Pirenne, Henri. MEDIEVAL CITIES.

Henri Pirenne

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 1, 1999

I just finished reading: MEDIEVAL CITIES by Henri Pirenne. My copy is a paperback published in 1956 from the 1925 original.

This is an excellent book. In it one will find the details and defense of at least the following central theses:

  1. Fundamental cause of the Dark Ages was the loss of trade in Europe associated with loss of the Mediterranean when Islam became a power and Rome fell after 460 AD (and after the death of Mohammed).
  2. Slowly from 500 to about 900, life in central Europe fell to utter subsistence.
  3. Two pressures led to the re-development of trade (and access to the Mediterranean).
    1. Venice, which was never part of "Europe" except by Geography. All during the Dark Ages it was associated with the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople (Istanbul), and continued its association with this eastern Christine empire via the sea.
    2. Scandinavian adventurers who also established sea trade with the East and Muslims.
  4. Trade created traders, who slowly emerged as:
    1. A middle class.
    2. A class needing cities in which to congregate, manufacture and trade.
  5. Until about the 11th century there had only been three classes:
    1. Clergy
    2. Nobles
      These two constituting a tiny segment of the populace.
    3. Rural serfs, locked to the land, and producing survival agriculture to support themselves and the other two classes in survival style.
  6. The growth of the middle class and the cities ended up impacting all three other classes.
    1. Clergy and nobles saw their old world give way to a new more democratic sharing of power with the merchant middle class.
    2. Little by little the peasants were drawn into this system, and gradually ceased to be serfs and became free peasants (yeomen).

These are roughly the main lines of the story. The details are utterly fascinating. It is also incredible of how slowly the changes took place. This was in some way related to the very slow growth of population. Medieval Europe didn't have many people and it took centuries for the populations to rise. But no matter what, change and development was phenomenally slow.

We see changes just skyrocket in speed from the Industrial Revolution until now, or at least it so seems.

Great book. I highly recommend it.


So what? What does it bring to my mind?

First of all just a better understanding of our development. As I began reading this book I could hardly believe that I had never really asked the questions:

Secondly, I began to look at Venice in a whole new light and would like to know more about this fascinating and odd-man-out place.

Further, I was intrigued at how the Medieval cities, at least on Pirenne's account, were similar in significant ways to the Greek city states of the classical era and gave rise to the democratic impulse that slowly developed into modern times.

Anyone else have thoughts on these or related topics?

I think this will next lead me to go back again and reread THE CANTERBURY TALES. I did this again a few years ago after reading Barbara Tuckman's book on the 14th century, A DISTANT MIRROR. I think Chaucer will mean much more to me this round than before.

Bob Corbett bcorbett@netcom.com

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett bcorbett@netcom.com