Born and educated in Belgium, Pirenne was the country’s most noted historian from the end of World War I until his death. He was celebrated especially for a multi-volume history of Belgium that made him a national icon. Educated at the University of Liège, where he earned a doctorate, he went on to study in universities at Leipzig, Berlin, and Paris. In 1886 he was appointed professor of medieval and Belgian history at the University of Ghent and remained there until his retirement in 1930. His chief interest was medieval civilization and its origins. His life included non-academic adventure. He joined a campaign
of passive resistance when Germany occupied Belgium in World War I by refusing Germans access to his university, for which he was imprisoned and where he wrote a History of Europe without notes. He became a sharp critic of German nationalism, but without rejecting past achievements of German scholarship. One of his inﬂuential friendships was with historian Karl Lamprecht, which ended with Lamprecht’s proposal that Belgium cooperate with Germany to nurture its long-term war objectives. The war left Pirenne disillusioned like so many other European
intellectuals. He abandoned an earlier conﬁdence in human progress and perfectibility with two consequences-chance was accepted as a force in historical change and the decisive role of exceptional individuals was acknowledged. He was also convinced that geographical and economic circumstances are major players in historical failure and success. The fulcrum of his medieval studies was an inﬂuential theory about decline of Rome’s empire in the west and its replacement by an economically backward, culturally thin, and decentralized feudal regime in Western Europe that constituted the beginning of the Middle Ages. An enduring question for historians is why the Roman Empire in
the west faltered and disintegrated. For Edward Gibbon, the main culprits were barbarians inﬁltrating from without and a new, otherworldly religion displacing paganism from within (see essay 16 in this volume). Other explanations have included epidemic disease, technological stagnation because of slavery, lead poisoning, imperial incompetence, overexpansion, too much complexity, moral decay, barbarization of the military, currency debasement, or a combination of these and other factors. The end of the Empire in the west is dated conventionally from 476 when the last Roman emperor was replaced by a German chieftain.