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A fraternity (Latin frater : "brother") is a brotherhood, although the term sometimes connotes a distinct or formal organization and sometimes a secret society. A fraternity (or fraternal organization) is an organized society of men associated together in an environment of companionship and brotherhood; dedicated to the intellectual, physical, and social development of its members.
There are known fraternal organizations which existed as far back as ancient Greece and in the Mithraic Mysteries of ancient Rome. Analogous institutions developed in the late medieval period called confraternities, which were lay organizations allied to the Catholic Church. Some were groups of men and women who were endeavoring to ally themselves more closely with the prayer and activity of the Church; Others were groups of tradesmen, which are more commonly referred to as guilds. These later confraternities evolved into purely secular fraternal societies, while the ones with religious goals continue to be the format of the modern Third Orders affiliated with the mendicant orders.
The development of modern fraternal orders was especially dynamic in the United States, where the freedom to associate outside governmental regulation is expressly sanctioned in law. There have been hundreds of fraternal organizations in the United States, and at the beginning of the 20th century the number of memberships equaled the number of adult males. (Due to multiple memberships, probably only 50% of adult males belonged to any organizations.)
In 1944 Arthur M. Schlesinger coined the phrase "a nation of joiners" to refer to the phenomenon. Alexis de Tocqueville also referred to the American reliance on private organization in the 1830s in Democracy in America.
There are many attributes that fraternities may or may not have, depending on their structure and purpose. Fraternities can have differing degrees of secrecy, some form of initiation or ceremony marking admission, formal codes of behavior, disciplinary procedures, very differing amounts of real property and assets.
Types of fraternities
The only true distinction between a fraternity and any other form of social organization is the implication that the members freely associate as equals for a mutually beneficial purpose, rather than because of a religious, governmental, commercial, or familial bond, although there are fraternities dedicated to each of these fields. On college campuses, fraternities may be divided into groups: social, service, professional and honorary.
Fraternities can be organized for many purposes, including university education, work skills, ethics, ethnicity, religion, politics, charity, chivalry, other standards of personal conduct, asceticism, service, performing arts, family command of territory, and even crime. There is almost always an explicit goal of mutual support, and while there have been fraternal orders for the well-off there have also been many fraternities for those in the lower ranks of society, especially for national or religious minorities. Trade unions also grew out of fraternities such as the Knights of Labor.
The ability to organize freely, apart from the institutions of government and religion, was a fundamental part of the establishment of the modern world. In Living the Enlightenment, Margaret C. Jacobs showed the development of Jurgen Habermas' 'public space' in 17th century Netherlands was closely related to the establishment of lodges of Freemasons.
The development of fraternities in England can be traced from guilds that emerged as the forerunners of trade unions and friendly societies. These guilds were set up to protect and care for their members at a time when there was no welfare state, trade unions or universal health care. Various secret signs and handshakes were created to serve as proof of their membership allowing them to visit guilds in distant places that are associated with the guild they belong.
Over the next 300 years or so, the idea of "ordinary" people joining together to improve their situation met with varying degrees of opposition (and persecution) from "People in Power", depending on whether they were seen as a source of revenue (taxes) or a threat to their power. When Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic Church, he viewed the guilds as supporters of the Pope, and in 1545 expropriate their property. Later, Elizabeth I appropriated apprenticeships away from guilds, and by the end of her reign most guilds had been suppressed.
The suppression of these trade guilds removed an important form of social and financial support from ordinary men and women. In London and other major cities, some Guilds (like the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows) survived by adapting their roles to a social support function. Eventually, these groups evolved in the early 18th century into more philosophical organizations focused on brotherly love and ethical living. Among guilds that became prosperous are the Freemasons, Odd Fellows and Foresters.
In many instances fraternities are limited to male membership, but this is not always the case, and there are mixed male and female, and even wholly female, fraternities. For example, for general fraternities: the Grande Loge Mixte de France, the Honorable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons, the Grande Loge Féminine de France, the various Orders of Odd Fellows, Orange Order, Daughters of Rebekah and the Order of the Eastern Star.
College and university fraternities
Fraternities have a history in American colleges and universities and form a major subsection of the whole range of fraternities. In Europe, students were organized in nations and corporations since the beginnings of the modern university in the late medieval period, but the situation can differ greatly by country.
In the United States, fraternities in colleges date to the 1770s, but did not fully assume an established pattern until the 1820s. Many were strongly influenced by the patterns set by Freemasonry. The main difference between the older European organizations and the American organizations is that the American student societies virtually always include initiations, the formal use of symbolism, and the lodge-based organizational structure (chapters) derived from usages in Freemasonry and other fraternal organizations such as the Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias.
The oldest active American college fraternity is the Kappa Alpha Society founded in November 1825, at Union College in Schenectady, New York, followed closely by Sigma Phi Society (1827) and Delta Phi Fraternity (1827) at the same school. Other fraternities are also called literary societies because they focus on the literary aspect of the organization and its role in improving public speaking.
In Germany the German Student Corps are the oldest academic fraternities. Twenty-eight were founded in the 18th century and two of them still exist. Most of their traditions have not changed much for the past two centuries. These traditions include academic fencing duels with sharp blades while wearing only eye and neck protection, or regular hunting events, as can be seen in examples such as Corps Hubertia Freiburg, Corps Palatia Munich or Corps Rhenania Heidelberg.
At Swedish universities, especially those of Uppsala and Lund, students have organized in nations since the 16th century. These organisations are open to all students who wish to join. Parallel to the nations both Uppsala and Lund play host to a large number of university related secret societies, for both students and older academics.
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- Kake Walk at UVM digital collection, Center for Digital Initiatives, University of Vermont Librariesde:Bruderschaft