Henri Pirenne

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Pirenne, Henri



Henri Pirenne (1863–1935) was a Belgian historian. After studying under Godefroid Kurth and Paul Fredericq, he received his doctorate of letters at the University of Liege in 1883. In 1885 he was appointed to a teaching position at that university but the following year moved to the University of Ghent. There he taught until 1930 and between 1919 and 1921 acted as rector of the university. He taught medieval history and from 1893 on held the first chair of economic history in Belgium.

Several circumstances contributed to Pirenne’s interest in the social aspects of history. He had personal experience with the Walloon woolen industry, since his father managed a factory in the town of Verviers, and he became aware of the acuteness of social distress in Belgian industry at the time that he completed his university studies. His interest in social and economic history was enhanced by postgraduate studies in Germany with Gustav Schmoller and through his acquaintance with Karl Lamprecht; his contact with Arthur Giry in Paris in 1884–1885 strengthened his interest in urban history.

Pirenne worked out a synthesis of social, economic, and political factors in the study of the history of his own country (1900–1932), especially of certain mass movements. Thus, he ascribed the process of political unification of the areas on opposite sides of the language frontier to their similar economic and social structure. This does not mean that he was a historical materialist: important individuals play a significant part in his explanation of events, as does chance.

Throughout his career, Pirenne studied the history of towns. In his first important contribution to this field (1893–1895), he rejected previous explanations of the origin of towns. His own theory was that towns developed as the result of the revival of commerce in the tenth and eleventh centuries and that their original nuclei were settlements of merchants. When he later, in 1927, wrote Les villes du moyen age, characteristically subtitled Essai d’histoire economique et sociale, he remained loyal to his original theories but developed certain aspects of the subject more fully. He expanded especially the discussion of Italian and Russian towns.

In order to place in proper perspective the effect of the development of the cloth industry on the growth of Flemish towns, Pirenne decided to write a history of that industry. A preliminary step was the collection and publication of the available source materials, and this was accomplished by Pirenne in collaboration with Georges Espinas (1906–1924). Pirenne himself, however, was never to write the history of the industry; others did so, piecemeal, according to his guidelines.

Pirenne pioneered in historical demography. His study of the population of Ypres in the fifteenth century set the pattern for such studies in Belgium (1903). Another of his important intellectual contributions was contained in his article “The Stages in the Social History of Capitalism” (1914), which aroused great interest in international historical circles at the beginning of this century; it presented the theory that the evolution of capitalism did not follow a straight line but rather a cyclical pattern, in which each phase of development toward freedom and progress was followed by one characterized by regulation and conservatism, which was in turn succeeded by a phase in which a generation of homines novi reintroduced progressive tendencies.

Pirenne’s comprehensive interpretation of medieval social and economic history in his Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe (1933) wa to influence economic historians for at least a quarter of a century after his death. Two aspects of this work deserve particular mention: the importance of the role ascribed to long-distance trade as the primary stimulus to economic evolution and the characterization of the end of the Middle Ages as a period of contraction.

The scope of Pirenne’s influence may be inferred from his close connection with the two most important Continental periodicals devoted to social and economic history, the Vierteljahrschrift fur Sozial–und Wirtschaftsgeschichte and the Annale d’histoire economique et sociale: both these journals published important articles by Pirenne in their earliest issues.

Even after his death, Pirenne attracted considerable attention through his posthumously published book, Mohammed and Charlemagne (1935), in which he suggested that the crucial break between antiquity and the Middle Ages did not occur in th fifth century but rather about the year 700, when the Muslims had conquered the southern shores of the Mediterranean. The theory was based chiefly on economic considerations and gave rise to heated controversy.

H. van Werveke

[Directly related are the entriesCapitalism; City. Other relevant material may be found inHistory, article oneconomic history.]


(1893–1895) 1939 L’origine des constitutions urbaines au moyen âge. Volume 1, pages 1–110 in Henri Pirenne, Les villes et les institutions urbaines. Paris: Alcan; Brussels: Nouvelle Société d’Éditions.

1900–1932 Histoire de Belgique. 7 vols. Brussels: Lamertin.

(1903) 1951 Les dénombrements de la population d’Ypres au XVe siécle (1412–1506). Pages 458–488 in Henri Pirenne, Histoire économique de Voccident médiéval. Bruges (Belgium): Desclee de Brouwer.

1906–1924 Espinas, Georges; and Pirenne, Henri (editors) Recueil de documents relatifs à I’histoire de Vindustrie drapiére en Flandre. 4 vols. Brussels: Kiessling. → Additions to this work were published in Volume 93 of the Academie Roy ale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-arts de Belgique, Brussels, Commission Royale d’Histoire, Bulletin.

(1910) 1915 Belgian Democracy: Its Early History. London and New York: Longmans. → First published as Les anciennes démocraties des Pays-Bas. A paperback edition under the title Early Democracies in the Low Countries was published in 1963 by Harper.

1914 The Stages in the Social History of Capitalism. American Historical Review 19:494–515.

(1927) 1956 Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → First published as Les villes du moyen age: Essai d’histoire économique et sociale.

1932 Guilds, European. Volume 7, pages 208–214 in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

(1933) 1936 Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe. London: Trubner. → First published in French. A paperback edition was published in 1956 by Harcourt. A new, revised French edition with a critical bibliography by H. van Werveke was published in 1963 by Presses Universitaires de France.

(1935) 1958 Mohammed and Charlemagne. London:(1935) 1958 Mohammed and Charlemagne. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Barnes & Noble. → First published, posthumously, in French. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by World.

(1936) 1956 A History of Europe: From the Invasions to the XVI Century. 8th ed. New York: University Books. → First published, posthumously, in French.


Ganshof, F. L. 1959 Henri Pirenne. Volume 30, columns 671–723 in Académie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-arts de Belgique, Brussels, Biographie nationale. Brussels: Bruylant.

Henri Pirenne: Hommages et souvenirs. 2 vols. 1938 Brussels: Nouvelle Société d’Editions.

Lyon, Bryce 1960 L’oeuvre de Henri Pirenne apres vingt-cinq ans. Moyen age 66:437–493.

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