Henri Pirenne

Henri Pirenne (23 December 1862–24 October 1935)

Today is the 159th anniversary of the birth of Henri Pirenne (23 December 1862–24 October 1935), who was born on this date in 1862.

Pirenne was an historian first and foremost, and Pirenne’s few comments on historiography represent only a minute fraction of his work. Pirenne is known for his work on medieval European urbanism and especially for the Pirenne Thesis (developed in his Mohammed and Charlemagne), which was that the Roman world and its orientation to the Mediterranean was transformed into the medieval European world, oriented toward the Atlantic, due to the rise of Islam, and not due to the collapse of Roman political and military institutions. Here is a paragraph from Pirenne’s Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe that gives the flavor of the Pirenne Thesis:

“It was only the abrupt entry of Islam on the scene, in the course of the seventh century, and the conquest of the eastern, southern and western shores of the great European lake, which altered the position, with consequences which were to influence the whole course of subsequent history. Henceforth, instead of the age-old link which it had hitherto been between the East and the West, the Mediterranean became a barrier. Though the Byzantine Empire, thanks to its navy, succeeded in repulsing the Moslem offensive from the Aegean Sea, the Adriatic and the southern shores of Italy, the Tyrrhenian Sea fell completely under the domination of the Saracens.”

Pirenne’s remarkable work A History of Europe, was written while Pirenne was interned by the Germans during the First World War, and without access to his library or indeed to any library. The work was written out of Pirenne’s memory. Nevertheless, it is, in my opinion, among the greatest of the histories of medieval Europe, if not the greatest single work on the period. Of Pirenne’s experiences during the First World War, Bryce Lyon wrote:

“Prior to 1914 Pirenne, the industrious and productive historian, had been buffered from historical realities. Despite his imaginative, innovative, and open mind he was so involved in his research and writing that he seemed to gloss over the deficiencies of the historical profession, to ignore or to rationalise the foreboding incidents in the decade before 1914, to remain untouched and untroubled by the naval and military competition of the great powers, and to refuse to admit the impulse in Germany towards war. In August 1914 Pirenne was beset with all sorts of historical realities which he had to face and live with for four years. These historical realities forced him to re-evaluate his long-held view of historical methodology, of the objectives of history, and of how well the historical profession had performed. In these reflections Pirenne admitted that to write history far removed from what Thomas Hardy called ‘The Madding Crowd,’ far removed from historical reality, is quite different from writing it after active involvement in historical realities.”

I have been unable to locate a copy of Pirenne’s Réflexions d’un solitaire (whether in the original French or an English translation), which Bryce Lyon discusses in the above-quoted essay, and which he notes discusses methodological themes. However, there is an essay by Pirenne, “What Are Historians Trying to Do?” which originally appeared in Methods in Social Science, edited by Stuart A. Rice, and included, in an edited form, in Hans Meyerhoff’s The Philosophy of History in Our Time: An Anthology.

After discussing the relationship between history on the one hand, and, on the other, sociology and psychology (everyone in the first half of the twentieth century felt obligated to do this, and Pirenne apparently was no exception), and the imperfection of documents and the historical record, Pirenne says, “To construct history is to narrate it.” In his following discussion of historical construction he makes this interesting remark:

“All historical construction — which amounts to saying all historical narrative — rests upon a postulate: that of the eternal identity of human nature. One cannot comprehend men’s actions at all unless one assumes in the beginning that their physical and moral beings have been at all periods what they are today. Past societies would remain unintelligible to us if the natural needs which they experienced and the psychical forces which stimulated them were qualitatively different from ours. How are the innumerable differences that humanity presents in time and space to be explained if one does not consider them as changing nuances of a reality which is in its essence always and everywhere the same?”

It would make for an interesting exercise to develop this idea and to comment upon it in detail. Implicit here is the Collingwoodian idea of being able to reenact the thoughts of past human beings, but Pirenne goes to a deeper level and explicitly formulates the postulate upon which a Collingwoodian method implicitly relies. This presents an implicit challenge to the prehistorian, who would reconstruct the history of human ancestors (which, as distinct species, would not have been the same as us, whether physically or psychically), and may one day present a challenge to those who could compare human history to the history of post-human successor species and their societies.

Further Resources




The Pirenne Thesis

Lyon, B. (1997). 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






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