Henri Pirenne

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Pirenne, Henri


Born Dec. 23, 1862, in Verviers; died Oct. 24, 1935, in Brussels. Belgian historian.

From 1886 to 1930, Pirenne was a professor at the University of Ghent, where he served as rector from 1919 to 1921. He was a member of the Belgian Royal Academy of Sciences, Literature, and Fine Arts. The focal point of his scholarly research was the socioeconomic history of the Middle Ages in Western Europe. In working out the problem of the rise and development of the medieval city and its institutions, Pirenne developed the theory that the cities had originated as merchant settlements (Medieval Cities, 1927; in Russian translation, Srednevekovye goroda i voz-rozhdenie torgovli, 1941). He exaggerated the role of the merchant class and of trade in the historical process.

The problem of the origin of the Belgian nation is the core of Pirenne’s fundamental work, The History of Belgium… (vols. 1–7, 1900–32, covering up to 1914; reissued beginning in 1972; Russian translation of parts of the work, Srednevekovye goroda Bel’gii, 1937, and Niderlandskaia revoliutsiia, 1937). The underlying thesis of The History of Belgium is the unity of the socioeconomic development of the various Belgian regions. Based on this thesis, Pirenne sought to demonstrate the historical unity of the Belgian nation and show how the history of the Belgian state conforms to historical laws.

Pirenne was one of the most prominent figures in the polemic over the character of the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages—a controversy that developed in bourgeois medieval studies in the 1920’s and 1930’s. His conception of economic development during this period, which he defined in Muhammad and Charlemagne (1937), was an outgrowth of his idea that foreign trade plays a paramount role in the historical process. He linked a critical moment in Western European social history with the Arab conquests of the seventh-eighth centuries, which put an end to the Mediterranean transit trade between Western Europe and the East. As a result, the subsistence economy became the foundation of economic life in the eighth century, and urban life declined. Trade and the cities revived in the 11th century, when the Arabs were ousted from the Mediterranean area. Pirenne linked the development of capitalism with the rise of the medieval city, defining capitalism very loosely and dating its first stage of development (in Flanders and northern Italy) as early as the late 11th and 12th centuries. Accordingly, he viewed the social relations of the medieval city as more modern than they had actually been.

Pirenne’s theoretical and methodological views, which basically remained within the confines of positivism, were characterized by eclecticism, pluralism, and a tendency to inject psychological considerations into the historical process. At the same time, he recognized the existence of historical laws and posed problems of great historical importance. Pirenne founded a school of historians in Belgium and greatly influenced Western European medieval studies. However, his conceptions and his periodization of socioeconomic development have recently come under criticism in bourgeois historiography.


Sadretdinov, G. K. “Teoretiko-metodologicheskie osnovy istoricheskoi kontseptsii Anri Pirenna.” In the collection Trudy Tomskogo gos. un-ta, vol. 187. (History series.)
Metodologicheskie i istoriograficheskie voprosy istoricheskoi nauki, fasc. 4. Tomsk, 1966.
Bloch, M. “Henri Pirenne.” Revue historique, 1935, vol. 176, no. 359.
Ganshot, F. L. “Pirenne (Henri).” In Biographie nationale, vol. 30; supplement, vol. 2, fasc. 2. Brussels, 1959.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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(10) Inherited from the first propositions of Marc Bloch and Henri Pirenne in the 1920s (Henri Pirenne, 'De la methode comparative en histoire', in Compte rendu du V congres international des sciences historiques, ed.
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Historians specializing in the Middle Ages honor their American colleague Lyon with 14 essays on the legacy of Henri Pirenne, constitutional and legal history of England and the continent, and the Low Countries and economic history.
So, as the great French historian Henri Pirenne pointed out long ago, Islam cut off the European West from direct contact with Greece and her heritage.
Lobjectif avoue de l'ouvrage, surtout dans les premiers chapitres, est de transcender la vision economiste d'Henri Pirenne, poids lourd de l'historiographie des villes beiges et dont les hypotheses ont durablement marque l'histoire economique occidentale (Mahomet et Charlemagne).
In The Historian's Craft, Marc Bloch recounts how his mentor Henri Pirenne led the two medievalists to the new city hall in Stockholm instead of a museum.
In contrast, the leading Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, who spent much of the First World War in prison, gave a lecture in 1923 entitled 'On the Comparative Method in History'.