Monastic Management Theory

Wherever you have large organisations handling vast amounts of money, in the form of mass-market pilgrim revenues and/or important long-term protection and propaganda accounts with noble clients, there will inevitably be a lot of debate about the right way to run them. In our day we call this management theory, in the twelfth century it was called monastic reform. Just as we now have our various schools of this theory, so too did they have various monastic orders, which split and re-combined over the years.New abbots were sometimes promoted from within, but equally often headhunted from other houses, in precisely the same way as a modern corporation brings in a successful CEO from another company to shake things up. Where we have Mission Statements, or Visions and Values, they had the Rule of the Order; where our CEOs post Management Letters on the intranet or give PowerPoint presentations at board meetings, the abbot preached a sermon in the chapter house, at meetings of the monastery leadership; and what Benedict of Nursia called the “school of love”, we now call the social working environment. Which was not always optimal: Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis talks of “the customary trouble among the brothers,” and monasteries could dissolve into civil war.

If the medieval church, or the medieval monastery (and the distinction is entirely a modern one) is thus envisaged as a predecessor of the modern corporation, then ecclesiastical aversion to royal control may answer to the modern animus against “socialism”. In the middle ages government interference with the church was generally called “oppression”, “spoliation” or even “the ruin of the churches”. What was desired instead was “the freedom of the church”. Suddenly the men of the Gregorian Reform seem akin to our own neoliberals, demanding that the corporation or church must be permitted to run and enrich itself as it pleases, owing obedience and responsibility to none. Those who enjoy any kind of revenue flow will inevitably resent interference, and equally inveitably they will express their desire for undisturbed enjoyment in the language of some universal social good, whether the Kingdom of Heaven and the salvation of all men or its modern equivalent, “the economy”. For, then as now, it is the owners of the revenue stream who pay for the right words to be used.

People imagine that the differences between the monasteries and our companies were “spiritual,” a mysterious word they think means the opposite of material; but when the whole purpose of monastic discipline, organisation and architecture was to induce God to Do His Stuff, more than He does for the other guys, the distinction is moot. It was all about efficiency, just as it is now. One debate was whether the soul was edified and lifted heavenwards, or perilously distracted, by lots of religious art. “A church that looks efficient, is efficient,” as the fatuous boss in the film Nine to Five might have put it. Since said religious art was very expensive, the clients, that is, the monastic patrons, tended to vote with their purses, and so we find the Cistercians thriving at the expense of the Cluniacs. In the early thirteenth century a wholly new kind of order, the Mendicants, developed in response to the new markets of the urban bourgeoisie; rather than living on very lucrative long-term contracts with a handful of big clients, they were a “lean, mean operation” selling a high volume of low-cost services for cash on the barrel.

Not all these transactions were voluntary. Monastic and mendicant services were optional, but episcopal and parish services were tax-based. Since this tax rate was ideologically fixed at ten per cent, it simply invited undercutting. And so the twelfth century saw the rise of the Cathars, an independent counter-church. Not least thanks to enthusiastic but quite uninformed New Age partisanship of the Cathars, it is now popularly assumed that the Occitanians transferred their allegiance because of spiritual admiration for the Cathars’ superior way of life. That may be so, but it should not be forgotten that the Cathar elite, the perfecti or Good Men, did not “work” for a living but were supported by the rank and file, and in this were no different from the Catholic clergy. They may, however, have been cheaper, at the same time as they demanded a good deal less of their flocks. For the Cathar “layman” did not really have to do anything other than feed and clothe the perfecti, who in return bestowed salvation upon him. It was a better and cheaper service, that’s all. Rather than using a modern commercial or pubic-service metaphor, however, we might equally well describe Catholics and Cathars as the equivalent of two crime families competing to control the gambling revenues.

But one does not undercut the taxman with impunity, and the competition was soon, er, regulated by the Office of Fair Spiritual Trading that we call the Papal Inquisition.

Posted on April 20, 2010 at 13:12 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Spiritual Business

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Curly Snide Jr and Whaley Harris, Orson Winkler. Orson Winkler said: The World as Will and Misrepresentation » Monastic management theory: Monastic and mendicant services were optiona… […]

  2. Written by Ghost in the Machine
    on April 21, 2010 at 11:12

    Never have I seen a more concise or delightfully irreverent history of Western monasticism. Most importantly, it rings true!

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