The Law of the Abbot

BOOK “The Law of the Abbot and other Stories about Globalization”

abbot1st story, 1st Chapter: The Law of the Abbot
In this story you are going to be an abbot in a medieval monastery, in the year 1000 AC.

Backdrop of the story:

The Europe of the year 1000 is divided in thousands of small communities, removed from the outer world. People eat and dress and use the tools and the stuff that they produce locally.

Without commercial webs and relationships bringing goods, services, capital and ideas from other parts of Europe and the world, life in medieval communities is incredibly difficult. The Europe of the year 1000 AC, with its small and closed communities, and its famines and miserable standards of life, is a huge greeting card with a simple message: Welcome to a world without international commerce, finance and globalization.

The contrast between the medieval world and the globalized societies of the 21st couldn’t be greater. But there is something in common behind the dynamics of the Medieval and the 21st global economies: the LAW OF THE ABBOT.

What does this Law says? It’s simple:

In a competitive environment you have to follow and adapt your strategies according to the moves of your competitors, and the values and the forces ruling the society.

It’s easy to detect the Law of the Abbot in the 21st century: Top managers (and politicians) are constantly following, or adapting their strategies or responding to the actions of other top managers.

Companies tend to replicate and respond to what others are doing, whether it is socially beneficial or not, and in doing so they reinforce and auto-perpetuate blind economic dynamics.

The Law of the Abbot explains many things: why companies go to low-wage countries and tax havens, following the move of the pioneers; why they break environmental rules; issues like the flag of convenience in the shipping industry, and so on.

The example given in the story is about the huge amounts that media companies pay to get contracts with modern celebrities (singers, footballers and other stars), and their implications.

But the Law of the Abbot is also present in the economies of the year 1000, as shown by the commerce of bones of saints.

Bones of Saints Medieval AgesIf a monastery pays a large amount of money for the bones of a famous saint, other monasteries may have to replicate the offer (bones of famous saints, and other relics, are critical to attract peregrines, prestige and revenues). If an abbot is foolish enough to offer a small fortune for a bone of a saint, the others will also have to be foolish to get it. That’s a manifestation of the Law of the Abbot (the abbots follow and move according to the actions of the others).

Globalization reinforce these mechanisms. Globalization allows the contracts to spread over dozens of countries, and the gathering of huge amounts of money. Globalization and the Law of the Abbot explain why some people can become incredibly rich, and why there are so many multimillionaires in the 21st century.

The Business of Bones: Relic Trafficking in the Middle Ages (article, Atlas Obscura)
Relics (Wikipedia)
Georges Duby, O ano mil, Edições 70 (book, portuguese)
Footballers Earnings, David De Gea, Mirror
Rodulfus Glaber, Year 1000 (Wikipedia)
Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages (book)
Monasteries in the Middle Ages (