To sell a medieval envoy

Lecturers are often asked to introduce or address the issue of enterprise and employability skills in our teaching to better prepare students for life beyond university. This is of course not always an easy task. Many academics have never been employed outside the higher education sector and some subjects perhaps lend themselves more easily to this task than others. So, as a researcher of (mostly) medieval diplomacy and legal practice, I thought that I should see if I and, more importantly, my students could rise to the challenge. The easiest way to do this, I figured, was to do something with marketing. After all, this is an exercise that all academics are engaged in to promote our research, books, articles, projects and so on.

Walter of Essex

Walter of Essex

Having hatched this plan, I then turned the last seminar of the term into an enterprise session and set all 23 students on my second-year undergraduate course ‘War, Peace and Diplomacy 900-1250’ the task of creating a marketing campaign to sell a medieval envoy to a king. In preparation for the seminar, the students, of course, had to apply transferable skills that involved doing some traditional academic work; researching and gathering information from primary sources and secondary literature, and analysing this information to assess which qualities would have been most valuable in a medieval envoy. Students had to think about issues such as whether their envoy should be a nuncius (message bearer) or a procurator (an envoy who could act on behalf of his master); whether he was an ecclesiastic or a secular person; and whether or not the envoy had specialist skills such as languages, legal, commercial, or military knowledge. Once they had done their research, students were allowed to work individually, in pairs, or as a trio, to create and design a poster (one side of A4) outlining their envoy (real or fictional) and his skills and qualities.

Absalon, abp. of Lund

Absalon, abp. of Lund

On the day of the seminar, we had three traditional five-minute seminar presentations setting the scene by discussing particular sources: an extract from William of Newburgh’s History of English Affairs detailing the negotiations between the Danish and French king in 1193, a letter from Pope Innocent III to King John retelling the fate of one diplomatic mission to the curia, and an extract from Geoffrey of Villehardouin’s Conquest of Constantinople outlining the negotiations between the crusader envoys and the doge of Venice in 1201. The main part of the seminar, however, was a speed-dating session, where each student/group had two minutes to present their poster and envoy to another student, who could also ask questions or come up with objections as to why this envoy would be no good for a particular mission.

Hubert Walter

Examples of envoys that students tried to sell included William de Longchamps, chancellor and justiciar to Richard I; Walter Map, clerk and itinerant justice of Henry II; Ahmad ibn Fadlan (famously depicted by Antonio Banderas in the film The Thirteenth Warrior), legal and theological expert of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir in the tenth century; and Hubert Walter, all round super administrator of Richard I and John.

Walter Map

Walter Map

Thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of my students, the speed-dating session was very successful and laughter-filled as they tried to perfect their presentation and selling skills, arguing backwards and forwards about their envoys desirable and not so desirable qualities in two minutes flat – no mean feat! At the end of the seminar, each student chose, in a secret vote, the envoy they would hire. No surprises. The clear winner was the fictional envoy Benjamin the Balanced, who, despite having the somewhat inconvenient quality of a limp after tripping over on the famous elm tree chopped down by King Philip Augustus of France at a conference in 1188 (yes, you read it here first!) was at least very cheap, reliable, loyal, and able to take and receive oaths on holy relics (Well done, Matthew!).

Benjamin the Balanced

Benjamin the Balanced

On a slightly more rational note, I, as king of the seminar group, and my co-ruler (Hugo), hired as our envoys Absalon, warrior-archbishop of Lund and right-hand man of kings Valdemar I and Cnut VI of Denmark; Thomas Becket, chancellor to Henry II; Nicholas de Moels, seneschal of Gascony during the reign of Henry III; and the fictional envoy Walter of Essex, a chancellor with 29 years of experience in the English court (Well done Jacob, Helen, Stefan, James and Lucy). Finally, in true medieval style, the students were paid in gold rings (ok, maybe they were chocolate gold coins…).

Reflecting on this seminar, which was really just an experiment on my part, it was probably one of the more successful ones of the term. All of the students entered into the spirit of things and came extremely well prepared, having done their research and prepared posters, business cards, and presentations – and this for the last seminar of term. Most importantly, it enabled the students to use some of the skills they are honing in the classroom in a more commercial setting. Although they are unlikely to sell medieval envoys once they leave university, they are likely to market or sell other products for which they have to research, devise, prepare and deliver a pitch to potential buyers. There were lessons to be learned too, in particular for me, because with a bit more planning I could have added elements that would have seen the students working in groups to plan and budget for an actual embassy based on the available sources.

In all, however, this was an excellent way to end the term on a high and I was simply in awe of the fantastic work my students had done.