By Henri Pirenne.
Translated from the French by Bernard Miall.
New York: Barnes and Noble, 1956 from 1935 original.
293 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2004

Five years ago I read Henri Pirenne’s earlier book MEDIEVAL CITIES and found it just fascinating. There his fundamental thesis concerned the Medieval world and centered around his contention that the control of water ways, the rivers and the Mediterranean Sea, shaped the nature of the cities.

In this more mature work Pirenne takes a broader historical claim, arguing that, as the editor claims:

“This last work of the great Belgian scholar Henri Pirenne offered a new and revolutionary interpretation of the evolution of Europe from the time of Constantine to that of Charlemagne. Pirenne’s major thesis is that it was the advance of Islam rather than the Germanic invasions that caused the break with antiquity and the consequent decline of Western civilization in the Middle Ages.”

The first section investigates the question of western civilization after the Germanic invasions. Pirenne is at pains to show that while there were important military victories scored by the Germanic tribes, there was little lasting shift in the fundamental culture of Rome. He shows how within a relatively short period of time Germanic peoples were co-opted into Roman culture, intermarried and that the Latin language(s) remained dominant. He argues that fundamentally the Germanic peoples had little desire to destroy the empire, but much preferred to just have a share of the benefits.

He next details several features of life in the European sector of the empire after the invasions to further support the general thesis. The key to the thesis is not that the Germanic tribes were fully absorbed, but that there was no essential change in the structure and culture of the empire, nor any significant decline of economy. He certainly allows some changes including a degree of self-governance and economic independence. He argues that in the Merovingian period (500-751) and the years from the success of the Germanic invasion until Charlemagne that the empire survived in an uneasy union of the original peoples and the invaders and that only very gradually was there any noticeable decline in economy.

To bolster this thesis Pirenne investigates land ownership and administration systems. He contends that while the Roman owners were often replaced by German owners the system of agriculture and land management remained unchanged. More importantly production continued at virtually the same rates not appreciably lessening the wealth of the empire.

The eastern potion of the empire continued to dominate trade via shipping, mainly in the Mediterranean, but even inland served by the rivers. It is important to note the desperate need for imports to the west. Wines, food stuffs, spices and olive oil (for both cooking and lighting) were in desperate need. These things came from Asia and Africa. In exchange the Europeans traded slaves, primarily barbarians from north of the Rhine and textiles and wood for building. Syrians and Jews were the key to this marine tine trade. Trade was centered in the towns, but not in markets, just in the ports.

Critical to this trade was gold since the dominant nature of trade continued to be with money, not barter. Pirenne claims that gold must also have been an important import since there just wasn’t enough gold in circulation to support the trade, and there were no gold mines in the West.

The essential point for him is that life went on much the same as it had before the Germanic invasions, just a change in some of the key players.

To bolster his thesis he turns our attention to intellectual life in the west. Pirenne uses several arguments in this section to conclude his argument that there was relatively little long-term CAUSAL impact on the fall of the empire from the Germanic invasions. The first sentence of this section did cause me a great sense of hilarity. He says:

“It is needless to insist upon the increasing decadence of intellectual life and of the ancient culture after the 3rd century.”

That cracked me up: as though this information is on the tip of the tongue of most of us so much so that it is “needless to insist…” He goes on to make the case intellectual life was in sort of a middle ground between a debt to classical antiquity and a new and somewhat emerging Christian consciousness. His concern is that:

“The Germanic invasions in the West could not and did not in any way alter this state of affairs.”

Though he allows the decadence continued at a somewhat accelerated pace. Nonetheless he cites the significant achievement of Boetius in both his translations of Aristotle and his major work, Consolations of Philosophy which had an impact well into the Middle Ages.

Cassiodorus was another important figure who seems to have first conceived the idea of having the monasteries being centers which would collect and preserve literary works of classical antiquity.

The church also continued a process of change by using Latin more and more in a colloquial manner (as opposed to classical Latin) which allowed the people to better understand Christianity. And art was dominated by a trend toward orientalization rooted in the commercial contacts with Persia, Syria and Egypt. Even the Germanic tribes contributed to this trend with art that they had long had contact with in Russia before the invasions of the south. Another intellectual force that contributed to the maintenance of Roman culture was the legal, governmental and commercial system which required a significant number of people capable of writing in the cursive informal Latin style to manage and maintain those institutions.

In this first half of defense of his thesis Pirenne concludes:

“What the Germans destroyed was not the Empire, but the imperial government in partibus occidentis.”

Britain was a key expectation to this claim, There, Pirenne argues, the changes were much more dramatic and it was Anglo-Saxon culture and life forms that were followed, not Roman ones.

As a parting shot to the more classical view of the role of the Germanic invasions as being the dominant cause of the collapse of the Empire is his view that such historical theses have confused the Merovingian with the later Carolingian period to which he now turns his attention. His has argued in this early part of the book that up to the 7th century there was nothing to really announce the collapse of the culture and significance of the Roman Empire.

Finally Pirenne gets to the pivotal point of his argument with the meteoric rise of Islam and how this changes everything for Europe. He points out that the Byzantine empire and Rome had no fears of an attack from the south. There were no signs. There was nothing in Africa or the Middle East (as we call it today) that would suggest an attack. There was no Hadrian’s wall. If anything it was Byzantine’s important fleet and control of the Mediterranean which assured unfettered trade and transportation.

However, by 634 the Empire was in a depleted situation. It had just concluded a war with Persia and was neither expecting nor prepared for an Islamic attack. The onslaught was fast and massive in territory and power relations quickly changed hands.

Pirenne raises the question: why weren’t the Arabs co-opted and assimilated like the Germans? His reply is that Islam was faith and one that spread with great rapidity. The Muslims didn’t convert. They didn’t even try. Rather, they conquered and imposed their own systems of administration and justice and with them their own language. They did incorporate into their world the science, learning and art of Byzantine, but on their own terms.

Within a short period the Mediterranean became the frontier of Christianity, not the middle of it. Africa was lost and so were Syria and Egypt and all the trade which that represented. In less than 200 years the Mediterranean was completely in the hands of Islam and its northern coast was what was left of the Roman Empire, but in the western Mediterranean not even the coast was in Christian hands.

Constantinople continued to have a great fleet and controlled the Adriatic, and was able to hold Sicily, but the rest was in Muslim hands. As long as the Mediterranean had been open there was a great flow of trade and all the wealth and comfort that went with it. By 700 virtually the entire western Mediterranean and Aegean Sea were closed to the Christian world and Arabian/Syrian/Egyptian and African trade ceased.

“As Ibn-Khaldoun says (with the necessary reservation as regards Byzantium: ‘The Christian could no longer float a plank upon the sea.’”

Papyrus was one of the first things to disappear, only slowly to be replaced by parchment. Spices quickly followed and they, along with perfume, became very dear commodities. African wines and African olive oil ceased to be available and silk was a rarity. In Gaul coins were first adulterated with silver because of the lack of gold, and soon became 100% silver. What was perhaps even more important for economic development was the decline of a professional merchant class with loans at interest which drove economic advancement. Only Jewish merchants, whom the Muslims didn’t bother, were any link to trade. The Byzantine position, while greatly reduced did not suffer the full collapse that Europe did. It still had its fleet and Asian trade.

Extremely important to Byzantium was Venice. It carried on trade with Islam, especially trading Slav slaves and later even Christian slaves for African and Middle Eastern goods. Both Venice and Sicily were allied with Byzantium and traded with Muslims as well as with the Balkans, yet they were bitter enemies of each other.

At the end of this section Pirenne sums up the situation after the rise of Islam:

"The Christian Mediterranean was divided into two basins, the East and the West, surrounded by Islamic countries. These latter, the war of conquest having come to an end by the close of the 9th century, constituted a world apart, self-sufficing, and gravitating toward Baghdad. It was toward this central point that the caravans of Asia made their way, and here ended the great trade route which led to the Baltic, by way of the Volga. It was from Baghdad that produce was exported to Africa and Spain. The Musulmans themselves did not trade with the Christians, but they did not close their ports to the latter. They allowed them to frequent their harbors, to bring them slaves and timber, and to carry away whatever they chose to buy.

"Christian navigation, however, continued active only in the Orient, and the furthermost point of Southern Italy remained in communication with the Orient. Byzantium succeeded in preventing Islam from obtaining the mastery of the sea. Ships continued to sail from Venice along the Adriatic coast and the coast of Greece to the great city on the Bosporus. And further, they did not cease to frequent the Musulman ports of Asia Minor, Egypt, Africa, Sicily and Spain. The ever-increasing prosperity oŁ the Musulman countries, once the period of expansion was over, benefited the maritime cities of Italy. Thanks to this prosperity, in Southern Italy and in the Byzantine Empire an advanced civilization survived, with cities, a gold currency, and professional merchants: in short, a civilization which had retained its ancient foundations.

"In the Occident, on the contrary, the coast from the Gulf of Lyons and the Riviera to the mouth of the Tiber, ravaged by war and the pirates, whom the Christians, having no fleet, were powerless to resist, was now merely a solitude and a prey to piracy. The ports and the cities were deserted. The link with the Orient was severed, and there was no communication with the Saracen coasts. There was nothing but death. The Carolingian Empire presented the most striking contrast with the Byzantine. It was purely an inland power, for it had no outlets. The Mediterranean territories, formerly the most active portions of the Empire, which supported the life of the whole, were now the poorest, the most desolate, the most constantly menaced. For the first time in history the axis of Occidental civilization was displaced towards the North, and for many centuries it remained between the Seine and the Rhine. And the Germanic peoples, which had hitherto played only the negative part of destroyers, were now called upon to play a positive part in the reconstruction of European civilization."

The classic tradition was shattered, because Islam had destroyed the ancient unity of the Mediterranean. With the eruption of the Islamic invasions power relations were dramatically changed. Gaul was cut off from the sea and weakened. In Italy the Lombards had more space since Byzantium was concerned with its eastern and southern fronts. Thus the Lombards could withdrawn more and more from Rome. Yet, at the same time life in the heavily Germanic north and west life was basically a life of antiquity in Europe, albeit in a declining fashion. The Merovingian order was collapsing. With the significant trade and wealth which the Mediterranean trade had allowed, the Merovingian kings had dominated. But with the loss of Spain and the Mediterranean trade was cut and wealth lost. More of the economy rested in the land and the landed aristocracy had more power than the kings. The Merovingian kings tried to form an alliance with the church, but the church itself was in disorganization and was of little help. After the decline of Rome in the West the papacy gave allegiance to the emperor in Constantinople. The papacy in Rome recognized the emperor and in exchange the pope was regarded as the highest level of religious authority in the Empire, superior to any of the eastern religious leaders of Christianity. From 725-726 on a theological/political struggle profoundly weakened the papacy in the Empire. Emperor Leo in Constantinople proclaimed the doctrine of Iconclasty, a doctrine forbidding images. Pope Gregory II rebelled and denounced Iconoclasty as heresy and Byzantine Italy revolted. However, Gregory pulled back from a complete break with Byzantium. In 731 Gregory III excommunicated the image destroyers and the Emperor took away all non-Italian jurisdiction from the papacy reducing it to the status of the bishop of Rome. Still Gregory III did not break with Constantinople.

741 marked a major shift as three key leaders died:

In the meantime St. Boniface had been having huge success in converting large numbers of people to Christianity in the west and north of Europe. Pippin made appeal to the pope to recognize him as the ruler in the west and Pope Zaccharies did, instigating a fuller break with Constantinople and bringing about a final break between Byzantine Christianity and Roman Christianity.

The ascendancy of Pippin marked the end of the Merovingian ear and the rise of the Carolingian period. It involved the alliance of Rome and the Germanic de facto power. In 754 Pippin agreed to protect Rome from the Lombards and the pope issued a decree that all Carolingian kings must descend from Pippin. Pippin then moved on the Lombards, defeated them and became the protector of Rome.

Charlemagne, son of Pippin, became king in 768 upon the death of his father and inherited his father’s Roman policy. In 774 he not only again defeated a rising Lombard threat but declared himself their king. Charlemagne remained in northern Europe and gave the Lombards a significant degree of home rule. The Carolingian world gravitated toward the north and west, though it included Italy, and away from the (lost) Mediterranean.

On Dec. 25, 800 Charlemagne was crowned emperor of Christianity. This crowning was not quite on the Byzantine model. There the emperor was acclaimed by the people. Charlemagne was acclaimed by Rome. It was in the church’s acclamation, not the people of Europe in which his power rested.

By 812 Charlemagne concluded peace with Byzantium and he ceded Venice and Sicily, thus effectively creating an empire with no access to the Mediterranean.

“The Empire of Charlemagne was the critical point of the rupture by Islam, of the European equilibrium.”

This was all made possible by three key factors:

  1. The rupture of east and west.
  2. The pope becoming strictly the Christian leader in the west.
  3. The loss of Africa and Spain to Islam.
“It is therefore strictly correct to say that without Mohammed Charlemagne would have been inconceivable.”

“Germanism began to play its part in history. Hitherto the Roman tradition had been uninterrupted. Now and original Romano-Germanic civilization was about to develop.

“The Carolingian Empire, or rather, the Empire of Charlemagne, was the scaffolding of the Middle Ages. The State upon which it was founded was extremely weak and would presently crumble. But the Empire would survive as the higher unity of Western Christendom.”

Having taken the argument all the way to the reign of Charlemagne, Pirenne now turns the last chapter toward the transition to the Middle Ages. His thesis has always centered in the economic relations and again he begins there. In the entire book he is on the offensive, attacking what are at his time the received views of this transition. He points out that it is often held that there was an economic revival in the early days of the Carolingian era. He denies this and claims such views are based on a misunderstand or misanalysis.

He argues that the typical situation was such that there was the loss of Mediterranean trade and virtually all marinetine trade. Life became much more local and centered on land and local trade. However, he allows there were two areas which were slight exceptions and that too much attention to these areas could lead scholars to misrepresent the entire period. These exceptions were:

  1. Northern Italy, especially around Venice which benefited from the trade in the Byzantine world which extended to Venice. However, this was soon hampered by Arabs and turmoil in Italy and the results were not contrary to his larger thesis.
  2. The second area concerns the northern sea routes which put traders in touch with Islam via Russia and more importantly with Great Britain. This short-lived exception came to an end with the Normal invasions.

The factors Pirenne thinks were decisive were:

  1. The minting of gold has ceased.
  2. Lending money at interest was prohibited.
  3. There was no longer a class of professional merchants.
  4. Oriental products (papyrus, spices, silk, African olive oil) were no longer imported.
  5. Circulation of money was reduced to the minimum
  6. Laymen could no longer read or write.
  7. Taxes were no longer organized.
  8. Towns were merely fortresses.
  9. The existence of only local markets with local goods and crafts is a sign of a deteriorating culture.

Thus we have the background for understanding the serious economic changes that made the conditions ripe for the emergence of a totally new age. Even when the Carolingians got a foothold in the Gaulic Mediterranean they couldn’t really exploit this as an economic advantage. They didn’t have a fleet and couldn’t deal with pirates.

Pirenne is also dissatisfied with the common view among scholars that the Carolingian era was merely a continuation of the Frankish epoch. He gives five main reasons why this is not so.

  1. The Merovingian period belongs to a milieu entirely different from that of the Carolingian period. In the 6th and 7th centuries there was still a Mediterranean with which the Merovingians were constantly in touch, and the Imperial tradition still survived in many domains of life.
  2. The Germanic influence, confined to the vicinity of the Northern frontier, was very feeble, and made itself felt only in certain branches of the law and of procedure.
  3. Between the more glorious Merovingian period, which lasted until nearly the middle of the 7th century, and the Carolingian period, there was a full century of turbid decadence, in the course of which many of the features of the ancient civilizations disappeared, while others were further elaborated; and it was in this decadence that the Carolingian period had its origin. The ancestors of the Carolingians were not Merovingian kings, but the mayors of the palace. Charlemagne was not in any sense the successor of Dagobert, but of Charles Martel and Pippin.
  4. We must not be confused by the identity of the name regnum Francorum. The new kingdom stretched as far as the Elbe and included part of Italy. It contained almost as many Germanic as Romanic populations.
  5. Lastly, its relations with the Church were completely modified. The Merovingian State, like the Roman Empire, was secular. The Merovingian king was rex Francorum. The Carolingian king was Dei gratia rex Francorum! and this little addition indicates a profound transformation.

      Thus, the two monarchies -- the second of which, as I have endeavored to show in these pages, was due in some sort to the submersion of the European world by Islam -- were far from being continuous, but were mutually opposed.

In the intellectual life there are important innovations. Latin died as a living language. In Africa it was replaced with Arabic. In Spain it was not taught in the schools and people imitated an Italian patois which developed into Spanish. Similarly in Gaul only the clergy continued to speak it. It was not taught in schools and ceased to exist as a living language. What replaced it were local dialects which later gave rise to the various national languages.

The north replaced the south of Europe as an intellectual and literary center. In Great Britain the Anglo-Saxon language dominated, but so did Roman Christianity. Latin was introduced as a sacred and learned language and was taught and learning shifting the intellectual center from the south to the north.

There was in fact a significant intellectual Renaissance in Carolingian times, but it was strictly for the clergy and in great contrast with Merovingian times, was accompanied by illiteracy among the masses of laity.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett