Pirenne, Henri

Pirenne, Henri

(äNrē` pērĕn`), 1862–1935, Belgian historian. He was for many years a professor of history at the Univ. of Ghent. A leader of Belgian passive resistance in World War I, he was held (1916–18) as a hostage by the Germans. In his History of Belgium (tr., 7 vol., 1899–1932), he showed how traditional and economic forces had drawn Flemings and Walloons together. In Mohammed and Charlemagne (tr. 1939) he attributed the collapse of late Roman–Christian civilization to the spread of Islam; this thesis raised much controversy among historians. Pirenne emphasized the historical role of the capitalist middle class, and in Medieval Cities (tr. 1925) he revolutionized accepted views by attributing the origins of medieval cities to the revival of trade. Other works include Belgian Democracy: Its Early History (tr. 1915) and Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe (tr. 1936).


See studies by A. F. Havighurst, ed. (rev. ed. 1969) and B. P. Lyon (1972).

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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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.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.


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