What I’m Reading: Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade

Medieval Cities, by French professor Henri Pirenne, was published in 1952 but is the synthesis and culmination of lectures he had been building on since the 1920s. I believe Dr. Pirenne was the one who came up with the theory that it was not the fall of the western Empire after Rome was sacked in 470 that caused the decline of urban civilization in western Europe. He believe the Ostrogoths and Visigoths who took over from the Romans largely left the old economic structures in place. They didn’t want to destroy the Roman empire, they wanted to share in its prosperity, and in fact, did so.

Rather, it was the spread of Islam across north Africa in the eighth century that disrupted the ancient trade routes, cut western Europe off from its grain and luxury sources, and caused the real “fall” of the old Roman empire (in the west). It was in the eighth and ninth centuries (not 200 years earlier) that trade ebbed to almost nothing and economies, such as they were, became dominated by a feudal system where great lords ruled over estates and everything the people lived on, rich or poor, was produced locally on those estates.

I believe attributing the decline to the spread of Islam is fairly standard now in medieval studies, but at the time it was revolutionary. Dr. Pirenne builds up quite a convincing argument, even if he’s a bit breezy with the evidence at times. Moreover, that’s just the first couple chapters. In the rest of the book, he continues the story of the re-sparking of urban life in the tenth and eleventh centuries, after the threats from the Vikings and other barbarian invaders had receded. He traces the origins of merchants, the middle class, market towns, and medieval economic institutions in, initially, the Netherlands and northern Italy, and spreading during the High Middle Ages into England, France, and Germany. He explains his particular view that for security purposes, the new trading centers developed at first as suburbs of the episcopal and political centers of the feudal age, but gradually supplanted them in population and wealth.

This book was right up my alley, with some of my favorite subjects–cities and European history–and told in a grand sweep by an author who seems to know everything possible about the topic. There are interesting observations or opinions on practically every page. Of course, it’s an academic work written in an elevated style, but for those who share my particular fascinations, I highly recommend this classic work of history.

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