"All those whose lives are spent searching for truth are well aware the glimpses they catch of it are necessarily fleeting, glittering for an instant, only to make way for new and still more dazzling insights. The scholar's work, in marked contrast to that of the artist, is inevitably provisional. He knows this and rejoices in it, for the rapid obsolescence of his book is the very proof of the progress of scholarship." ~ Henri Pirenne

Henri Pirenne (pronounced ooNre-ì peren-ì, b. 1862, d. 1935) was a well-established & controversial historian, francophone Belgian and professor of Medieval History at the University of Ghent for close to forty years. He was born on 22 December 1862 in Verviers, the oldest of eight children. In October 1879, he entered Lièège University where he obtained a doctorate in 1883 with a study on the medieval history of Dinant. His father wanted him to become an engineer, but he had other plans. In 1884, he studied in Leipzig with the historian William Ferdinand Arndt (1838-1895) and in Berlin with the historians Harry Bresslau (1848-1926) and Gustav Schmoller. By 1886, he became Professor of Medieval and Belgian History at Ghent University where he stayed until the end of his teaching career in 1930, becoming Chair in 1899. He was chosen by the Royal Family and Scientific Academy to write a five volume history of his country in the late 1890s ~ with explicit instructions to pay particular attention to the medieval period of the nation’s history.1

He was arrested in 1916 by the German army for leading a group of passive resistors and refusing German officers entry to the University. He was taken first to Krefeld, then to Holzminden and finally to Kreuzburg POW camp (see The Journal de guerre of Henri Pirenne , New York : North-Holland Pub. Co., 1976). He was not released until November 1918, but he resumed his post and between the 1920s & 30s, Pirenne had established himself as the leading medievalist of Europe.2

Theses on Medieval Cities

His first major controversy erupted in 1925, with the translation of his Medieval cities, their origins and the revival of trade, which hit the average historiographer like a tonne of bricks. He posited in this book that the building & expansion of European cities in the late Middle Ages was wholly the work of an international merchant class. They were the ones who funded the wall-building, or burgs (for protection of their capitals), from which came burghers (town leaders) and bourgeoisie (middle class). This formed the core of the city, which in turn attracted people to settle around the walls - and they, in turn, prospered and eventually built their own walls. So, the thesis goes, these cities grew like the rings of a tree, in concentric circles, with walled fortresses and cathedrals in their midst, until populations suddenly dropped off in the 14th c. on account of the Black Death. It was an elegant, refined bit of theorizing : unfortunately, it really only seems to fit the archeological record of southern France and the Low Countries. Italian cities were established at far earlier dates, so their growth patterns were quite separate. Similarly, German Rhineland cities have also been found to have been oriented in differing configurations as well.3

Mohammed and Charlemagne

While historians and archeologists debated the nuances and evidence of his first book ~ Pirenne pressed on with another, even more elaborate hypothesis. Still much debated, as The Pirenne Thesis, he argued that the Middle Ages itself (as a defined culture & economy) did not emerge in Europe with the fall of Rome. Rather, he places the timing of feudalism’s rise as directly following the Muslim expansion of the 7th-8th c., asserting this effectively cut off Europe from Mediterranean trade and as a result the entire society took far fewer cues from either traditions in Rome or Byzantium - instead developing its own unique culture. Hence, the medieval period is born, because the sea routes and trade of the Mediterranean had become ‘a Muslim lake on which the Christians could not float a board’.4

Needless to say, this sparked some fairly intense historical wrangling and debate from various groups. Firstly, this notion essentially trashed the neat chronologizing which persists to this day - Rome falls, Dark Ages starts, Middle Ages ... *ping* Renaissance! Historians, teachers, students - all had become quite comfortable with this succession of events and liked it that way. Pirenne overturned the cart by offering fairly good evidence that most Roman institutions survived in Europe well into the Merovingian period - historians who liked nice, clear periods really didn’t like this idea. As well, numerous economic historians stepped forward to counter his assertion that European trade on the Mediterranean was ever blocked by the Arab Conquests. This debate has raged on ever since, most notably by deeply influencing the recently re-emergent Clash of Civilizations thesis by Samuel Huntington.

Style and Tone

Ultimately, however, despite the rage which swirled around both theses for several decades, it was Pirenne’s approach and handling of history that was most influential. Check out this fragment:
...the religion of their customers mattered little to the Italians, provided that they paid. The love of gain, which the Church condemned and stigmatised by the name of avarice, was manifested here is most brutal form. The Venetians exported to the harems of Egypt and Syria young Slavs, whoe they varried off or bought on the Dalmatian Coast, and this traffic in slaves unquestionably contributed quite as largely to their growing prosperity as did the slave trade of the 18th c. to that of so many French and English Shippers. ~ Economic and Social History of Europe, 17.
Few historians at the turn of the century would be willing to write such a paragraph, with its moral tone and modern comparison, yet this is precisely where Pirenne excelled. Outstanding historians dare to make comparisons. He didn’t go for mind-numbing length or endless footnotes and most of all he wasn’t afraid to stick his neck out and actually propose something interesting - he hypothesized and speculated, and as a result, for the first time, general medieval history found a wide popular audience for the first time. Sure, he was sweeping. Yes, he generalized - but by painting with broad stokes he stirred up dialogue, discussion, controversy and attention about what had been a hermetically sealed subject accessible mainly to Latinists and academics - he was really one of the first modern scholars to take a stab at a comparative history of civilizations, i.e. world history (a subject/genre which still hasn’t recovered from the fragmental studies inflicted on us by the twin shadows of post-modernity and cultural relativism). His ethos for historiography : go big, or go home. This, in turn, inspired the vast synthesizing of Arnold J. Toynbee’s 12v. Study of History & Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West.
1 Belgium, of course, didn’t actually exist as a nation state until its separation from the Netherlands in 1830 - but the elite of the newly created polity felt there was some antecedent to their struggle, specifically with the feudal region of Flanders. Pirenne’s appointed task was to lay the foundation for a national past.
2 In the 1950s, any doctoral student in European History who walked into a final exam without a firm grasp on Pirenne’s two major theses was quite simply doomed. This isn’t to say he didn’t have his critics of course, many historians (most notably Yale medieval scholar Robert Lopez) based their whole careers on debunking his books.
3 Truth be told, archeology hasn’t been very kind to any of Pirenne’s theses, as his evidential sources draw mostly upon primary written records and numismatics. Contrary to his early writings, most work in the field shows a great deal of urban continuity between the late Roman and early medieval period. In addition, his insistence on the importance of international trade for city-building, has simply not held up to scrutiny. Regional trade markets, along the Rhine, in southern England, etc., provided ample foundation for numerous medieval cultures. See Norman Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages: The lives, work and ideals of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century (NY: Morrow, 1991)
4 Pirenne apparently first arrived at this conception - that Mohammed ‘created’ the conditions in Europe for Charlemagne - while he was interred in the German POW camp. It became his most poetical and insightful work, famous as much for its prose as its postulation. A glaring irony: Marc Bloch, Pirenne’s most eloquent student and fine historian in his own right, also composed his most profound treatise, The Historian’s Craft, while a German prisoner of war. Bloch, tragically, did not walk away from his captivity however, and was executed for his role in the French Resistance.

H. Pirenne. Early democracies in the Low Countries : urban society and political conflict in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance / trans. J.V. Saunders -- New York : Harper & Row, 1963.

------. A history of Europe / introd. by Jan-Albert Goris. Garden city, N.Y., Doubleday 1958

------. Medieval cities : their origins and the revival of trade / trans. Frank D. Halsey. -- Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1946 printing.

------. Mohammed and Charlemagne / trans. B. Miall - New York : Barnes and Noble, 1939.

------. Economic and social history of medieval Europe / New York, Harcourt, Brace and company, 1937.

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