Medieval Management By Wandering Around

Largely because there is a widespread chronological prejudice and a lack of historical awareness on the part of many management theorists, Management By Walking Around is thought as a contemporary phenomenon.  Yet management by walking around is an exceedingly old phenomenon.  There are even examples of it in Genesis, where God walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day and sought to draw out the truth of Adam and Eve’s sin through a series of questions, and later on when the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ and two angels sought to understand the truth of what was going on in Sodom and Gomorrah through an eyewitness look.  This is not to say that biblical management by walking around always went well, but it goes back to the beginning of biblical history.  Given that context, it ought to come as little surprise that it was an important phenomenon of medieval history as well, something that is frequently mentioned, as if it was a bit of a surprise, by authors of works about notable medieval figures like Katherine Swynford and William Marshal.

When we think of rulers, we think of them as being stationary in their white houses or palaces, yet rulers have long been itinerant in their travels, moving around from place to place throughout their realms, seeking to see the conditions of their realms with their own eyes.  One of the motive for rulers to travel around was a lack of trust.  This lack of trust ought not to be surprising—people have always found it difficult to trust others, and many people simply have not behaved in a trustworthy fashion.  If trust is hard with a proliferation of data collection and analysis that allow people to see what their subordinates are doing on the computer, or what messages they are sending, it was even harder when there was no instant communication, no remote viewing, and little trustworthy data that could be collected from far-off parts of imperial realms.  There were only two, highly imperfect, ways that most empires had of ensuring their rule over extended territories—seeking to place the most trustworthy people possible in subordinate offices of great responsibility and traveling around their realms to look on conditions for themselves with their own eyes as a way of periodically checking up on these potentially overmighty subjects, including members of the royal family as well as great nobles and bureaucrats.

Yet as important as mistrust was in motivating these travels, suspicion was not the only motivation for medieval courts to travel around their realms in a somewhat vagabondish fashion.  There were other practical reasons to do so, chief among them a concern for logistics.  For most of human history, the demands of a large royal establishment have been too heavy for the modest logistical competence of ancient societies.  Given that royalty and their entourages tend to live on a high style, their demands for food and water are quite extensive.  Even where palaces were placed along major roads and rivers, it was difficult for a given area to be able to grow or store enough food for the royal administration on a yearly process.  The demands of royal exaction, furthermore, tended to impoverish the areas where the royal establishment happened to be, and this tended to reduce the loyalty of that population towards monarchs.  Sometimes this could be a decisive problem, as it was in the destructive Peasant’s Rebellion of 1381, as well as the 17th century Fronde in France and the nearly contemporaneous English Civil War.  As a way of reducing the difficulty of a lack of provisions in a societal context with poor and unreliable transportation and food storage, the easiest solution was simply to move around so that one could tap the resources of a much larger area.

So, what did medieval management by wandering around entail?  It helps us to conceive of a periphery and core [1], where each royal establishment had a core set of people, including guards, fools, counselors, wives and wenches, that traveled alongside the monarch and that provided the core administration of a ruler of a dukedom or kingdom or similarly-sized realm.  Included among this body of traveling administrators would be those trustworthy servants who could deliver messages and observe conditions and report back to their sovereign.  Indeed, these reports would likely help determine where it was most necessary for a given royal establishment to travel next to resolve difficulties and deal with unpleasant and dangerous situations like restive subordinates or relatives or natural or manmade disasters that threatened crisis.  On the periphery were a small number of permanent staff at locations where the royal establishment happened not to be, stewards of manors or castellans who had a very small permanent staff that handled the regular maintenance and that could send urgent messages in the case of a sudden problem.  Through this way there could be boots on the ground and people on the scene at all times, but not enough that would present a difficulty to an area’s ability to provide for intermittent but intense demands from a large royal administration.

And so it is that as is the case frequently in management theory [2], that which is thought to be new is frequently old.  This ought not to be a problem.  Those ways which work the best are frequently not new ways, but rather those ways which have stood the test of time.  To be sure, there are no solutions without some sort of tradeoffs, but there is little need to reinvent the wheel for those who are astute students of history.  Management by walking around has as a main part of its appeal the ability to see conditions with one’s own eyes, rather than untrustworthy accounts from people with ulterior motives, as well as the ability to convey to others a sense of inspiration and encouragement through one’s personal presence.  It is such insight and such motivation that amount to among the most important purposes of leadership, in providing others and the institutions those leaders serve with that which others do not know or have the confidence to do for themselves.  That fact is just as true now as it was in the Middle Ages when rulers would travel around their realms from one place to another.  Not all who wander are lost.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Medieval Management By Wandering Around

  1. Pingback: Are You, Are You, Coming To The Tree? | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Some Thoughts On The Fall Of Adam And Eve | Edge Induced Cohesion

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