Henri Pirenne – Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade

Henri Pirenne – Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade

Of Pirenne’s three best-known books, also including Mohammed and Charlemagne and Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, this one, from 1925, is probably the strongest on its analysis of institutions and how they changed over time. The Pirenne Thesis is essentially that economic isolation caused the downfall of Roman civilization. Not barbarians, or Christianity, or decadence, as many other historians argue. It was a combination of economics and closed cultural attitudes among Europe’s Mediterranean neighbors. Centuries later, a gradual return to economic and cultural openness led to the high medieval ages, and eventually the Renaissance. Pirenne’s line of thought can easily be extended to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Information Age, and today’s debates over trade and immigration, where Pirenne has most influenced this writer.

This book focuses on the rise of the city. Cities require a lot of support, and do not emerge fully formed out of a vacuum. They have numerous economic and cultural preconditions. One of the major ones was shaking off feudal shackles. This was a long, gradual process with many degrees. It was a spectrum, not an on/off switch. City residents were often former serfs; remember the famous saying, “city air makes one fee.” This was a legal concept, not just an attitude. An escaped serf who lived a year and a day without being captured was legally freed.

City residents answered to neither king nor lord, at least during the period Pirenne studies in this book. But there was more to the story of cities than a simple rejection of feudal authority. City workers did not grow their own food. They relied on specialized work and trade with outside farmers to put food on the table. This was not possible without requisite population density, infrastructure, and a cultural openness to commerce and technology.

Most societies are neophobic; city life required almost a neophilia. Once this happened to a small degree, a virtuous circle emerged. Improved productivity made people more prosperous and more accepting of bourgeois social norms. This further reinforced the process, and so on. This mishmash of factors, with arrows of causality pointing every which way, are why people began to live in cities rather than farms and villages, eventually paving the way for modernity.

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