventh and twelfth centuries, before the development of an extensive peerage hierarchy.
Traditional property-based honours in medieval England included: