Henri Pirenne

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Henri Pirenne (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 prominent public intellectual. Pirenne made a lasting contribution to the study of cities that was a controversial interpretation of the end of Roman civilization and the rebirth of medieval urban culture. 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.


  • As a matter of fact, a minority can transform a people when it wishes to dominate it effectively, when it has only contempt for it, regarding it as fit only for exploitation; as was the case with the Normans in England, the Musulmans wherever they appeared, and even the Romans in the conquered provinces. But the Germans wishes neither to destroy nor to exploit the empire. Far from despising it, they admired it. They did not confront it with any superior moral strength. Their heroic period ended with their settlement.
    • pp. 37-38
  • The expansion of Islam was thus unable to absorb the whole of the Mediterranean. It encircled the Mediterranean on the East, the South, and the West, but it was unable to obtain a hold upon the North. The ancient Roman sea had become the frontier between Islam and Christianity. All the old Mediterranean provinces conquered by the Musulmans gravitated henceforth toward Baghdad.
    At the same time the Orient was cut off from the Occident. The bond which the Germanic invasion had left intact was severed. Byzantium was henceforth merely the centre of a Greek Empire which could no longer pursue Justinian's policy. It was reduced to defending its last possessions. Its farthest Western outposts were Naples, Venice, Gaeta and Amalfi. The fleet still enabled it to remain in touch with them, and thus prevented the Eastern Mediterranean from becoming a Musulman lake. But the Western Mediterranean was precisely that. Once the great means of communication, it was now an insuperable barrier.
    Islam had shattered the Mediterranean unity which the Germanic invasions had left intact.
    This was the most essential event of European history which had occurred since the Punic Wars. It was the end of the classic tradition. It was the beginning of the Middle Ages, and it happened at the very moment when Europe was on the way to becoming Byzantinized.
    • pp. 163-164

Quotes about Henri Pirenne

  • Once seen, Pirenne could not be forgotten. He looked like, and indeed was, one of those big, vivacious burghers whom the Flemish artists of the seventeenth century liked to paint. His face in repose was somewhat heavy; the features did not quite fit their setting of trim beard and hair brushed smoothly back from his forehead. But when his interest was aroused and he began to talk, any impressions of this kind were forgotten. He was a most exuberant man and seemed to put all his strength into whatever he said or did. He could be overwhelming, though without intention; he was never overbearing, and one never felt the least frightened of him. It would not be surprising to learn that he had enemies or ruffled the feelings of the susceptible, but he was essentially kind-hearted, friendly, generous. His strength and vitality, not design, made him redoubtable; but he was single-minded, and never tried to be impressive. His services to Belgium and his unpleasant experiences during the war had made him, so to speak, a chartered freeman of his country.
    • F. M. Powicke, 'Henri Pirenne', The English Historical Review, Vol. 51, No. 201 (January 1936), pp. 88-89
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