Article abstract: Pirenne altered extant periodization of European history and altered the thinking of medievalists by reminders of the influences of Islam and Byzantium on Western history and of all historians by diverting them from undue emphasis on institutional (legal), political, and religious events. The “Pirenne Thesis” has been a major influence on professional historical thinking.
Jean Henri Otto Lucien Marie Pirenne was the first, and ultimately the most distinguished, child born into an unusual bourgeois family on December 23, 1862, in Verviers, Belgium. His father, Lucien Henri, a hard-driving industrialist who operated Belgium’s technically most advanced woolen manufactory, was also bookish, polylingual, learned, and widely traveled. Young Henri’s mother, Marie Duesberg, was the accomplished daughter of his paternal grandfather’s business partner. She came from a less fervently economic, more intellectual lineage than her husband. Since the marriage, which joined Verviers’s two most respected families, was less a marriage of convenience than one based on mutual respect and affection, young Henri enjoyed a nourishing familial environment.
Romantic, bookish, but gregarious and observant, Pirenne not only came to know Verviers’s urban workers but also explored the surrounding Franchimont region, whose peasants had always been freemen. At seven, his formal education began at the local Collège Communal, pedagogically French, where he displayed a remarkable memory and prizewinning excellence in Latin, German, Greek, French, geography, and history, but notable weakness in mathematics, thus aborting his father’s hopes that he would proceed to engineering, helping to upgrade the mill’s technology. Pirenne’s father, therefore, suggested that his son study law at the University of Liège.
Matriculating in 1879, Pirenne subsequently performed brilliantly in all subjects but swiftly came under the influence of historians Godefroid Kurth and Paul Fredericq: Kurth was fervently Catholic, and Fredericq was vociferously Protestant. Each taught superbly, however, and both, trained in the new critical German historical methodologies, identified with Leipzig’s great Theodor Mommsen and Berlin’s masterful Leopold von Ranke, helped further a renaissance in Belgian university life. Not less propitious was the amazing Belgian archival collection somewhat earlier assembled by Paris-born and self-taught Prosper Gachard. It was invaluable to the Liège historians—later, most particularly to Pirenne.
In 1881, Pirenne qualified with greatest distinction (by examination) to proceed toward the doctorate; directed by Kurth, he published his first monograph at the age of nineteen in 1882. Completing his doctorate in 1883, he was urged by his mentors to continue medieval studies in Paris at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and the École des Chartres, which, after extensive scholarly travels, he did, again performing with excellence. Essentially his career was well launched with a scholarship to study at the very heart of the modern revolution in historical studies: in Germany at the University of Leipzig, then at the University of Berlin.
Berlin meant Pirenne’s direct contact with the elite of nineteenth century historians: Ranke, Gustav von Schmoller, Georg Waitz, and a host of young rising historians. Then in 1885, through the indefatigable efforts of Kurth, Pirenne received a professorship at the University of Liège, teaching Latin paleography and diplomatic as well as historical exercises for the humanities division. Master of French, German, Dutch, Latin, and Greek, he also read Italian and English; master too of paleography, philosophy, and toponomy (the origins of regional place names and languages), he had, as they expected, excelled his mentors. However distinguished a future awaited him at Liège, he was within a year “stolen” by Fredericq for a post in the less distinguished University of Ghent, where he would remain until retirement in 1930. Advancement in academic rank was one reason for the move but was less important than Fredericq himself and the opportunity to teach his own courses on medieval history and the history of Belgium—of which in time he would be applauded as the nation’s premier historian.
Two loves pinned Pirenne to Ghent: first, as a medievalist, his recognition of its immense economic importance from the twelfth into the fourteenth centuries—and the economic revivification it again was enjoying while he was there—and second, his marriage in 1887 to Jenny Vanderhaegen, an alert, shrewd, gracious woman who industriously protected and advanced her husband’s career. They would have four sons, one a historian of note.
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