Business Strategy and Medieval Strategy: New Tools to Analyse Old News

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The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble

BUSINESS STRATEGY AND MEDIEVAL STRATEGY

When we look at medieval history, we inevitably bring our own baggage—preconceived ideas, often unhelpfully shaped by our febrile but pervasive global media and the politics of the twenty-first century. Paramount among these ideas is the arrogant prejudice that the past was almost entirely populated by people who, because they did not have the resources that we take for granted, were somehow less intelligent than we are.

Far too often, we assume that medieval leaders (and the states they controlled) were intrinsically incapable of effective planning or strategic thinking. On the contrary, as we shall see, the opposite was generally true.

In this short series of articles, looking at medieval strategy through the case study offered by the crusader states, we will use business strategy and planning models to analyse the actions of a medieval state under extreme stress, and the results we find in doing so are startling.

Methodologies for Medievalism?

The crusaders had extraordinarily limited resources, and every decision they made carried potentially catastrophic consequences. For these colonial societies on the very fringes of Christendom, there was very little room for manoeuvre and almost no scope for failure; every plan and every decision had to count. Although they did not have the vocabulary to describe it as such, ‘strategic thinking’ was an essential part of their day-to-day survival.

Strangely, the methodology I use in analysing much of the crusader strategy of the twelfth century is one that I was first introduced to in the world of advertising and corporate PR. Fresh from completing my PhD, I was being slowly and painfully trained as an ‘account planner’.

An account planner (and there is no reason why you should know this) is someone who uses research to develop strategy on behalf of clients, trying to ensure that their advertising or PR campaign is operating along the correct lines. They also keep an eye on competitor activity, making sure that the client’s campaign works to exploit competitor weaknesses and plays to their own strengths. The collective noun for the function is known in the industry—possibly affectionately, but probably not—as an ‘overhead of planners’.

The training was slow and painful—one can, after all, do only so much with the material one is given. But the most interesting of our initial training exercises was also one of the simplest, and the force of its logic has always stuck with me. We were given examples of competitor activity (ads, press coverage, brochures, and so on). We were then told to deduce, on the basis of the materials in front of us, what the opposition’s strategy was.

The results were occasionally useful or interesting, but the real value lay elsewhere. The true purpose was to teach us that even though strategy is often unspoken or unarticulated, we should never assume that activity is unguided or random. Even though we could only see what was done rather than what was planned, we could still arrive at a good, approximate assessment of strategic intent.

All resources are scarce, as we were taught. And most people at least try to act in a rational and effective way. It is dangerous in the extreme to assume that careful plans and strategies do not exist just because we do not have them in front of us.

It has always seemed to me that medieval studies could benefit from such a simple exercise too. Chronicles tell us much about what people did. But they are often written in an artless, breathless style. They hover on the surface of knowledge without the analysis that would explain the actions of those they are writing about. And they are disproportionately written by men who have lived their lives in the church or the cloister rather than in politics or the military.

The effect is often to create a frenetic account of things that are done, but with little sense of structure or of the broader purpose behind such actions. But at least they give us the basic evidence of activity. And from that, we can try to deduce, together with access to all the other surviving evidence (letters, legal documents, archaeological studies, and so on), what was being planned, teasing out the underlying strategy behind the activity.

MEDIEVAL STRATEGY ... FISH AND BYCYCLES

It is easy to see medieval warfare and politics as being long on activity but chronically short on reflection. To misquote the 1970s feminist rallying cry, it is pretty obvious that hairy, unwashed medieval warriors needed strategy every bit as much as a fish needs a bicycle. Or at least that is what we assume.

Even the phrase ‘Medieval Strategy’, seems a contradiction in terms.

Contemporary chronicles and most modern narrative accounts of medieval history read more like a soap opera than a strategic planning document. Kings are crowned and die. Armies invade and fight. The warrior elite have their moments of glory or disappointment, a stream of celebrities wandering across the stage of history with chroniclers as their paparazzi.

The narrative flow in the chronicles is a succession of events. Human nature and the will of God, luck, opportunity, and reaction—these are the unspoken drivers of politics and warfare in most histories of the period. Perhaps not entirely aimless, but implicitly lacking in what we would now describe as any form of strategic direction.
In this context, it is not hard to see why medieval logic has had such a bad press.

‘Medieval’ thinking is the ultimate touchstone of irrationality. When ISIS were setting up their caliphate in Iraq, the world’s media were full of criticism of their methods, their actions, and their ideology. But the most widespread criticism of all, the catch-all phrase that summarised all the other condemnations, was that they were ‘medieval’. That single word was sufficient: it carried with it a plethora of connotations, all bad, conjuring up a ridiculous world of barbarism, illogicality, and brutality.

Accusations of being ‘medieval’, or of using ‘medieval’ logic are a serious and perennial weapon. One Republican senator, defending the election of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018, deliberately punched as low as he could. Responding to the accusations of misconduct, he taunted critics by saying, ‘Why don’t we dunk him in water and see if he floats?’

From Monty Python to Kavanaugh, the reputation of structured thinking in the Middle Ages is at rock bottom. And if logic and decision-making processes are lacking, the chances of any cogent long-term planning are surely slim.
The idea of ‘medieval strategy’ is a modern joke, a contradiction in terms.

Crusader Strategy?

Ridicule and incredulity are our default approaches to the (obviously absurd) idea of medieval ‘rationality’. But the current caricature of the Crusaders is arguably even worse. Given the unhelpful fresh impetus by recent rhetoric from both Western politicians and their Islamic opponents, they are often viewed as backward, inherently bigoted societies: alien armies of occupation, with the crude and sclerotic strategic, political, and military systems that one would anticipate under such circumstances.

These were, so the crude over-simplification goes, societies permanently out of their depth and continually struggling in the face of ethnic and cultural isolation.

The military corollary of this would inevitably be a style of warfare that reflected this social dislocation and lack of strategic insight: arrogant, irrational, and impulsive leaders; isolated garrisons in oppressive castles; crude and brutish heavy cavalry charges as a substitute for any real finesse; and being permanently outnumbered because of their ignorant treatment of the local population. How could one imagine that such societies and such backward military establishments would ever be capable of developing ‘strategy’ in any meaningful sense of the word?

Patronising Our Past

This is lazy and patronising thinking, however, and potentially very misleading. We believe we are good at strategy because we use the word a lot. Modern governments, their generals, and their PR teams all talk a lot about ‘strategy’ but that strategy is often far harder to discern in the activities that take place on the ground.

Talk is cheap. Actions are always more powerful and far more telling.

In the crusader states, on the contrary, where the resources and structures for planning and communication were in chronically short supply, there was far less talk of strategy. If we care to look for it, however, it is surprisingly evident in the activities of most of the major players. We find this evidence by examining underlying rationality, deconstructing actions on the ground, and establishing patterns of behavior.

Evidence of Strategy?

First, we need to accept that the major participants were not all idiots, and why should they have been? Some were, of course, but most were reasonable, highly motivated people, surrounded by well-informed advisers. They were intelligent people trying to do the right thing for their families, their colleagues, their states, and their God. The corollary of this is the assumption that while not all their ideas or plans were good ones, one should give them the benefit of the doubt in terms of underlying rationality, at least until proven otherwise.

Secondly, by deconstructing the actions that took place on the ground, we can arrive at a far more realistic assessment of what was actually intended. What we do is always a far better indicator of intent than what we say or the propaganda we choose to project.

And lastly, working back from that, we can examine the patterns of real behavior as they played out over time and deduce, with appropriate caveats, the broad lines of strategic thinking that underpinned military and political activity.

Deducing Strategy From Tactics

We have the potential to identify an unarticulated or unidentified strategy by examining known patterns of activity. We can extrapolate back from that point to deduce the underlying strategic intent and the extent to which that intent remained constant over significant periods of time.

We know what the Crusaders and their opponents did (campaigns, battles, and so on), and we also know the relatively simple range of levers that they had at their disposal to implement their activities (such as siegecraft, colonisation, or castle building). By deconstructing these two strands of actuality, we can come close to deducing the underlying (and often unspoken) strategic intent.

In the following articles, we will attempt to do just that, and the results are surprising in the extreme.

PODCASTS

RECOMENDED BOOKS

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The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain by Steve Tibble
Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Armies 1099–1187 by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Armies: 1099–1187 by Steve Tibble

SOURCES

  • Tibble, S. (2020). The Crusader Strategy. Yale University Press.

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