Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Book Review - Economic and social history of Medieval Europe by Henri Pirenne

Economic and social history of Medieval Europe by Henri Pirenne

London : Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1936 (ninth impression 1972)  ISBN 071007462X

Ah, those great French intellectuals of the 20th Century, so clear, so concise, so to the point... what?? I hear you say -  no, I'm not here to discuss the Sartres, Foucaults, Derridas and Kristevas of the World, but the other great intellectual gift to us from France - the French historians of the 20th Century - Bloch, Le Roy Ladurie, and the author discussed here, Pirenne (although Pirenne was actually Belgian).

These three men between them changed the way we think about Medieval History, by thinking about the underlying causes for the change in society from the end of the Roman Empire to 15th century. In some ways they pre-figured the postmodern approach to the study of history, being quite interdisciplinary - Le Roy Ladurie in particular looking at the effects of climate and other natural phenomena on the course of history.

The book under review is a translation of part of a bigger (uncompleted) work, which Pirenne wrote while imprisoned by the Germans during World War I. The main part of the work looks into the development of commerce and cities from the Dark Ages. Pirenne explains that geo-political changes drove the expansion of trade - the re-opening of the Mediterranean owing to the waning of Islamic control of the coasts of Africa, Spain and the Middle East which allowed more sea traffic, and the decline of the Byzantine remnant of Rome freed the cities of Italy such as Venice and Genoa to develop as trading centres.

This combined with changes in the North of Europe - the Scandanavians were moving from a raiding to a trading culture across the northern seas, and a population explosion was straining the historical manorial base of society to breaking point. Too many people meant that peasants could not stay on their historical plots - leading some to move to other parts, farming reclaimed land not as serfs, but as free tenant farmers, while others took to trade as a way to make a living. These freemen were the base of the rapid expansion of trade in the early centuries of the new Millennium.

Pirenne's thesis shows that the growth of towns and trade was not begotten by the Nobility, but by the people themselves. His theory that traders started as small co-operatives and built wealth on their own terms makes sense - the Nobles gained without having to get their hands dirty, as they gathered rents from townsmen, and sold their surplus agricultural produce to the same people.

He goes on to describe in some detail how the increase in trade moved in conjunction with developments in credit, as the ability to circumvent the ban on usury by the Church was key to the continuing growth of the Mercantile class. This class also worked hard to limit their own numbers by creating Guilds and other trade organisations, as well as limiting competition by developing tariffs and other official forms of control over trade.

Pirenne closes his account of these developments by showing how, just as geo-political matters began the rise of cities and trade, they also led to it's decline. The combination of Plague and the Hundred Years War led to a reduced population, reduced mobility by the Merchant Class, and a lack of capital.

These theories are backed with much evidence, succinctly and clearly laid out. This bare-bones translation gives little insight into Pirenne's style, and is a little dry, but is serviceable. Much historiography of Medieval times is based on Pirenne's insights - his foundations now have some quite imposing structures placed upon them. However, for a clear introduction to the issues, this book is a great place to start.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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