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Memories of the 28th Century

Brexit and Pirenne

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After posting a blog yesterday, I had the thought that a really good blog post would be about how the EU relates to Henri Pirenne’s Thesis. In a perfect world I wouldn’t have to explain that, but some people would prefer to know about it. Henri Pirenne "was a Belgian historian. A medievalist of Walloon descent, he wrote a multivolume history of Belgium in French and became a national hero. He also became prominent in the nonviolent resistance to the Germans who occupied Belgium in World War I.

Henri Pirenne's reputation today rests on three contributions to European history: for what has become known as the Pirenne Thesis, concerning origins of the Middle Ages in reactive state formation and shifts in trade; for a distinctive view of Belgium's medieval history; and for his model of the development of the medieval city.

Pirenne argued that profound social, economic, cultural, and religious movements in the long term resulted from equally profound underlying causes, and this attitude influenced Marc Bloch and the outlook of the French Annales School of social history. Though Pirenne had his opponents, notably Alfons Dopsch[1] who disagreed on essential points, several recent historians of the Middle Ages have taken Pirenne's main theses, however much they are modified, as starting points."

His most important work in regard to his thesis was his History of Europe, which he wrote while he was held as a prisoner of war in Bavaria during World War One. He was relatively free for a prisoner of war, but he did not his books, notes, etc., and there was no major library available, so he wrote from memory. I believe that his history of Europe is very worth reading; although it never was finished and it lacks a lot. People who love history might also want to read his Medieval Cities, and those have any interest in Belgium should read Histoire de Belgique.

The central points of his History of Europe are that all wars and such since then have either been attempts to recreate Charlemagne's Empire or to rip it apart. The EU is clearly an attempt to bring the Empire back together with additions around the edges. My opinion is that the core of the EU has enough in common that it could be a single country, but some of the outlying countries probably would be better off outside, and perhaps they should be in a separate treaty organization, as was the case for a few decades.

Pirenne's History of Belgium is quite important, because no one had even tried to explain a rationale for the existence of Belgium, but its history goes back to Roman times. Subdivisions made by the Romans have been carried down through the millennia and still define some of the regions of Europe; although there is an overlay of administrative districts in many places, and the divisions of the Holy Roman Empire made by Louis the Pious, son and heir to Charles the Great, have also been long lasting and significant. For example, Lorraine is a corruption of Lothringia (Lothar's land) which is from the eldest son of Louis the Pious, Lothar, who initially received the title of Emperor and the central part of the empire. If Lothar hadn't died young, then the world might be a very different place.

While the lands that were parts of Charles the Great’s empire have retained some taint of that association, other countries that did not are that experience have different legal and governmental cultures, and that difference is part of why the UK has been seeking to leave the European Union. There are other member countries that have problems with the EU, such as Spain, Italy, Greece, and the Eastern European countries. Part of Spain was under Charles the Great, but most of the country was not, and the part that was was lost after a short time. Italy was split during Charles' time and the division was close to where one would now divide Italy between North and South; the northerly part that was part of Charles' empire would rather stay in the EU and has the frugal attitude that is necessary. Portions of Eastern Europe were parts of the empire for various periods, and the clean government and low debt characteristics exist in varying degrees.

At this point, the EU is interesting and useful, but most members have had problems with it in some way. I think that it is only a matter of time before it will crumble. Some think it may coalesce into a single state. We will see. But regardless of the future, the Brexit vote was a mistake. The UK should remain in the EU with some exceptions, because it never was part of the Charles' empire, so it doesn't have the same attitudes and legal background.

But if you take nothing else from this post, then remember that Henri Pirenne is still worth reading.