Henri Pirenne

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Henri Pirenne (1862-1935) was the most influential historian of Belgium. A medievalist of Walloon descent, he wrote a masterful multivolume history of Belgium in French and became a national hero. Historians continue to debate his influential theories about medieval history.


At the University of Liège he was a student of Godefroid Kurth (1847-1916). He became Professor of History at the University of Ghent in 1886, a post he held until the end of his teaching career, in 1930. After the Great War he was the most prominent and influential historian in Belgium, receiving numerous honors and committee assignments. Pirenne was a close friend of German historian Karl Lamprecht (1856-1915), until they broke during the war when Lamprecht headed a mission to invite Belgians to collaborate with Germany's long-term goals. Pirenne was a leader of Belgian passive resistance in the war; the Germans imprisoned him in Germany (1916–18) as a civilian prisoner of war. He learned Russian from other prisoners and composed a history of Europe. After the war he reflected the widespread disillusionment in Belgium with German culture, while taking a nuanced position which allowed him to criticize German nationalism without excluding Geworks from the scholarly canon. His earlier belief in the inevitable progress of humanity collapsed so he began to accept chance or the fortuitous in history and came to acknowledge the significance of single great individuals at certain points in history.


In his famous essay on Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937) he propounded the "Pirenne thesis"' stressing the continuity of Roman civilization in transalpine Europe after the fall of Rome, arguing real change in Europe came from the rise of Islam, not barbarian invasions.[1] His famous summary said, "Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would have probably never existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable."[2] That is, he rejected the notion that barbarian invasions in the 4th and 5th centuries caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. Instead the Muslim conquest of north Africa made the Mediterranean a barrier, cutting western Europe off from the east, enabling the Carolingians, especially Charlemagne top create a new, distinctly western form of government.

Pirenne maintained his view that profound, long-term social, economic, cultural, and religious movements resulted from profound underlying causes, and this attitude influenced Marc Bloch and the outlook of the French Annales School of social history.

Capitalism originated in Europe's cities, as did democracy, Pirenne argued. His "Merchant Enterprise School" opposed Marxism but shared many of Marx's ideas on the merchant class. Pirenne's theory of a commercial renaissance in towns in the 11th century remains the standard interpretation.

Pirenne's Histoire de Belgique (7 vol., 1899–1932) stressed how traditional and economic forces had drawn Flemings and Walloons together. Pirenne, inspired by patriotic nationalism, presupposed a Belgian unity - social, political, and ethnic - which predated its 1830 independence by centuries. Although a liberal himself, he wrote his seven volume history with such a masterly balance that Catholics, liberals and socialists could quote from it with equal respect in their newspapers or sometimes even in their political gatherings.

Pirenne's history remains crucial to the understanding of Belgium's past, but his notion of a continuity of Belgian civilization forming the basis of political unity has lost favor, however, leaving many Belgian scholars to feel that the creation of their country was a historical accident.[3] Pirenne's argument that the long Spanish rule in the Low Countries had little continuing cultural impact has likewise fallen, in the face of new as research since 1970 in the fields of cultural, military, economic, and political history.[4]


  • Brown, Peter. "Mohammed and Charlemagne by Henri Pirenne." Daedalus 1974 103(1): 25–33. Issn: 0011-5266
  • Cate, James L. "Henri Pirenne (1862-1935)," in S. William Halperin, ed. Some 20th Century Historians-essays on Eminent Europeans, (1961) 1-30.
  • Frank, Kenneth W. "Pirenne Again: A Muslim Viewpoint," The History Teacher, Vol. 26, No. 3 (May, 1993), pp. 371–383 in JSTOR
  • Ganshof, F. L. "Henri Pirenne and Economic History." Economic History Review 1936 6(2): 179–185. Issn: 0013-0117 Fulltext: [ in Jstor]
  • Havighurst, Alfred F. ed. The Pirenne Thesis: Analysis, Criticism, and Revision (1958) readings by scholars
  • Hodges, Richard, and David Whitehouse. Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe: Archaeology and the Pirenne Thesis (1983).
  • Lyon, Bryce. Henri Pirenne: A Biographical and Intellectual Study (1974)
    • Brown, Elizabeth A. R. "Henri Pirenne: a Biographical and Intellectual Study." History and Theory 1976 15(1): 66–76. review of Lyon in Jstor
  • Powicke, F. M. "Henri Pirenne," The English Historical Review, Vol. 51, No. 201 (Jan., 1936), pp. 79–89 in JSTOR

Primary Sources

  • Lyon, Bryce. "The Letters of Henri Pirenne to Karl Lamprecht (1894-1915)." Bulletin De La Commission Royale D'histoire 1966 132(2): 161–231.
  • Pirenne, H. Histoire de Belgique vol2 (1903) online; full text of vol 3 (1907)online; vol 5 (1920) online
  • Pirenne, Henri. "The Formation and Constitution of the Burgundian State (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries)." The American Historical Review. Volume 14, Issue 3, Page 477, Apr 1909 in JSTOR
  • Pirenne, Henri. Belgian Democracy, Its Early History (1910, 1915) 250 pp. history of towns in the Low Countries online free
  • Pirenne, Henri. "The Stages in the Social History of Capitalism," The American Historical Review, 19:494, April 1914 in JSTOR
  • Pirenne, Henri. Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade (1927) excerpt and text search
  • Pirenne, Henri. Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937). onlineedition
  • Pirenne, Henri. Economic and Social History of Modern Europe (1936), online edition
  • Pirenne, Jacques-Henri, ed. "'Reflexions D'un Solitaire' by Henri Pirenne." Bulletin De La Commission Royale D'histoire 1994 160(3-4): 143–257. Issn: 0001-415x first publication of his wartime prison journal.


  1. The thesis appears in ch 1-2 of Medieval Cities (1925)
  2. the quote appears in Medieval Cities p.27
  3. Jean Stengers, "La Belgique, Un Accident De L'histoire?" Revue de l'université De Bruxelles 1989 (3-4): 17-34. Issn: 0770-0962
  4. Geoffrey Parker, "New Light on an Old Theme: Spain and the Netherlands 1550-1650." European History Quarterly 1985 15(2): 219-236. Issn: 0265-6914