Henri Pirenne (French: [piʁɛn]; 23 December 1862 – 24 October
1935) was a
Belgian 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 to the
Germans who occupied
Belgium in World War I.
Henri Pirenne's reputation today rests on three contributions to
European history: for what has become known as the Pirenne Thesis,
concerning origins of the
Middle Ages in reactive state formation and
shifts in trade; for a distinctive view of Belgium's medieval history;
and for his model of the development of the medieval city.
Pirenne argued that profound social, economic, cultural, and religious
movements in the long term resulted from equally profound underlying
causes, and this attitude influenced
Marc Bloch and the outlook of the
Annales School of social history. Though Pirenne had his
opponents, notably Alfons Dopsch who disagreed on essential points,
several recent historians of the
Middle Ages have taken Pirenne's main
theses, however much they are modified, as starting points.[citation
1.1 Early years
2 Theses and works
2.1 On the formation of European towns
2.4 Medieval Cities
2.5 A History of Europe
4 See also
7 External links
Pirenne was born in Verviers, near the city of Liège, in south-east
He studied at the
University of Liège
University of Liège where he was a student of
Godefroid Kurth (1847–1916). He became Professor of History at the
University of Ghent
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.
The Maison Vivroux in
Verviers where Pirenne was born in 1862
Belgium was invaded by the German Empire and placed under
German military occupation. How involved Pirenne was in the Belgian
World War I
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
University of Ghent to continue teaching. Pirenne's
son Pierre had been killed in the fighting at the Battle of the Yser
in October 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, and finally in Jena,
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
History of Europe
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.
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.
At the conclusion of the war, Henry Pirenne stopped his work on A
History of Europe
History of Europe in the middle of the 16th century. He returned home
and took up his life. He died at Uccle,
Brussels 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
Theses and works
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.
View of the city of
In brief, the Pirenne Thesis, an early essay in economic history
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 as fortresses, episcopal seats, abbeys and occasional royal
residences of the peripatetic palatium. When trade revived in the late
tenth and eleventh centuries, merchants and artisans were drawn to the
existing centres, forming suburbs 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 had dated the
Middle Ages from the fall of
Western Roman Empire
Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, a theory Edward Gibbon
famously put forward in the 18th century, and 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
8th century. He challenged the notion that Germanic barbarians had
Western Roman Empire
Western Roman Empire to end and he challenged the notion
that the end of the
Western Roman Empire
Western Roman Empire should be equated with the
end of the office of emperor in Europe, which occurred in 476. He
pointed out the essential continuity of the economy of the Roman
Mediterranean even after the barbarian 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
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" 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 and patterns of settlement below the
political overlay as reaching as late as the eleventh century.
7th-century gold dinar of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan
According to Pirenne the real break in Roman history occurred in
the 8th century as a result of Arab expansion. Islamic conquest of the
area of today's south-eastern Turkey, Syria, Palestine, North Africa,
Portugal 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, western Europe had become almost entirely
agrarian at a subsistence level, with no long-distance trade.
In a summary, Pirenne stated that "Without Islam, the Frankish Empire
would probably never have 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
Mediterranean a barrier, cutting western Europe off from the east,
enabling the Carolingians, especially Charlemagne, to create a new,
distinctly western form of government. 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
stopped after the 7th century, indicating a loss of access to
wealthier parts of the world. Papyrus, made only in Egypt, no longer
appeared in northern Europe after the 7th century; writing reverted to
using animal skins, indicating its economic isolation.
Pirenne's thesis has not convinced most historians of the period, but
they generally agree it has stimulated debate on the Early Middle
Ages, and has provided a provocative example of how periodization
would work. Later certain historians have argued against the
Pirenne Thesis in light of new archaeological findings.
Main article: Histoire de Belgique (book)
Pirenne's other major idea concerned the nature of medieval Belgium.
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, which now include the
Luxembourg and parts of north-east France. Furthermore,
Belgium lies athwart the great linguistic divide between French and
Dutch. The unity of the country might appear accidental, something
which Pirenne sought to disprove in his History of Belgium
(1899–1932) by tracing Belgium's history back to the Roman period.
His ideas, promoting a form of
Belgian nationalism, have also proved
Henri Pirenne donated the majority of his personal
library to the
Academia Belgica in Rome. In 1933, he was awarded the
Francqui Prize 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.
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. Some
have argued that the creation of their country was a historical
chance. 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 research since 1970 in the fields of cultural,
military, economic, and political history.
Pirenne was 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 in 1922. In this book, he contends that through the
period from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, 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 and the development of that class's characteristic abode, the
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
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.
Pirenne, Henri. Histoire de Belgique (7 vols.) (1899–1932)
Pirenne, Henri (1909). "The Formation and Constitution of the
Burgundian State (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries)" (PDF). The
American Historical Review. 14 (3): 477–502. doi:10.2307/1836443.
Belgian Democracy, Its Early History (1910, 1915)
250 pp. History of towns in the
Low Countries online free
Pirenne, Henri. "The Stages in the Social History of Capitalism", The
American Historical Review, 19:494, April 1914 in JSTOR
Pirenne, Henri. Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of
Pirenne, Henri. A
History of Europe
History of Europe (1936).
Pirenne, Henri. Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe
Pirenne, Henri. Mohammed and
Pirenne, Henri. "Reflexions d'un Solitaire". (edited by Jacques-Henri
Pirenne) in Bulletin De La Commission Royale D'histoire 1994
160(3–4): 143–257. ISSN 0001-415X. First publication of
his wartime prison journal.
Pirenne, Henri (1969). Medieval cities: their origins and the revival
of trade. Frank D. Halsey (trans.). Princeton University Press.
p. 253. ISBN 0-691-00760-8.
Lyon, Bryce; Lyon, Mary (1976). The Journal de guerre of Henri
Pirenne. Amsterdam: North-Holland. ISBN 9780720404432.
Paul Fredericq – historian, regarded as the Flemish equivalent of
^ Dopsch, The Economic and Social Foundations of European Civilization
^ Pirenne, "L'origine des constitutions urbaines au Moyen Age", in
Revue Historique, 1895.
^ Henry Pirenne (1937). Mohammed and
Charlemagne English translation
by Bernard Miall, 1939. From Internet Archive. The thesis was
originally laid out in an article published in Revue belge de
Philologie et d'Histoire 1 (1922), pp. 77–86.
^ E.g. by A. B. Hibbert, "The Origins of the Medieval Town Patriciate"
Past and Present No. 3 (February 1953:15–27).
^ In this context, K. Randsborg, The First Millennium AD in Europe and
the Mediterranean: an archaeological essay (1991) is cited by Averil
Mediterranean World in
Late Antiquity AD 395–600
1993:4; the extent to which the new data and interpretations of
processual archaeology have altered modern perceptions is the theme of
Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse, Mohammed,
Charlemagne and the
Origins of Europe: archaeology and the Pirenne thesis, 1983.
^ Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne; the thesis appears in chapters
1–2 of Medieval Cities (1925)
^ the quote appears in Medieval Cities p.27
^ Philip Daileader; Philip Whalen (2010). French Historians
1900–2000: New Historical Writing in Twentieth-Century France. John
Wiley & Sons. p. 496. ISBN 9781444323665.
^ David Abulafia (2011). The
Mediterranean in History. Getty
Publications. p. 219. ISBN 9781606060575.
^ Freedman, Paul H. (2011). "The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000 —
Lecture 17: The Crucial Seventh Century". Open Yale Courses.
^ Stengers, Jean (1989). "La Belgique, Un Accident De L'histoire?".
Revue de l'université De Bruxelles. 1989 (3–4): 17–34.
^ Parker, Geoffrey (1985). "New Light on an Old Theme:
Spain and the
Netherlands 1550–1650". European History Quarterly. 15 (2):
219–236. doi:10.1177/026569148501500205. ISSN 0265-6914.
^ Pirenne, Henri (1902-01-01). Histoire de Belgique. Bruxelles :
^ Pirenne, Henri (1915-01-01).
Belgian Democracy: Its Early History.
Manchester University Press.
^ Pirenne, Henri (2010-05-04). The Stages in the Social History of
^ Pirenne, Henri (1956-01-01). Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the
Revival of Trade. Princeton University Press.
^ Pirenne, Henri (2008-05-01). History of Europe. Read Books.
^ Pirenne, Henri (1937-01-01). Economic and Social History of Medieval
Europe. Harcourt, Brace.
^ henri pirenne mohammed charlemagne.
^ Lyon, Bryce (1997-09-01). "Henri Pirenne's Réflexions d'un
solitaire and his re-evaluation of history". Journal of Medieval
History. 23 (3): 285–299. doi:10.1016/S0304-4181(97)00014-6.
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)
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
Lyon, Bryce. "The Letters of
Henri Pirenne to Karl Lamprecht
(1894–1915)." Bulletin De La Commission Royale D'histoire 1966
Brown, Elizabeth A. R. "Henri Pirenne: a Biographical and Intellectual
Study." History and Theory 1976 15(1): 66–76. review of Lyon in
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
Tollebeek, Jo. "At the crossroads of nationalism: Huizinga, Pirenne
Low Countries in Europe," European Review of History (2010)
17#2 pp. 187–215.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Henri Pirenne.
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
"Henry Pirenne". In
Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Digitheque Henri Pirenne
A review of Mohammed and Charlemagne
Henri Pirenne at Project Gutenberg
Works by or about
Henri Pirenne at Internet Archive
ISNI: 0000 0001 1059 9545
BNF: cb13091606d (data)