Saturday, July 03, 2010

"Half-digested management theory" Magistra et Mater herself says. Nevertheless, I like this:
If modern companies want to expand, they have two main routes to take. One is what is often called organic growth, which is the process of gradually expanding your current business: opening up one extra shop, buying the piece of equipment that will increase your output etc. The alternative is expanding via mergers and acquisitions, where you suddenly take on a whole new area of business. The M&A route can get you big gains quickly, but it’s risky, because you’re moving into unfamiliar territory. Organic growth is slower, but in theory is safer, except that if one of your rivals goes the M&A route and gets a lot bigger, it can then swallow you up.

What does all this have to do with early medieval noblemen? They too want to expand, in the sense of gain more wealth and power. And we can also see two main strategies for how they do this. One focuses on expansion, particularly via war or royal favour. The other is more locally focused, aiming to exploit their current lands and the peasantry on them to the maximum, while gradually buying up or taking over adjacent property. Call these imperial and local strategies.

It’s important, first of all, to notice that it’s hard to combine the two strategies. If you’re spending all your time focused on your local area, you don’t have free time for being at court in the king’s presence, or carrying out the other kinds of networking that you need to gain royal favour. Conversely, if you’re reliant on royal favour, you need to be willing to go where the king wants you. If you’re given charge of the Pannonian frontier, you relocate there, you don’t just stay where your ancestors were. But you then have the fundamental medieval problem of the delegation of power. If someone else is managing your lands for you, and you’re not on the spot, how do you ensure they don’t either rip you off financially or even usurp the land? You can’t easily mix and match the two approaches.

Generally speaking, the local strategy is a conservative one, in the sense of more likely to keep what you already have (whereas king’s favourites can come to very sticky ends). It also fits better with both hereditary office and castles, as I’ll explain in a moment. But first, I want to emphasise one point: that discussions about what (lay) noblemen want too often ignore the anti-Kantian nature of their ideas. Medieval noblemen, like most of us, often really want rules that apply to everyone except themselves, or only to them, not to others. So it’s misleading to say that nobles always wanted offices to be hereditary. They wanted the offices they held to be hereditary, but not necessarily the ones that other men held, because that would make it harder for them to get their hands on those. If offices are becoming hereditary, that suggests an aristocracy worrying more about holding onto their current offices than acquiring new ones, which goes with a local strategy.

There's more. I'd just add that M et M could have spent a little time on dynastic marriage. Maybe later. Oh, her reflections on 1000 years of economic irrationality are worth a look, too.

Image: Warkworth Castle.

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