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Henri Pirenne

Henri Pirenne

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Henri Pirenne was a Belgian
Belgium
Belgium , officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a federal state in Western Europe. It is a founding member of the European Union and hosts the EU's headquarters, and those of several other major international organisations such as NATO.Belgium is also a member of, or affiliated to, many...

 historian. A medievalist of Walloon descent, he wrote a multivolume history of Belgium in French and became a national hero.

He also became prominent in the nonviolent resistance
Nonviolent resistance
Nonviolent resistance is the practice of achieving goals through symbolic protests, civil disobedience, economic or political noncooperation, and other methods, without using violence. It is largely synonymous with civil resistance...

 to the Germans who occupied Belgium in World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

.

Henri Pirenne's reputation today rests on three contributions to Europe
Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

an history: for what has become known as the Pirenne Thesis, concerning origins of the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

 in reactive state formation and shifts in trade; for a distinctive view of Belgium's medieval history
History of Belgium
The history of Belgium, from pre-history to the present day, is intertwined with the histories of its European neighbours, in particular those of the Netherlands and Luxembourg...

; and for his model of the development of the medieval city.

Pirenne argued that profound, long-term social, economic, cultural, and religious movements resulted from profound underlying causes, and this attitude influenced Marc Bloch
Marc Bloch
Marc Léopold Benjamin Bloch was a French historian who cofounded the highly influential Annales School of French social history. Bloch was a quintessential modernist. An assimilated Alsatian Jew from an academic family in Paris, he was deeply affected in his youth by the Dreyfus Affair...

 and the outlook of the French Annales School
Annales School
The Annales School is a group of historians associated with a style of historiography developed by French historians in the 20th century. It is named after its scholarly journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, which remains the main source of scholarship, along with many books and...

 of social history.

Early years


Pirenne was born in Verviers
Verviers
Verviers is a Walloon city and municipality located in the Belgian province of Liège. The Verviers municipality includes the old communes of Ensival, Lambermont, Petit-Rechain, Stembert, and Heusy...

.

At the University of Liège he was a student of Godefroid Kurth
Godefroid Kurth
Godefroid Kurth was a celebrated Belgian historian. He is known for his histories of the city of Liège in the Middle Ages and of Belgium, of his Catholic account in Les Origines de la civilisation moderne of the formation of modern Europe, and for his defence of the medieval guild system.Kurth was...

 (1847–1916). He became Professor of History at the University of Ghent in 1886, a post he held until the end of his teaching career, in 1930. After the Great War he was the most prominent and influential historian in Belgium, receiving numerous honors and committee assignments. Pirenne was a close friend of German historian Karl Lamprecht (1856–1915), until they broke during the war when Lamprecht headed a mission to invite Belgians to collaborate with Germany's long-term goals.

Germany


Pirenne was a leader of Belgian passive resistance in the war; the Germans imprisoned him in Germany (1916–18) as a civilian prisoner of war. He learned Russian from other prisoners and composed a history of Europe, written in isolation from libraries and archives. After the war, he reflected the widespread disillusionment in Belgium with German culture, while taking a nuanced position which allowed him to criticize German nationalism without excluding German works from the scholarly canon. His earlier belief in the inevitable progress of humanity collapsed, so he began to accept chance or the fortuitous in history and came to acknowledge the significance of single great individuals at certain points in history.

Thesis on the formation of European towns


Henri Pirenne first expressed ideas on the formation of European towns in articles of 1895; he further developed the idea for the Pirenne Thesis while imprisoned in Germany during World War I. He subsequently published it in a series of papers from 1922 to 1923 and spent the rest of his life refining the thesis with supporting evidence. The most famous expositions appear in Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade (1927, based on a series of lectures of 1922) and in his posthumous Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937), published from Pirenne's first draft.

In brief, the Pirenne Thesis, an early essay in economic history
Economic history
Economic history is the study of economies or economic phenomena in the past. Analysis in economic history is undertaken using a combination of historical methods, statistical methods and by applying economic theory to historical situations and institutions...

 diverging from the narrative history of the 19th century, notes that in the ninth century long-distance trading was at a low ebb; the only settlements that were not purely agricultural were the ecclesiastical, military and administrative centres that served the feudal ruling classes
Feudalism
Feudalism was a set of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries, which, broadly defined, was a system for ordering society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.Although derived from the...

 as fortresses, episcopal seats, abbeys and occasional royal residences of the peripatetic palatium
Palace
A palace is a grand residence, especially a royal residence or the home of a head of state or some other high-ranking dignitary, such as a bishop or archbishop. The word itself is derived from the Latin name Palātium, for Palatine Hill, one of the seven hills in Rome. In many parts of Europe, the...

. When trade revived in the late tenth and eleventh centuries, merchants and artisans were drawn to the existing centres, forming suburb
Suburb
The word suburb mostly refers to a residential area, either existing as part of a city or as a separate residential community within commuting distance of a city . Some suburbs have a degree of administrative autonomy, and most have lower population density than inner city neighborhoods...

s in which trade and manufactures were concentrated. These were "new men" outside the feudal structure, living on the peripheries of the established order. The feudal core remained static and inert. A time came when the developing merchant class was strong enough to throw off feudal obligations or to buy out the prerogatives of the old order, which Pirenne contrasted with the new element in numerous ways. The leaders among the mercantile class formed a bourgeois patriciate, in whose hands economic and political power came to be concentrated.

Pirenne's thesis takes as axiomatic that the natural interests of the feudal nobility and of the urban patriciate, which came to well-attested frictions in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, were in their origins incompatible. This aspect of his thesis has been challenged in detail.

Traditionally, historians have dated the Middle Ages from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, a theory Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament...

 famously put forward in the 18th century, which is inexorably linked to the supposition of a Roman "decline" from a previous classic ideal. Pirenne postponed the demise of classical civilization to the seventh century. He challenged the notion that Germanic barbarian
Migration Period
The Migration Period, also called the Barbarian Invasions , was a period of intensified human migration in Europe that occurred from c. 400 to 800 CE. This period marked the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages...

s had caused the Western Roman Empire
Western Roman Empire
The Western Roman Empire was the western half of the Roman Empire after its division by Diocletian in 285; the other half of the Roman Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly referred to today as the Byzantine Empire....

 to end and he challenged the notion that the end of the Western Roman Empire should be equated with the end of the office of emperor
Roman Emperor
The Roman emperor was the ruler of the Roman State during the imperial period . The Romans had no single term for the office although at any given time, a given title was associated with the emperor...

 in Europe, which occurred in 476. He pointed out the essential continuity of the economy of the Roman Mediterranean even after the barbarian
Barbarian
Barbarian and savage are terms used to refer to a person who is perceived to be uncivilized. The word is often used either in a general reference to a member of a nation or ethnos, typically a tribal society as seen by an urban civilization either viewed as inferior, or admired as a noble savage...

 invasions, and that the Roman way of doing things did not fundamentally change in the time immediately after the "fall" of Rome. Barbarian Goths came to Rome
Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

 not to destroy it, but to take part in its benefits; they tried to preserve the Roman way of life. The more recent formulation of a historical period characterized as "Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity is a periodization used by historians to describe the time of transition from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages, in both mainland Europe and the Mediterranean world. Precise boundaries for the period are a matter of debate, but noted historian of the period Peter Brown proposed...

" emphasizes the transformations of ancient to medieval worlds within a cultural continuity, and European archaeology of the first millennium, purposefully undertaken in the later 20th century, even extends the continuity in material culture
Material culture
In the social sciences, material culture is a term that refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations. Studying a culture's relationship to materiality is a lens through which social and cultural attitudes can be discussed...

 and patterns of settlement below the political overlay as reaching as late as the eleventh century.

Islam


According to Pirenne the real break in Roman history occurred in the 8th century as a result of Arab
Arab
Arab people, also known as Arabs , are a panethnicity primarily living in the Arab world, which is located in Western Asia and North Africa. They are identified as such on one or more of genealogical, linguistic, or cultural grounds, with tribal affiliations, and intra-tribal relationships playing...

 expansion. Islam
Islam
Islam . The most common are and .   : Arabic pronunciation varies regionally. The first vowel ranges from ~~. The second vowel ranges from ~~~...

ic conquest of the area of today's south-eastern Turkey
Turkey
Turkey , known officially as the Republic of Turkey , is a Eurasian country located in Western Asia and in East Thrace in Southeastern Europe...

, Syria
Syria
Syria , officially the Syrian Arab Republic , is a country in Western Asia, bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the southwest....

, Palestine
Palestine
Palestine is a conventional name, among others, used to describe the geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and various adjoining lands....

, North Africa
North Africa
North Africa or Northern Africa is the northernmost region of the African continent, linked by the Sahara to Sub-Saharan Africa. Geopolitically, the United Nations definition of Northern Africa includes eight countries or territories; Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, South Sudan, Sudan, Tunisia, and...

, Spain
Spain
Spain , officially the Kingdom of Spain languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Spain's official name is as follows:;;;;;;), is a country and member state of the European Union located in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula...

 and Portugal
Portugal
Portugal , officially the Portuguese Republic is a country situated in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula. Portugal is the westernmost country of Europe, and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the West and South and by Spain to the North and East. The Atlantic archipelagos of the...

 ruptured economic ties to western Europe, cutting the region off from trade and turning it into a stagnant backwater, with wealth flowing out in the form of raw resources and nothing coming back. This began a steady decline and impoverishment so that by the time of Charlemagne
Charlemagne
Charlemagne was King of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans from 800 to his death in 814. He expanded the Frankish kingdom into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. During his reign, he conquered Italy and was crowned by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800...

 western Europe had become almost entirely agrarian at a subsistence level, with no long-distance trade.

Pirenne used statistical data regarding money in support of his thesis. Much of his argument builds upon the disappearance from western Europe of items that had to come from outside. For example, the minting of gold coins north of the Alps
Alps
The Alps is one of the great mountain range systems of Europe, stretching from Austria and Slovenia in the east through Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany to France in the west....

 stopped after the 7th century, indicating a loss of access to wealthier parts of the world. Papyrus
Papyrus
Papyrus is a thick paper-like material produced from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus, a wetland sedge that was once abundant in the Nile Delta of Egypt....

, made only in Egypt
Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...

, no longer appeared north of the Alps after the 7th century: writing reverted to using animal skins
Parchment
Parchment is a thin material made from calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin, often split. Its most common use was as a material for writing on, for documents, notes, or the pages of a book, codex or manuscript. It is distinct from leather in that parchment is limed but not tanned; therefore, it is very...

, indicating an isolation from wealthier areas.

In a summary, he famously said, "Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would have probably never existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable." That is, he rejected the notion that barbarian invasions in the 4th and 5th centuries caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. Instead, the Muslim conquest of north Africa made the Mediterranean a barrier, cutting western Europe off from the east, enabling the Carolingians, especially Charlemagne
Charlemagne
Charlemagne was King of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans from 800 to his death in 814. He expanded the Frankish kingdom into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. During his reign, he conquered Italy and was crowned by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800...

, to create a new, distinctly western form of government.

Pirenne's Thesis has not entirely convinced all historians of the period. One does not have to entirely accept or deny his theory. It has provided useful tools for understanding the period of the Early Middle Ages
Early Middle Ages
The Early Middle Ages was the period of European history lasting from the 5th century to approximately 1000. The Early Middle Ages followed the decline of the Western Roman Empire and preceded the High Middle Ages...

, and a valuable example of how periodization
Periodization
Periodization is the attempt to categorize or divide time into named blocks. The result is a descriptive abstraction that provides a useful handle on periods of time with relatively stable characteristics...

 schemes are provisional, never axiomatic.

Belgium


Pirenne's other major idea concerned the nature of medieval Belgium
Belgium
Belgium , officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a federal state in Western Europe. It is a founding member of the European Union and hosts the EU's headquarters, and those of several other major international organisations such as NATO.Belgium is also a member of, or affiliated to, many...

. Belgium as an independent nation state had appeared only a generation before Pirenne's birth; throughout Western history, its fortunes had been tied up with the Low Countries
Low Countries
The Low Countries are the historical lands around the low-lying delta of the Rhine, Scheldt, and Meuse rivers, including the modern countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of northern France and western Germany....

, which now include the Netherlands
Netherlands
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...

, Luxembourg
Luxembourg
Luxembourg , officially the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg , is a landlocked country in western Europe, bordered by Belgium, France, and Germany. It has two principal regions: the Oesling in the North as part of the Ardennes massif, and the Gutland in the south...

 and parts of north-east France
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

. Furthermore, Belgium lies athwart the great linguistic divide between French
French language
French is a Romance language spoken as a first language in France, the Romandy region in Switzerland, Wallonia and Brussels in Belgium, Monaco, the regions of Quebec and Acadia in Canada, and by various communities elsewhere. Second-language speakers of French are distributed throughout many parts...

 and Dutch
Dutch language
Dutch is a West Germanic language and the native language of the majority of the population of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Suriname, the three member states of the Dutch Language Union. Most speakers live in the European Union, where it is a first language for about 23 million and a second...

. The unity of the country
Partition of Belgium
The partition of Belgium, or the dissolution of the Belgian state through the separation of the Dutch-speaking people of the Flanders region and Brussels from the French-speaking people of the Walloon region and Brussels, granting them either independence or respective accession to the Netherlands...

 might appear accidental, something which Pirenne sought to disprove in his History of Belgium (1899–1932). His ideas here, promoting a kind of Belgian nationalism
Belgian nationalism
Belgian nationalism defines an ideology that favours a strong centralised government, with less or no autonomy for the Flemish Community who constitute Flanders, the French Community of Belgium and the German-speaking Community of Belgium who constitute Wallonia and the Brussels-Capital Region...

, have also proved controversial, with many historians preferring to stress the economic unity of the Low Countries as a whole. Henri Pirenne donated the majority of his personal library to the Academia Belgica
Academia Belgica
The Academia Belgica is an academic organization. The goal of the Academy is to promote the cultural, scientific and artistic cooperation between Italy and Belgium....

 in Rome
Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

. In 1933, he was awarded the Francqui Prize
Francqui Prize
The Francqui Prize is a prestigious Belgian scholarly and scientific prize, awarded each year since 1933 by the Francqui Foundation in recognition of the achievements of a young Belgian scholar or scientist...

 on Human Sciences.

Pirenne's Histoire de Belgique (7 vol., 1899–1932) stressed how traditional and economic forces had drawn Flemings and Walloons together. Pirenne, inspired by patriotic nationalism, presupposed a Belgian unity - social, political, and ethnic - which predated its 1830 independence by centuries. Although a liberal himself, he wrote his seven-volume history with such a masterly balance that Catholics, liberals and socialists could quote from it with equal respect in their newspapers or sometimes even in their political gatherings.

Criticism


Pirenne's history remains crucial to the understanding of Belgium's past, but his notion of a continuity of Belgian civilization forming the basis of political unity has lost favor. Many Belgian scholars feel that the creation of their country was a historical accident. Pirenne's argument that the long Spanish rule in the Low Countries had little continuing cultural impact has likewise fallen, in the face of new as research since 1970 in the fields of cultural, military, economic, and political history.

Medieval Cities


Pirenne is also the author of Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade (1927), a book based on lectures he delivered in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 in 1922. In this book he contends that through the period from the tenth to the twelfth century, Europe reclaimed control of the Mediterranean from the Muslim world, and opened up sea routes to the Orient. This allowed the formation of a merchant/middle class
Middle class
The middle class is any class of people in the middle of a societal hierarchy. In Weberian socio-economic terms, the middle class is the broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socio-economically between the working class and upper class....

 and the development of that class's characteristic abode, the city.

He argued that capitalism originated in Europe's cities, as did democracy. His "Merchant Enterprise School" opposed Marxism but shared many of Marx's ideas on the merchant class. Pirenne's theory of a commercial renaissance in towns in the 11th century remains the standard interpretation.

A History of Europe


Pirenne wrote a two volume A History of Europe: From the End of the Roman World in the West to the Beginnings of the Western States, a remarkable but incomplete work which Pirenne wrote while imprisoned in Germany during World War I. It was published by his son in 1936. A translation into English, by Bernard Miall, was first published in Great Britain in 1939 by George Allen and Unwin.

Captivity


How involved Pirenne was in the Belgian resistance during World War I is not known. What is known is that Pirenne was questioned by German occupiers on 18 March 1916, and subsequently arrested. The occupying army had ordered striking professors at the University of Ghent to continue teaching. Pirenne's son Pierre had been killed in the fighting at the Battle of the Yser
Battle of the Yser
The Battle of the Yser secured part of the coastline of Belgium for the allies in the "Race to the Sea" after the first three months of World War I.-Strategic Context:As part of the execution of the Schlieffen Plan, Belgium had been invaded by Germany...

 in 1914. The German officer questioning Pirenne asked why he insisted on answering in French when it was known that Pirenne spoke excellent German and had done postgraduate studies at Leipzig and Berlin. Pirenne responded: "I have forgotten German since 3 August 1914," the date of the German invasion of Belgium, part of Germany's war plan to defeat France.

Pirenne was held in Crefeld, then in Holzminden
Holzminden
Holzminden is a town in southern Lower Saxony, Germany. It is the capital of the district of Holzminden. It is located directly on the river Weser, which here is the border to North Rhine-Westphalia.-History:...

, and finally in Jena
Jena
Jena is a university city in central Germany on the river Saale. It has a population of approx. 103,000 and is the second largest city in the federal state of Thuringia, after Erfurt.-History:Jena was first mentioned in an 1182 document...

, where he was interned from 24 August 1916 until the end of the war. He was denied books, but he learned Russian from soldiers captured on the Eastern Front and subsequently read Russian-language histories made available to him by Russian prisoners. This gave Pirenne's work a unique perspective. At Jena, he began his history of medieval Europe, starting with the fall of Rome. He wrote completely from memory. Rather than a blow-by-blow chronology of wars, dynasties and incidents, A History of Europe presents a big-picture approach to social, political and mercantile trends. It is remarkable not only for its historical insight, but also its objectivity, especially considering the conditions under which it was written.

At the conclusion of the war, Henry Pirenne stopped his work on A History of Europe in the middle of the 16th century. He returned home and took up his life. He died at Uccle
Uccle
Uccle or Ukkel is one of the nineteen municipalities located in the Brussels-Capital Region of Belgium.Uccle is known for its well-to-do areas, its green spots and its high rental rates.-History:...

 in 1935. His son Jacques Pirenne, who had survived the war to become a historian in his own right, discovered the manuscript. He edited the work by inserting dates for which his father was uncertain in parentheses. Jacques wrote a preface explaining its provenance and published it, with the English translation appearing in 1956. It stands as a monumental intellectual achievement.

Sources

  • Brown, Peter. "Mohammed and Charlemagne by Henri Pirenne." Daedalus 1974 103(1): 25-33. Issn: 0011-5266
  • Cate, James L. "Henri Pirenne (1862-1935)," in S. William Halperin, ed. Some 20th Century Historians-essays on Eminent Europeans, (1961) 1-30.
  • Frank, Kenneth W. "Pirenne Again: A Muslim Viewpoint," The History Teacher, Vol. 26, No. 3 (May 1993), pp. 371–383 in JSTOR
  • Ganshof, F. L. "Henri Pirenne and Economic History." Economic History Review 1936 6(2): 179-185. Issn: 0013-0117 Fulltext: [ in Jstor]
  • Havighurst, Alfred F. ed. The Pirenne Thesis: Analysis, Criticism, and Revision (1958) readings by scholars
  • Hodges, Richard and David Whitehouse (1983). Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the origins of Europe. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-9262-9. Influential analysis of the Pirenne Thesis and the role of recent archaeological findings.
  • Lyon, Bryce. Henri Pirenne: A Biographical and Intellectual Study (1974)
    • Brown, Elizabeth A. R. "Henri Pirenne: a Biographical and Intellectual Study." History and Theory 1976 15(1): 66-76. review of Lyon in Jstor
  • McCormick, Michael (2001). Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, 300-900. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-66102-1. A reexamination of the Pirenne Thesis.
  • Powicke, F. M. "Henri Pirenne," The English Historical Review, Vol. 51, No. 201 (January 1936), pp. 79–89 in JSTOR

Primary Sources


Books]* Pirenne, Jacques-Henri, ed. "'Reflexions D'un Solitaire' by Henri Pirenne." Bulletin De La Commission Royale D'histoire 1994 160(3-4): 143-257. Issn: 0001-415x first publication of his wartime prison journal.

External links