Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade


By Henri Pirenne

Publisher: Princeton University Press
Number Of Pages: 253 Publication Date: 1946
6.8mb PDF

In this classic book written in the 1920s, Belgian medieval historian Henri Pirenne tracks the revival of European cities in the Middle Ages. The first chapters lay out what would later be known as the Pirenne thesis: that the classical civilizations of the west were not destroyed by the Germanic invasions of the 5th century, but by the closing of Mediterranean trade in the 7th century, after the Arab conquest of North Africa and the Levant.

To defend his thesis, Pirenne shows how significant trade existed in the Mediterranean in the 5th and 6th century. Here I wonder whether it is not possible to adhere to an intermediate position, in the sense that the classical world received two blows (one from the germanic invaders, another from the arab expansion), from which it would not recover. In any case, there is little doubt that urban civilization had virtually disappeared in Western Europe by the 8th century.

The Carolingian renaissance of the 9th century was a very modest affair, and Europe would descend back into rural autarchy in the 9th and 10th century with the Viking invasions. It was only after the millenium, that Western European civilization started on its way to recovery, which Pirenne documents in the later chapters dealing with the revival of trade and urban civilization. By the mid 1300s, not even the terrible black death could hold urban civilization in Europe back. All in all, one of the greatest books about medieval economic life.

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