Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pirenne thesis

I have done a moderate amount of reading on or related to the Pirenne thesis. Including Henri Pirenne's posthumous work Mohammed and Charlemagne and Hodges and Whitehouse's examination of the thesis in the light of the archaeological evidence Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe.

Found both books highly readable. Pirenne relied on written texts – what was mentioned: products, trade, types of persons, taxes, etc – to build up a picture of the transition from the (Western) Roman Empire to the period of Carolingian rule. His contention was that the Germanic invasions were predominantly political changes at the top of society. That the Mediterannean-based Roman economy continued, that the successor states continued Roman administrative practices with educated secular officials and dominant royal authority based on tax-funded financial power, were culturally integrated into "Romania" and it was only with the Arab-Islamic invasions and conquest of the C7th that the whole Mediterranean world is split into two, trade collapses and Latin Christendom acquires a much more Germanic and Northern nature. With the collapse of trade and a mercantile, monetised economy, the Carolingians were forced into a land-for-service local-self-sufficiency economy which is the basis for the rise of medieval society.
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Pirenne's thesis has always been highly contentious. Reading Pirenne while being aware that archaeological evidence in particular finds a quite different economic pattern – that trade and population began to collapse when the Roman Empire was still very much intact, that the decline continued until at least the middle of the C8th after which a definite expansion occurred – raises both fascinating questions about the problem of evidence (it is very noticeable how questioning McCormick and Collins are about the written texts of the period) and makes one question Pirenne's sequencing and causal explanations. For example, it is much more plausible that the decline of Merovingian rule was precisely because they relied on a collapsing Roman model, than Pirenne’s rather dated notions of family decadence and self-indulgence (though internal regime decay, if somewhat differently cast, is not to be dismissed), and that the Carolingians rose to power precisely because they developed forms of rulership much better suited to the circumstances of the time. Similarly, the clear disappearance of the formal tax-paid-long-service-regulars Roman Army prior to the evaporation of Imperial rule in the West would surely raise doubts about the fundamental health of the Roman economic and political model. Moreover, complaints about the level of piracy are evidence for significant maritime trade, not against. One does not infer from large numbers of lions that there is a lack of antelopes: the existence of large numbers of predators suggests an even larger number of prey.

Hodges and Whitehouse provide an excellent presentation of the archaeological evidence up to 1982. The shrinking of cities in the Roman world in a long cascading decay that is very clear by the late C5th and moves across the Roman world to hit even the economic mainstays of the Eastern Roman Empire by the early C7th (before the Arab invasions). In the north, elite-dominated exchange networks grew up with significant coastal emporiums in operation by the C8th. The "Carolingian Renaissance" was a shallow phenomenon financed by Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious. Once the Carolingian empire became divided by civil war, the cultural revival and trade declined. Hodges and Whitehouse see the Viking outbreak as a response to both decline in trade and divided authority, though the beginning of raids in the 790s does not entirely fit that suggestion. (I suspect technological improvements in longship construction, particularly sails, may have been the crucial factor.)

I found Hodges and Whitehouse's following of the archaelogical evidence concerning trade to Abbasid rule in Iraq particularly engaging. There is strong evidence of the Norse being conduits of trade via the Russian rivers from the Caliphate to the Carolingian realm. The establishment of Abbasid rule seems to have acted as a stimulus to trade, its later decline a suppressor of it. Hodges and Whitehouse suggest that part of Louis the Pious's problems from the 830s onwards may have come from the commercial consequences of Abbasid financial exhaustion.

It is certainly clear that the collapse in trade was never absolute. But it is also clear that there was a long decline from c300 to c750 such that, by 750, the Church is the only significant repository of literate folk in Latin Christendom: a fundamental factor in the squabbling alliance of Church and Warlord which is the overarching institutional basis of the medieval world. What seems to be going on, amongst the competition for power and wealth, is a slow searching for institutional arrangements that will work in the changed circumstances. However brilliant a medievalist Henri Pirenne was, his basic thesis does not really hold up.

5 comments:

  1. I'm writing a research paper on this subject and trying to figure out what modern scholars think of Pirenne ideas, I see that you tend to disagree with him.

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  2. My wife and I are currently working our way through a book by Emmet Scott, "Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy".

    It examines Pirenne's thesis and the various objections to that thesis.

    The Epilogue of that book can be read online at:
    http://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm/frm/111009/sec_id/111009

    Emmet Scott is a supporter of the Pirenne view.

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