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Forum LockedHenri Pirenne and the End of the Roman Empire

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    Posted: 25-Oct-2006 at 04:01
I have recently come across the theories of the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne(1862-1935), who was largely unknown to me, but possibly is well known amongst professional historians.
Pirenne's notions about the end of the Roman Empire and the begin of the so-called "Dark Ages" stand in marked contrast to those of Edward Gibbons, whose influential work defined the view of 4th- 9th centuries for generations.
In a nutshell, Pirenne developed the following theories:
 
1. The End of he West-Roman Empire in the mid 5th century did not mark a decisive break in the history of Central- and Western Europe. It was largely an exchange of the political elites, the Roman being substituted by the Germanic.
2. The victorious Germanic tribes did neither plan or succeed to destroy the civic society in the former Roman provinces. On the contrary, they did their upmost either to allow the economic and social structures of the Roman society to run paralell to their own ( as in Italy in the Ostrogoth Kingdom under Theoderic) or tried and managed to assimilate themselves in the existing structures( as the Visigoths, Vandals and Merovingian Franks, for example). In other words, the Germanic usurpation helped to preserve the remains of the late Roman Empire in the West. 
3. The economic life in the former Roman Empire continued, aside from the periods of the actual conquest, largely undisturbed, urban life continued and neither the standard of living or the level of cultural activities decreased.
4. The decline of the eonomic and cultural standards in Western Europe only began with the Arabic conquest of Northern Africa and Spain. It destroyed century old trading relations and cut off Western Europe from important raw materials and finished products.
5. As a consequence, economic activities decreased dramatically, Western Europe impoverished and changed decisively, from a largely urban to an exclusively agrarian society. The economic changes caused a decline in cultural activities, and the "Dark Ages" really began in late 7th century, and not in the 5th century.
 
I must admit that I only heard of Pirenne's ideas second hand, and have not read any of his works, but even though, I believe he has some developed some interesting theories, well worth debating.
 
Two questions:
1. Any toughts on Pirenne's ideas?
2. How is Pirenne received in contemporary historiography?
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Aelfgifu Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25-Oct-2006 at 04:36

On 2: I did learn about his theories in my second year, but I do not think they are completely accepted as a whole by most historian, but neither is Gibbon. What I learned was a thruth in the middle thing. The 'fall' of the Western Empire was not nearly as sudden or dramatic as Gibbon believed, but there was considerably more to it than Pirenne claims.

But I believe that his theory that the new German rulers tried to adapt and continue the culture as it was is true. Medieval kings did not see themselves as 'backwards' or in decline, they saw themselves as true and right successors to the Romans.
But the theories that cities did not decline until later seems outdated to me. We have pretty good arhaeological evidence by now that cities did decline considerably before the seventh centuries. This was probably because many of the rich (whose wealth was often in landed estates) fled from the political unrest in the cities, settled at their estates and trained up a private army for protection, thus creating the basis for the landed nobility that would cause kings and leaders so much trouble in the later middle ages.
 
I must say I never heard about the theory that the conquering of Spain cut of tradingroutes and so decreased culture. It is very interesting, but would it really have such an effect? There are plenty of tradingroutes which do not go through Spain, and besides, why would the Arabs have stopped trading? Trade is money, they surely would not have cut off such a valuable supply of wealth...

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Ikki Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25-Oct-2006 at 10:32
Originally posted by Komnenos Komnenos wrote:

...


Quote I have recently come across the theories of the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne(1862-1935), who was largely unknown to me, but possibly is well known amongst professional historians.
Pirenne's notions about the end of the Roman Empire and the begin of the so-called "Dark Ages" stand in marked contrast to those of Edward Gibbons, whose influential work defined the view of 4th- 9th centuries for generations.



Henry Pirenne is greatly accepted in the french historiography (so, in italian and spanish historiography). And his theories are considered more advanced than the Gibbon work.



Quote
In a nutshell, Pirenne developed the following theories:

1. The End of he West-Roman Empire in the mid 5th century did not mark a decisive break in the history of Central- and Western Europe. It was largely an exchange of the political elites, the Roman being substituted by the Germanic.



This view is largely accepted today althought with nuances, most of the germanic people wanted take the roman tradition and not destroy it but in fact they introducted many ways of life. As you say, most of the elites of the western empire quickly accepted the new rulers and the barbarians quickly search the alliance with this great elite.


Quote 2. The victorious Germanic tribes did neither plan or succeed to destroy the civic society in the former Roman provinces. On the contrary, they did their upmost either to allow the economic and social structures of the Roman society to run paralell to their own ( as in Italy in the Ostrogoth Kingdom under Theoderic) or tried and managed to assimilate themselves in the existing structures( as the Visigoths, Vandals and Merovingian Franks, for example). In other words, the Germanic usurpation helped to preserve the remains of the late Roman Empire in the West.


Yes this is a great true but as i said before, they introduced few innovations, more than they "helped" to preserve, is better simplely that they preserved the roman tradition, at least in the more romanized areas as Hispania, Italia and Southern Gallia. Here we should be carefull because in the territories where they was a majority, as in germanic roman provinces or Britania they don't follow clearly the roman tradition, and this can be said too to a region as Northern Gallia, where they settled in great numbers changing the tradition of the region from the roman to the germanic; contrary, where they were few, only a warrior elite they tried to live with the roman organization.


Quote 3. The economic life in the former Roman Empire continued, aside from the periods of the actual conquest, largely undisturbed, urban life continued and neither the standard of living or the level of cultural activities decreased.


This is a very complex problem that i will analyze too in the following two points. The falaz argument here is to think that the previous roman economy was prosperous and the new barbarian economy poor. As say Pirenne this is false, because generally the economy of the germanic kingdoms follow the later roman economy, but we can't forget that this later roman economy was in crisis since the III century, a deep, structural crisis that weakened the urban life and ruralized the entire western empire. So true, there is no gap between the both periods but we are in a proccess...

and...


Quote 4. The decline of the eonomic and cultural standards in Western Europe only began with the Arabic conquest of Northern Africa and Spain. It destroyed century old trading relations and cut off Western Europe from important raw materials and finished products.
5. As a consequence, economic activities decreased dramatically, Western Europe impoverished and changed decisively, from a largely urban to an exclusively agrarian society. The economic changes caused a decline in cultural activities, and the "Dark Ages" really began in late 7th century, and not in the 5th century


As i said before, the decline begin in the III century and finished until the X century with a light renaissance in carolingian time. So, according with George Duby, Robert Fossier, March Bloch and other "modern" french historians, who had study deeply the economy and society of that time, the arab conquest don't broke greatly the economy of the western kingdoms, because these economies was falling before their advance.

Here i want to answer too to our fellow Aelgifu: of course, the arabs didn't stop of trade with the christians, but the relation between the two sides of the sea was severely damaged. The main point of the Pirenne argument was that the Mediterranean sea was a cultural unity before the arrival of the arabs, and after this we have not one but at least two entities in this crucial sea. His initial point, that the arab expansion was a total crak for Europe, can't be sustained: the mediterranean people had great relations by centuries. But his theorie is in general accepted because with all the relations between muslim and christians, it's true that the cultural unity was broken, and in fact for the centuries between 650 and 1050 his initial points about a terrible time can be accepted. After the arrival of the arabs, the two sides was in this time fighting, heating each other, the arabs not only conquered Hispania and North frica, but attacked western europe in a vast piracy campaign that devastated the trade of the christian Meditarranean by centuries, not only that, they settled powerful bases in southern France and Italy and launched devastating assaults to these regions (until the Alps and the Rhin!!) So the economic damage was huge, more, the Christedom was broken in two, first because the nomads of the steppe break the relations by land when first the avars and then the magyars settled in Hungary; then because in the sea the naval power of the arabs disrupted the routes between the Orient and the West, a fact that only the byzantines could limit in a long and expensive war in the seas around southern Italy, althought, they couldn't stop the arab incursions from Al-Andalus and North frica to western Europe.

But, with all this, the problems of the western european economy was more deep and can't be explained only with the arab "work", so Pyrenne here is old fashioned.
 



PD: Pirenne have too a classical book called "Muhammad and Charlemagne" Wink



Edited by Ikki - 25-Oct-2006 at 11:32
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Byzantine Emperor Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25-Oct-2006 at 16:41
Originally posted by Komnenos Komnenos wrote:

4. The decline of the eonomic and cultural standards in Western Europe only began with the Arabic conquest of Northern Africa and Spain. It destroyed century old trading relations and cut off Western Europe from important raw materials and finished products.
5. As a consequence, economic activities decreased dramatically, Western Europe impoverished and changed decisively, from a largely urban to an exclusively agrarian society. The economic changes caused a decline in cultural activities, and the "Dark Ages" really began in late 7th century, and not in the 5th century.
 
Pirenne and his theses are usually discussed in graduate school as a precursor to the "Annales School" of French historiography.  He focused on economic and cultural history of the late Roman Empire; these two facets would later become important in the works of the major Annales historians Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel.
 
I actually had an undergraduate professor who talked a lot about Pirenne's thesis that the Muslim invasions of southern Europe and their infiltration of the Mediterranean caused the sea to become a barrier, whereas in Roman times it had been an economic conduit.  I took several courses on Byzantium and the medieval West and he would always mention it.
 
Most of Pirenne's theses are considered to be out of date and monolithic in recent historiography.  Nevertheless, they were quite revolutionary when he first published them, hence the reason why they are still mentioned.
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Scytho-Sarmatian Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28-Oct-2006 at 04:08
I totally agree with Pirenne's theory.  It was the subject of one of my papers in college.  The expansion of the Arabs was pretty much the reason why the Roman Empire fell apart and Europe descended into the Dark Ages.  Arab expansion served to cut off and isolate the Europeans, which forced Europeans to become backward and inward-looking.  Earlier barbarians such as Attila were probably a weakening influence but not in themselves the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Chilbudios Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28-Oct-2006 at 04:57
I believe one strong blow to post-Roman world were both the expansion of the Sarazines and of the Carolingians in the southern Gaul, one of the most "Roman" regions at that time. Its rich cities were plundered and destroyed, its culture was fragmented, its scholars and merchants spreaded in other safer lands.
As for trade, I don't think it was literally a cut off during the age of Arab expansion. After all, in the late Merovingian (end of the 7th, beginning of the 8th century) era, there are evidences of Mediteranean trade: the colonies of "Syrians" and Jews (merchants and craftsmen and even taking positions in the administrative aparatus) from Frankish Empire arriving via Meditereanean ports, the imports of Oriental oil, textiles, papyrii, wines etc. mentioned by late Merovingian documents and diplomas. The situation worsened only with the constant raids of Muslim pirates, but this means already 9th century.
Also, there were periods of economic decline on which the Muslim interferences added as worsening factor but I don't think they were one of the main causes.
 
On the other hand, the "Dark Age" indeed does not have a clear beginning, and certainly not in 476. From region to region (Iberian Peninsula, Gaul, Italy, British Isles), from aspect to aspect (social, cultural, economical, political), the transition from Antiquity to Middle Ages was different. As Fustel de Coulanges before him Pirenne challenged the fashioned view of Rome falling to Barbarians and opened a new era of historiography.
 
Ah, and when people issue the invasions of 5th century, I remember factoids like:
- Honorius said about Campania: the happy Campania (Campania Felix) never met a Barbarian, yet has 120,000 hectares of no human presence (as argument for rural world depopulation, independent of invasions)
- Olympiodorus mentions many rich families having a yearly income of about 4,000 gold pounds (in money, plus another heavy amount in "natural" goods) - though we have examples of even richer ones. And the members of these families spend their money accordingly: Probus spent 1,200 gold pounds to celebrate his election as praetor, Symmachus "with an average wealth" spent 2,000 pounds for his son' election as praetor and Maximus spent 4,000 pounds for festivities lasting for 7 days. On the other hand, Alaric's sack of Rome cannot be avoided though the Goth only asked for 4,000 gold pounds to pay his armies. A large sum, but certainly not an impossible one, as my previous examples showed. The gap between the rich aristocrats isolating themselves in luxury and paying for their individual survival and the fate of the dying Empire seems obvious.
 


Edited by Chilbudios - 28-Oct-2006 at 05:55
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Ikki Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28-Oct-2006 at 09:35
Originally posted by Chilbudios Chilbudios wrote:

 
Ah, and when people issue the invasions of 5th century, I remember factoids like:
- Honorius said about Campania: the happy Campania (Campania Felix) never met a Barbarian, yet has 120,000 hectares of no human presence (as argument for rural world depopulation, independent of invasions)
- Olympiodorus mentions many rich families having a yearly income of about 4,000 gold pounds (in money, plus another heavy amount in "natural" goods) - though we have examples of even richer ones. And the members of these families spend their money accordingly: Probus spent 1,200 gold pounds to celebrate his election as praetor, Symmachus "with an average wealth" spent 2,000 pounds for his son' election as praetor and Maximus spent 4,000 pounds for festivities lasting for 7 days. On the other hand, Alaric's sack of Rome cannot be avoided though the Goth only asked for 4,000 gold pounds to pay his armies. A large sum, but certainly not an impossible one, as my previous examples showed. The gap between the rich aristocrats isolating themselves in luxury and paying for their individual survival and the fate of the dying Empire seems obvious.
 


This is the crucial point of the Fall of Rome: at the moment when the very complex procces that begun in the III century supposed finally the derivation of resources, economical, human, from the statal sphere to the private sphere, weakening the public capacity of action.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Maharbbal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29-Oct-2006 at 19:30
Ikki I fully agree with everthing you've written.

I'd like to add a few things though:

1) In my opinion Pirenne did miss one very important fact: the division of the former empire in about fifteen kingdoms has been all but beneficial for trade in particular and for Europe's development in general. It created boundaries and increased the general number of wars.
2) Pirenne adds something important in Charlemagne et Mahomet: the maybe most sensible effect of the arab invasions was that Gallia had used to be dominated by its Southern regions (Provence and Aquitaine) was suddenly dominated by its Northen region. Aquitaine was incapable of defeating the Arabs but Martel (from present days NE France) did. After that nothing was ever quite the same.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Reginmund Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 30-Oct-2006 at 09:06
This is all very interesting. I agree with most of what Pirenne claims, but I think he errs when he searches as late as the time of the Arab invasions for reasons why the West fell into decline. As has already been said, this was a process which had gone on for centuries when the Arabs entered the Mediterranean, who certainly didn't implement some continental economic blockade. First of all there is no reason why the Arab empire should prove more of a blockade than the Roman, especially considering how hellenized it was culturally during the first Caliphate, and second they had absolutely nothing to gain from doing so. It also seems incomprehensible that all the wide-reaching regions of the Arab empire should have acted uniformly in blockading Europe.

No, if we are to understand why the West fell into decline, I go with those who claim we must first look at the developments in the third century, with the division of the Empire into two administrative units. It went back and forth from unity and division for a period, but in 376 it was final with the death of Julian. By this time the capital city had moved to the East - there is a clue here, no? A division into East and West meant the West, and Rome, could no longer thrive on the produce of the wealthier eastern regions. The wealth stayed in the East, in the new capital of the East, and the West's decline hardly seems to require more of an explanation than this - even if there hadn't been any barbarian invasions.

As for the Germanic tribes which took hold of the West, very well, they did try to administer these regions in continuity with and not in break with Roman traditions. Their financial basis for doing so was not good enough however, and none of them ruled the entire Western Empire but only the fragment conquered by their respective tribe, so you have the administrative unit of the West divided into even smaller units with less accumulated resources, who in turn vied with each other for dominance.

The tendencies of decline when compared with the situation two or three centuries past should be obvious, there is no need to move as far ahead as the seventh century.
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