Francia plc, or, the management secrets of Charlemagne

I’ve wanted for a long time to do a conference paper on this topic, but it would probably not be taken in the right sense. And I don’t think there’s quite enough material to make a best-selling book out of it. So here, in blog form, are

The management secrets of Charlemagne

Discussions of how Charlemagne’s realm was organized and governed have often started, at least implicitly, from a modern model: present day or perhaps more accurately nineteenth century bureacratic government. Some authors have accepted this model and then argued whether or not Charlemagne’s government succeeds in these terms. Those who reject this model, stress, instead, how unlike any modern concepts of administration Carolingian government is. I want to argue, however, the possibility of a different modern analogy for the Carolingian state, which can provide another view of it and different criteria by which to assess its effectiveness. That model is the company, and its organization and effectiveness as seen in current management thinking.

I do not, of course, want to claim that the idea of a company was one that would have made any sense to the Carolingians. But what if we do look at Carolingian government ‘as if’ it is Francia plc? How effective does it look then?

The role of paperwork

Political historians (certainly of the medieval period) remain one of the outposts of ‘big government’: the size and complexity of the governmental bureaucracy is the key to its success, The serious government can be recognized by the size of its archive. Current management theory, however, has turned against the bureaucracy, an attitude that is now affecting government departments as well as businesses. This view is summed up in the acronym KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. In particular, records and information should not be collected unless they are useful and should be retained only as long as they are still needed. Collecting information for no good reason is a waste of resources.

This is a frequent problem in the modern civil service. A common response to parliamentary questions is the comment that ‘this information is not available except at excessive expense’. The urge to collect such information has to be resisted, for the sake of efficiency. The Department of Health has to impose restrictions on the questionnaires that civil servants may send to GPs, since otherwise they’d never have time for their actual work. Similarly, there are a few Carolingian ‘questionnaires’ that look excessively complicated, where simple questions must have led to hours of work for the respondents. We do not have the replies to many of these demands for reports. Does this mean, as is sometimes suggested, that these were not carried out? Or is it a reflection that such information was not seen as needed long-term and hence not preserved? Did a Carolingian ruler need to keep a record of which monasteries had been found not following the Benedictine rule sufficiently closely at the last inspection? Or was the key thing what was happening now, not what had been the case several years ago?

Similarly, there is a tendency to take too bureaucratic a view of the efficiency of medieval government communication. On this view, Carolingian government is ineffective because it relied on oral communication and its lack of standardised channels for circulation of capitularies and other materials was unable to keep the regions properly informed of its wishes. This presupposes a view of the effectiveness of written communication that modern bureaucracies hardly support. Even if you send out a vast stream of paperwork, people either don’t get it, don’t read it or lose it. The most heavily used section of the Department of Health website by the public when I was there, was the texts of DoH circulars – i.e. the material that had already in theory been circulated to the NHS and other organisations.

The use of assemblies and other forms of oral government also tends to be seen as a sign of a more primitive state. But in one big company I was in, whenever they had something particularly important to announce it was done via senior management standing up in general meetings and talking. They were even prepared to travel round the country or to video this and replay it elsewhere. Modern organisations have writing, e-mail etc, but it’s still felt that for some things face-to-face communication is necessary.


Linked with the modern managerial urge for simple systems is the principle of delegation. The organization should be ‘flat’, with the minimal numbers of layers of management and the maximum amount of authority delegated to those ‘on the ground’, dealing directly with those outside the organization. They, then, can react to local conditions and problems in a speedy and flexible manner, and this is seen as more effective as the standardised response of a centralised, top-down organisation.

On this view, the Carolingian method of control via counts has to score relatively highly. Indeed, even in today’s bureaucratic government, there are times when such an approach is preferred. The modern civil service sends out routine information from the centre. But they also have a ‘cascade’ system for rapid dissemination of information and instructions in emergencies. In this, key figures are contacted, who must then pass on the information to others in their region. The mobilization system that Charlemagne developed for the army in later years, might almost serve as a model for this.

This delegation of responsibility also contributed to keeping systems simple. Ganshof argued that the local raising of armies meant that the king could not know in advance how many troops would appear for the annual campaign. I want to ask a basic question: did he need to know exactly how many troops he would get? If none or very low numbers appeared, of course, that was a problem, but provided a reasonable number were present, exact details of how many didn’t matter. The idea lurking in Ganshof’s mind is a modern army, where a complex deployment of regiments in a pre-set plan is supported by equally complex and centrally-organized logistics. Carolingian warfare, by delegation, eliminated most of these problems. Men brought their own rations: if they were inadequate, that was their look out.

Audit and corporate culture

One obvious problem with delegation is that the centre cannot easily keep control, and in particular that those to whom power is delegated may misuse it. Most organisations have some form of audit/control mechanisms. I would argue that the royal missi look in some way like an OFCOUNT (an office for ensuring the standards of counts), on the lines of OFSTED. Modern scholars have seen a fatal flaw in the use of the missi: the missi were themselves part of the ruling class and so complicit in the abuses. This sounds like a rerun of the debate about OFSTED as opposed to the previous system of school inspectors. Do you have outsiders as the auditors, who are able to be more objective, or does that result in ignorant comments, when a better analysis can be made by those insiders who know what it’s really like at the sharp end?

More generally, it’s interesting to consider modern views of Carolingian officials in the light of Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y ideas of employees. Historians tend (not surprisingly given the extant evidence) to have a Theory X view of counts: they are going to get away with whatever they can and they cannot be trusted an inch. I’d argue that the Carolingian system, however (like many successful companies), was built on Theory Y ideas: staff can perform well without micromanagement. It is reasonable to trust your staff to do their job. Why? Because you’ve got good staff. This is why Carolingian mirrors are obsessed with the need for king to choose good men as advisors and officials, because it’s a method of organisation that depends crucially on the quality of personnel within the system, not the formal perfection of the system. This is the difference between a company that believes that ‘people are our most important resource’ and a civil service model which is supposed to carry on functioning effectively even if there’s no government to direct it.

One of the things which a company needs to work in this way, of course, is a strong corporate culture, so employees instinctively know how to do things ‘the company way’. And methods to strengthen this are precisely what we can see the Carolingian rulers employ, whether it’s the bonding rituals of shared hunting/warfare/religious rituals etc, the social role of the assemblies or the attempts to create an ethos of ‘secular sanctity’ among the lay nobility. (And what do the eager young men at Carolingian courts remind you of so much as management trainees?)

This also explains what seems to modern eyes one of the biggest weaknesses of Carolingian government: the tendency for comital and other office to become hereditary. To the modern rationalist, this seems obviously absurd, but there are parallels in business practice. I once worked for a company that recruited largely by word of mouth: most of the people coming in were friends of the current staff. Although this would now probably run foul of discrimination legislation, there was a rational business purpose. It was seen as lowering both the cost of recruitment and the risks: you employed someone who was a ‘known’ quantity, the right sort of person for the job, rather than possibly getting someone totally unsuitable. A very similar attitude is seen in the few explicit comments in Carolingian sources on how you might choose successors to counts: the idea is the virtuous sons of previous officials. Heredity determines the pool of applicants: these are men who will have had the right upbringing and knowledge; competence (in the sense of virtue, which was the main par of the job description for a count) determines the actual choice. Such recruitment in one’s own image in the long-term is likely to damage an enterprise, through lack of diversity; in the short-term, it’s an easy way of avoiding the truly bad official. (The Carolingian use of non-Franks and the fact that not all the officials came from the Reichsadel also suggests there were attempts to make a slightly wider pool available).


Much discussion of Carolingian government still seems to start from two opposing positions. One is the assumption that all good government should be a bureaucracy, much along the lines of 19th and 20th German, French and English ones. The other is that early medieval government is fundamentally different from modern ways of thinking. What I’ve tried to show is there are other modern models of organising enterprises that can give us insights. (As to why Carolingian government look a bit like some modern companies, there’s an obvious answer: they’re both trying to run a large-scale organisation as cheaply and with as few people as possible, and they’re not fundamentally worried about ‘fairness’ of outcomes).

I’m not sure how effective Carolingian government actually was and we may not actually have the sources to know. Our picture of Carolingian administration, after all, is largely based on legislative and administrative orders, a few court cases and political polemic. If you judged modern government on the basis of the statute book, the Times law reports and tabloid headlines, you’d probably have a very odd view of that as well. What I am sure of is that much of the criticism of the effectiveness of Carolingian government has been based on some fairly dodgy assumptions, and in particular an ideal of the modern state that seems very unrealistic. Perhaps the first step to a valid assessment of Carolingian effectiveness is to look most critically at the effectiveness or lack of it of current organizations: whether the civil service, private-sector companies or even, perhaps, universities.


2 thoughts on “Francia plc, or, the management secrets of Charlemagne

  1. I very much like most of this. The only nuance I might add is to the splendid idea of OFCOUNT. As I understand it OFSTED reports to the centre and then whatever needs sorting out filters down from there, but the missi were expected to do justice and set things right there and then. That is, they have the same power as the officials on whom they’re checking up, and are expected to use it. This seems to me to break the analogy there, but otherwise, I think you’re quite right to look at it like this. I wonder how recently this could have been thought, in fact? Corporate culture seems to have changed an awful lot over the last three decades…


  2. I’d argue that it depends entirely on the where and when of Carolingian Europe. In the case of the East from Louis the Pious, and especially his sons, I could go with commercial enterprise, but not so much in the corporate sense. It’s more as if it’s a family enterprise with salespeople who have huge leeway when cutting deals with the customers who will then sell on the product. Or so I would argue. But that’s because I see 9th C. Carolingian government in eastern Francia as being very personal and ad hoc.


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