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15.08.25, Devroey and Knaepen, eds., Henri Pirenne, Histoire de l'Europe

15.08.25, Devroey and Knaepen, eds., Henri Pirenne, Histoire de l'Europe

In March 1916, the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne (1862-1935) was arrested and deported to Germany, for taking a leading role in opposing the wartime reopening of the University of Ghent. By that time, he had already firmly established himself as one of his generation's most influential and respected medievalists, even though his most famous publications, particularly those still read today (such as Mahomet et Charlemagne, and Les villes et institutions urbaines, translated into English as Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade) were still to be written. During this forced absence from his customary environment in Ghent, and removed for much of his time in Germany from his wife and youngest son Jacques, he was put in several military and civic camps, then moved to the university town of Jena, and finally assigned a modest house in the village of Creuzburg, in rural Thuringia. As a highly sociable individual who thrived on engaging with friends, colleagues, and students, Pirenne experienced his time in Creuzburg (which lasted from January 1917 until the armistice in November 1918) as one of crushing isolation and boredom.

In an attempt to fight these feelings, he began filling one school notebook after another with draft chapters of a new synthesis entitled Histoire de l'Europe. Beginning in late antiquity and ending abruptly in the Renaissance--work on the project halted immediately after the arrival of his wife and son in Creuzburg in August 1918--Pirenne, according to his own testimony, worked with few of the traditional resources available to historians, relying for the most part on his memories of teaching medieval history at Ghent. In reality, Pirenne had use of a considerable reference library while in Germany, and was in contact with German and Dutch scholars throughout the war. One therefore assumes that this was his excuse for the numerous factual errors that slipped into a text that was, after all, more concerned with providing a general narrative of European history than with providing a catalogue of historical dates and events.

As a work of historical synthesis, the Histoire de l'Europe presents a view of the European past that is very much of the time, and does not strike one as particularly innovative compared to other contemporary and near-contemporary radical experiments in writing European and universal history. That said, Pirenne throughout the text advocates a mode of synthetic historical writing that awards significant room to discussing slow economic developments, putting into perspective the rapid political, cultural, and social ones that usually guided the discourse of these narratives. To those interested in the development of Pirenne's thinking, and his immediate response to the outbreak of World War I, the book also holds some interest in that it investigates the causes of the ongoing global conflict, proposing democracy as the only mode of organizing society that guarantees long-term stability and individual freedom, and seeking to explain the causes behind Germany's aggression. As such, it complements ideas expressed in his wartime prison journal (published as Reflexions d'un Solitaire in the 1994 volume of the Bulletin De La Commission Royale D'histoire), and in public speeches and other commentaries from the post-war period.

When evaluating Histoire de l'Europe it is important to keep in mind that Pirenne never intended this work to be published. Following the family reunion of August 1918, it lay forgotten--or at least ignored--until shortly before Pirenne's death, when he allegedly instructed his son Jacques to prepare for posthumous publication this text and the manuscript of the significantly more accomplished Mahomet et Charlemagne. While the Ghent historian Fernand Vercauteren was assigned the task of preparing the latter work for publication, Jacques himself did so for the former. It is well known that Jacques intervened quite heavily in Henri's manuscript text, most notably to align Pirenne's 1917/18 argument about the end of antiquity and the beginning of the medieval period with developments in his post-war thinking as they were eventually expressed in the manuscript of Mahomet et Charlemagne. Jacques's version of Histoire de l'Europe was published in 1936, followed over the next two decades by a number of re-editions and translations, all of which were based on Jacques's revision. The Dutch version, being the only one in which the numerous factual errors were corrected, was by François-Louis Ganshof, ironically one of the scholars most actively involved in ending the "Pirenne approach" to teaching medieval history at Ghent.

In contrast, the current edition, by Jean-Pierre Devroey and Arnaud Knaepen, returns to Pirenne's manuscript version, and attempts to reconstruct as faithfully as possible the text as intended by the author himself, with footnotes indicating Jacques's interventions. The result is a comprehensive presentation of the original text, presumably the next best thing to consulting the original notebooks in Pirenne's near-illegible handwriting, and surely the definitive version in printed form. This, and to a lesser extent the somewhat florid introduction, suggestively indicate just how instrumental Jacques was in determining how Henri's posthumously-published scholarship would be perceived by an international audience. In the case of Mahomet et Charlemagne, Henri's intention had been to publish the work, even though he never got around to finishing it; and therefore Vercauteren's editorial work and interventions hold supreme interest to anyone looking at the development of the debate over the transition of late antiquity into the Middle Ages since the work was initially published in 1937. In the case of the Histoire de l'Europe, the situation is more complicated, as Pirenne did not intend the work to be published and presumably only changed his mind shortly before his death, for reasons that remain unclear. In others words, Jacques not only intervened in Henri's original text, but also changed the manuscript's status from a private document into a work of scholarship intended for publication.

Ironically the new edition carries with it the risk that readers will once again study the Histoire de l'Europe as part of Pirenne's scholarly canon, which is clearly not where it belongs, and certainly where it was not intended to be. To counter this problem, one would have liked to see more reflection in the introduction on a number of issues. One concerns the nature of the text--as it falls outside of the common, dual typology of private versus academic publications--and what this implies methodologically when considering it as part of Pirenne's intellectual legacy. A second relates to Jacques Pirenne's interventions, which are summarily discussed in the introduction and noted in the footnotes to the edition itself, but which arguably warrant more extensive, systematic analysis. One also misses discussion of how he initially proposed the revised manuscript for publication, to whom, and how he managed to promote it for translation and re-edition. These are particularly salient points, as it is well established that the historian Jacques Pirenne on certain occasions overstepped the boundaries of his profession's ethics. Compared to the introduction's extensive discussion of Henri's views and sentiments while writing the text--one that holds on to the classic narrative of Pirenne's life--these key aspects of the Histoire de l'Europe's origins as a printed work seem somewhat underdeveloped. One reason for this might be the editors' consideration for the sensitivities of Pirenne's descendants, several of whom still hold parts of Henri's archives.

Much the same questions are, of course, relevant to Mahomet et Charlemagne. Given the impact of this work on subsequent discussions over the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages, a similar editorial exercise would most yield fascinating insights, not just into Henri Pirenne's original argument, however rough-hewn, but also into the precise nature and extent of Vercauteren's interventions, and how they impacted on reception of the text. This reviewer can only hope that this will be done, sooner rather than later, by scholars with an expertise at least equal to that of the editors of the current book.