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Pirenne thesis

  With the publication of Medieval cities in 1925, Belgian historian Henri Pirenne (1862-1935) advanced a theory of medieval urbanization that has only recently been superseded. According to Pirenne, the Islamic conquest of North Africa, Sicily and Spain in the eighth century finally closed the Mediterranean to trade between Europe and the Middle East. In the absence of systematic international trade, Europe fragmented into parochial regions with largely self-sufficient economies. As a result cities became both unnecessary and unsupported, and were abandoned for some 200 years until east-west commerce was revived through Venice and Scandinavia. The reurbanization of Europe in the tenth century was led by merchants creating trade-based suburbs on the peripheries of ecclesiastical or military centres. Relations characteristic of feudalism did not apply in these suburbs, which became progenitors of \'free labour\' and a mercantile legal system.

Recent evidence drawn from archaeology, lexicology, topography, and numismatics has shown that Pirenne underestimated the level of international trade during the Carolingian period and the connections between agricultural and urban economies. He also overlooked the critical role played by the church in establishing ecclesiastical centres. The reurbanization of Europe is now interpreted as the result of internal population growth and an increased agricultural surplus which together underpinned a revival of both local and international trade. New interpretations of medieval urbanization seek to reveal the interdependence between city and countryside and no longer see these as separately functioning economic and social systems. (DH)

Reference and Suggested Reading Pirenne, H. 1925: Medieval cities: their origins and the revival of trade, trans. Frank D. Halsey. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Hodges, R. and Whitehouse, D. 1983: Mohammed, Charlemagne and the origins of Europe: archaeology and the Pirenne thesis. London: Duckworth. Nicholas, D. 1997: The growth of the medieval city from late antiquity to the early fourteenth century. London and New York: Duckworth.



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