Henri Pirenne – Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe

Henri Pirenne – Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe

Though written before Mohammed and Charlemagne, it continues the Pirenne thesis up through the 15th century.

Trade never stopped during the medieval period, but it was geographically confined for political, military, and religious reasons. Eastern goods such as cloths and especially spices all but disappeared from Europe. The ultra-high prices merchants could command for these goods made remaining long-distance trade very lucrative.

When political and cultural change in the Near East eventually let more trade through, it quickly led to the birth of modern finance and banking—though Europe’s own cultural restrictions, such as prohibitions on usury and a popular disdain for commerce, slowed the process.

It also led to both the rise and decline of the Champagne Fairs and similar big annual events. Long distance trade went from almost nothing to enough to support large annual fairs, then finally became commonplace enough to make faraway goods available year-round in every city, making the fairs obsolete. In a weird way, both the rise and the fall of the Champagne fairs were evidence of progress.

Italy, especially Venice, and the North Sea traders from the cities comprising the Hanseatic League were some of the biggest drivers of the economic revival. It is not a coincidence that the Renaissance began around this time.


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