‘What I ultimately want’, mused Henri Pirenne, then a fresh young university student, in a diary entry of 1882, ‘is not to waste my life in pure erudition like a university professor, but by means of the study of the past to obtain facts, arguments and new insights that I can apply to the study of the present’.1

At first sight this statement is hardly surprising: many students of history begin their study because they want to understand the present by knowing about the past. Nevertheless, in Pirenne’s case it is significant because it gives an early intimation of the sort of scholar Pirenne wanted to be and in the end was, with great success. Pirenne had no ambition to dwell in an academic ivory tower and be satisfied with what, after the First World War, he would call – with a sneer at the German historians – ‘mere specialism’.2 His professional motivations, as well as epistemic, were explicitly social and ideological, or as Bunna Ebels-Hoving put it: ‘it never occurred to him to see the historian as anything but socially complicit’.3 That link between Pirenne’s scholarly activity and the social task, not to say mission, that he set himself earned him an extraordinarily successful career and a double reputation. Pirenne, at least in Belgium, is regarded not only as a ‘father of history’4, but also as great citizen.

Certainly in the aftermath of the First World War, Pirenne has spoken very openly about the moral responsibility of scholars and historians in particular.5 That is not surprising: for Pirenne and many of his contemporaries, moral superiority was a conditio sine qua non for scholarly virtue and in no way in contradiction to the positivist primacy of objective fact-based historical scholarship, which was the dominant idea of the time. History education was focussed just as much on producing good citizens as good scholars, and historians were even assessed posthumously on their moral legacy – in this connection necrologies are very illustrative.6

Far more implicit for Pirenne and his colleagues was (self) reflection on the motives behind the choice of research themes, the interpretation of facts and the practice and performance of historians. Nevertheless, it is just such underlying, often culturally determined and unconscious inspiration, motivation and aims that form the scholarly persona of the historian.7 That was the case too with Pirenne. As a prominent member of the French-speaking liberal bourgeoisie, a fiery patriot, an outraged victim of war – in short as a child of his times and social class – these aspects of his character were forcefully present in his ideas, research themes and practices as an historian.8 In the first part of his career, roughly between 1885 (the year of his first university post) and 1914 (the start of the First World War), Pirenne’s ideological, political and moral motivation and aims were anything but a hindrance to his scholarly fame. Quite the opposite – they boosted his rapidly rising reputation as a scholarly and social authority. In the second, post-war, phase of his career, along with the social upheaval, a growing tension arose between his epistemic aims and his political and social goals.

In what follows it will be demonstrated how the sort of scholar that Pirenne had long represented with self-evident conviction and with great academic and social recognition came under increasing pressure, how, not without difficulty, it bent with the wind of the changing times and in the end could not avoid some painful cracks.

The liberal humanist

Thanks to an unprecedented wave of industrialisation, by the late nineteenth century the new Belgian nation had reached the position of the fifth most important economic power in the world, the fourth biggest trading nation and, at least for the wealthier classes, the most prosperous country in the world.9 All over Europe national pride was in its heyday at this time and this was certainly the case in Belgium. The belle époque was a period of unbridled capitalist expansion for the country, with the acquisition of the Congo in 1908 as the crowning achievement.10 With the most liberal constitution and an international cultural appeal, Belgium was the cosmopolitan Mecca of modernity. The liberal industrial bourgeoisie was the leading class in the country. Among the prominent members of this political, economic and cultural elite was a family of textile entrepreneurs from the Walloon industrial city of Verviers and it was into this family that Pirenne was born in 1862.11 Although he had been intended to follow a career as engineer or barrister, once at university the young Pirenne quickly became fascinated by history. At the same time, as he confided in his diary, he wanted emphatically to combine his scholarly activities with the ‘practical, active life’.12 The calling to be a socially involved historian did not come out of the blue: it was a result of the increasing status of scholarly activity on the one hand, and of his upbringing on the other.

In the modern, rapidly industrialising society, science was regarded as the driving force of progress. With increasing support from the state, academic institutions and courses began to make themselves more professional ‘intellectual industries’.13 In this process, science grew into an explicitly civil culture, which offered scholars interesting possibilities with regard to both career and status.14 This applied not only to the branches of science that held out possibilities for technical use, but just as much to historians whose view of the past and future of their country’s history was of great importance for the nation. Both historians and statesmen were imbued with the idea that the point of writing and teaching history was to simultaneously stimulate knowledge, morality and a sense of civil virtues.15 For the French historian Gabriël Monod (1844–1912), one of Pirenne’s teachers during his studies in Paris, the symbiosis of scientific, moral and patriotic aims was ‘the true essence and contribution of history: the development of humanity and civilisation’.16 The American historian Carl Becker (1873–1945) even went so far as to say that ‘the value of history is not scientific but moral’.17 Whoever served science also served civilisation – and not infrequently the primary focus was on one’s own nation. With all this display of service to society and to the state, it was somewhat paradoxical that the virtue of objectivity was regarded as the supreme moral guide for the historian.18 The objective scientific method, so it was believed, led to a superior form of truth. Only by means of ‘objective research’, that is to say free from an explicit personal standpoint or judgement, the historian-as-impartial-judge received legitimation on both the epistemological and the social level.19 In this way scientific knowledge served as a basis for socio-political action, in the first place for those in authority and policy makers who took advantage of this knowledge, and in some cases also for historians themselves.20

The growing social status of an academic career was not the only factor in Pirenne’s calling as a committed historian: the circle in which he grew up provided an ideal and fertile ground. His father Lucien-Henri, a major manufacturer in the textile industry, after office hours was active in the progressive-liberal party as councillor for public works and member of a freemason’s lodge. Pirenne was raised with liberal-humanistic values and convictions (the importance of reason, Bildung, tolerance, a critical mind, freedom of opinion and service to the general good, to name but a few), by a devout Catholic mother, which only underlines the importance of tolerance and freedom in the family.21 At the University of Liège where Pirenne began his higher education in 1879, the modernisation of history education had been started recently by his instructors Godefroid Kurth (1847–1916) and Paul Fredericq (1850–1920). Both had studied in Germany, the leading light in the scientific approach, and they had introduced the seminary system (known as the cours pratiques) in their own country.22 Together with the German scientific model the corresponding scientific persona, based on classic liberal principles, appeared in Belgium as well. The modern ‘man of science’ was teacher, civil servant, researcher, Bildungsbürger and pater familias all at the same time. Pirenne was immediately attracted to this emergent academic culture. There was so much new ground to be broken, so many truths to discover, so much social progress to be made – these appealed to both Pirenne’s intellectual appetite and to his liberal entrepreneurial spirit.23 Moreover he became inspired by the enticing, deeply engaged project of modern history as it was so passionately taught by Kurth, his mentor in Liège. In this connection, on the occasion of Pirenne’s appointment to the University of Ghent in 1886, Kurth gave him – this time as a colleague – a last unmistakable message:

Please do not forget when you come to hold the chair in history that you will be not only a representative of science and that you will not just impart scholarly ideas to young people: whether you want to or not, you will find yourself to be the bearer of a social mission, and from the realms of the past, your words shall reach across to echo in the present, where they will form the seeds of life and death. For it is both the honour and the danger of the historical sciences never to be able to stand unconsciously in the field of pure intelligence and to be constantly involved with life and to react to it.24

Kurth’s influence on the formation of Pirenne’s scientific persona, at least in the sense of the social mission of the profession of historian, must not be underestimated. Nevertheless Pirenne differed from his former teacher in one essential point: to him the motor of history was not a Divine Creator, but a creative mankind, who with never-ending diligence works on the furtherance of the economy, the intellect and the cultural patrimony. This pluralistic, humanistic vision was an impetus to his career.

The bridge builder, ‘man of the world’ and academic entrepreneur

While Kurth and Fredericq had been there at the birth of modern Belgian history, it was Pirenne who surpassed them and became the ‘father’ of the discipline.25 That was the result not only of his productivity, the quality of his work and his great sociability; it also had an ideological reason.26 Far more than the Catholic apologist Kurth or the Protestant, pro-Flemish liberal Fredericq, Pirenne represented the neutral scientific persona that was part of the modern academic culture (and that in Belgium moreover, fused seamlessly with a divided political landscape that longed for unity). Naturally, just like his teachers, Pirenne represented his own political, ideological and gender class – that of the white male liberal bourgeoisie that had made reasonableness, impartiality and moral superiority its professional ethos, and modern science its intellectual playing-field. ‘With the pathos of reasonable men who were above the interests and class, (they, S.K.) saw themselves as impartial spokesmen of the general interest’, was the way in which Cathryn Carson described the persona of the late nineteenth-century (German) scholars. Pirenne too, belonged to these ‘public-minded, reasonable men, standing above interests and classes’.27 Of all the virtues with which Pirenne was associated both during his lifetime and posthumously, his talents for reasonableness, impartiality, tolerance and consensus are by far the most famous.28 In the biography Francois-Louis Ganshof (1895–1980), one of Pirenne’s most renowned pupils, these also form a central point:

The great sense of justice that Pirenne showed in the exercise of his functions and his judgements should be fully emphasised here. [...] The concern for being honest in life is yet another facet of the virtue that impelled him to such rigorous objectivity in his academic work. During his opening speech at the 5th International Conference of Historical Scholarship, he told the historian who was bound by objectivity ‘to suppress and transcend his most precious prejudices, his most stubborn convictions and his most natural and respectable feelings.’ By speaking these words Pirenne formulated a rule not only for intellectual work, but also a true rule for life, a moral prescription.29

Modern historical scholarship demanded a neutral impartial standpoint of every historian, but in the hornets’ nest of the various conflicting communities and ideologies that was Belgium it was absolutely essential. Partisanship divided, but objective scientific debate – free of prejudice or ideological interests – had the capacity to unite. In other words, the practice of scholarship revolved not only on its own rightness, but also on public interest – that of scholarship, society and the nation.

Thus the ideal historian was a builder of bridges, just as Pirenne was – someone who linked people and opinions, who could bring about consensus and mutual understanding, who increased insight and at all times guarded the greater public interest. For Pirenne, in order to fulfil this significant task, historians were supposed to possess the right qualities:

Source criticism is not the whole story. [...] The historical construction, or if you wish, the historical synthesis demands qualities that are not the concern of this activity – clarity of mind, the capacity to distinguish between the essential and the incidental, the skill to understand the links between phenomena, the aptitude to distance one’s self from the present in order to interpret the past and, yet, also a knowledge of the political and social life that one can only acquire by a certain familiarity with present day life, through imagination, the absence of prejudices and finally a psychological discretion that springs from a nuanced culture that is characteristic of what I, in the best and broadest sense of the word, would call the man of the world.30

A good historian then, also had to be a ‘man of the world’, a man with cosmopolitan flair and enlightened values, a man who was as sensible of contemporary politics and the social system as of the niceties of the past, a man who dared to combine professional knowledge with imagination, a man who loved the full life – in short, the type of man who, when in a strange city, would rather go and see the brand new town hall than yet another cathedral.31 As proof of Pirenne’s great passion for the ‘practical, active life’ – and in addition to his impressive oeuvre – an equally impressive list could be made of initiatives and memberships that can be called ‘academic entrepreneurship’ because they had the aim of developing the scholarly industry in the broadest sense of the word. Pirenne played a leading role in the founding and expansion of countless associations, institutions, councils and societies. He set up national and international cooperative relations, was at the root of great educational reforms and supported the interests of libraries and archives. As a gifted speaker at public lectures, as an authoritative voice in public debate and as guardian of the historic patrimony of his city he was also active in popularising scholarship – because that too, was scholarship in the service of the public interest.32

The national historian

However, the professional project with the greatest social impact and the reason for the unprecedented rise in his career, of course, was Pirenne’s role as the national historian of Belgium. When he began his career as a young medievalist in 1885, the nation was still largely legitimated in the historical field by romantic tales. Thus Pirenne did not hesitate when, about the turn of the century, Karl Lamprecht (1856–1915) offered him the chance to write a new history of Belgium for his series Geschichte der Europäischen Staaten.33 It had long been a cherished plan of Pirenne to examine the origins of what was later to become Belgium, as can be seen from an entry in his diary from 1888: ‘I must make note here of my project to write a history of the Low Countries. What will come of that? Perhaps it will be forgotten before I read these lines again’.34 The plan was not forgotten, even though it would be more than ten more years before the Histoire de Belgique was first published. Pirenne’s magnum opus would eventually appear in seven volumes spread over a period of thirty-three years (1899–1932). During that process a remarkable symbioses emerged between the ambitious Pirenne and the young nation of Belgium, and the initial scholarly project was complemented with an emphatic social and political component.

The growing tension on various grounds – ideological (Catholics versus Liberals), socio-economic (socialists versus conservative economic powers) and between communities (Flemish versus Walloon) – demanded a stronger defence of the national narrative. Pirenne’s Histoire de Belgique provided that: it gave the country a new common past and thereby also a new identity. The work immediately brought Pirenne national renown and gave him a role as one of the first public intellectuals of Belgium. His lectures became crowded events, his readers spread far beyond the boundaries of the academic community – witness the fact that his influential article ‘Les périodes de l’histoire sociale du capitalisme’ was reprinted by the socialist Librairie du Peuple.35

The Histoire de Belgique was also the reason for an important personal rapprochement between Pirenne and King Albert I, who as head of state had the final say in the state university. Around the turn of the century the connection between the monarchy and the state university was still close. The approbation of the king was seen as the highest form of scholarly prestige. The strong focus of the academic culture on the nation and the monarchy, according to Henning Trüper, played an important role in the establishment of the professorial persona in the first half of the twentieth century.36 In Pirenne’s case however, the relation with the king went further than a simple exchange of telegrams on the occasion of important life events or professional achievements. King Albert invited Pirenne to informal walks by the sea or intimate dinners at the palace. With a mixture of pride and amazement Pirenne wrote to his mother in 1919 about one of these meetings: ‘It was an extremely intimate dinner, there was no-one else’.37 For his youngest son Robert, the event illustrated that ‘there is no honour that has not been bestowed on him’.38 Pirenne was invited to join the elite group Cercle des XV, where sensitive matters of state were discussed to the accompaniment of a glass of good Burgundy.39 Moreover, in 1920 his son Jacques was appointed history tutor to the young Prince Leopold.40 The Pirennes became the purveyors to the royal household of scientific knowledge that helped to support national unity and the monarchy. On two occasions Pirenne considered an even more active (or more visible) political role. If the elections of 1912 had not resulted in a defeat for the Liberals, he would have withdrawn from the professorship in order to become a minister in a party of national unity.41 In 1920 too, he came close to a governmental post: he was asked to agree to have his name on the list of the Parti de Renaissance National, but his function as rector prohibited him taking up a political mandate.42

Pirenne in his student uniform in Leipzig, 1885.

Université libre de Bruxelles, 026PP/01/04/003, Notes de cours, 1879–1885.

The high degree of social recognition that came to Pirenne as national historian has contributed greatly to his somewhat mythical reputation.43 Nevertheless, it also lay at the root of the first conflict between his scientific aims and his political and social motivation. After all, not everyone was convinced that Pirenne’s vision of his country’s history served the public weal. Even before the First World War and to Pirenne’s annoyance, incidental criticisms of the Histoire de Belgique arose from both the Flemish and Walloon sides.44 In an attempt to preserve his moral integrity, Pirenne emphasised ever more strongly the impartiality with which he studied and reported the history of Belgium.45 Nevertheless, he did not yet consider re-evaluating his role as national historian on the grounds of this limited dissent – for this the impact of a world war was needed.

The victim of war

The First World War brought unprecedented challenges to historians. On the eve of the outbreak, Pirenne, as many Europeans, was scarcely aware of the threat of conflict. The brutal declaration of war came as a shock, certainly when it appeared that renowned German historians also seemed to defend the war. Karl Lamprecht, Fritz Arnheim (1866–1922) and many others, who until shortly before had been friends and even scientific examples, were suddenly dangerous pan-Germans with imperial ambitions on Belgium. Under occupation, academic life came to an abrupt halt. The universities remained closed, teaching and meetings could only take place clandestinely. Due to his opposition to the reopening in Flemish of the German occupied university, in 1916 Pirenne, along with Fredericq, was deported to Germany where he spent two and a half years in exile. In a war diary and in separate ‘Reflexions d’un solitaire’ he testified to the radical ideological transformation he underwent.46

On his return to Belgium Pirenne was hailed as the symbol of intellectual and moral resistance to the German aggressor. To an even greater extent than before the war, he took on the role of public intellectual and used that position to challenge the causes of the war and the aberrations of the German scholars. Asking himself if European historians had not failed just as much as political leaders and if they could not have done more to avert the First World War, he decided: ‘I have come to believe that we must change our historical methods a great deal. In my opinion, they seem to be too mechanical, too far removed from their real subject – life.’47 Pirenne’s war experiences, and more specifically his outrage at the German scholars’ support of the war, had not led him to abandon his pre-1914 view that social involvement was an essential part of historical scholarship, but in fact had even strengthened it. More than ever scholarship had to be in service of the ‘public interest’, even if this was now more emphatically defined as the progress of the whole of humanity and not only the concern of narrow national interests. Pirenne’s plea for comparative history and his efforts to bring about international academic collaboration after the war accorded with this striving for ‘a history (that would be, S.K.) increasingly scientific, increasingly impartial and increasingly more humane’.48 With a great deal of censure he contrasted this to the immorality of the German historians: ‘(The German historians, S.K.) without realising it, have become simple specialists, devoted only to problems related to knowledge or polemics. These historians have voluntarily placed themselves outside history.’49

Much ink has been spilled on Pirenne’s treatment of Germany. In fact Pirenne did not so much reject the German historical method as the blameworthy direction that German historians had taken recently – that of an abhorrent narrow nationalistic and essentialist vision of history.50 Together with a moral judgement and a logistical boycott (the exclusion of German historians from history conferences), Pirenne embarked on a scientific revision of some of his own pre-war works. Before 1914 he had consistently presented Belgium as the junction of German and Roman influences – this was the central idea on which his Histoire de Belgique was based. Now he argued that from time immemorial Belgium was more attracted to the superior Western (French) culture than the Eastern (German) culture.51 Moreover, Pirenne’s resolute rejection of all that hinted at nationalism and racial theories caused him to set about a semantic revision of the pre-war volumes of the Histoire de Belgique. Comparative research with the editions published after 1918 showed that he systematically rewrote every passage in which the idea of ‘race’ appeared.52

With his plea for comparativism and his engagement with international cooperation, Pirenne chose a radical European project.53 In his post-war work (in particular his influential Mahomet et Charlemagne, published posthumously in 1937 but in preparation since 1922) he also increasingly looked beyond the frontiers of his own country, to eastern Europe and the Mediterranean areas. Nevertheless, more than other European historians he remained bound to his role of national historian. Between 1914 and the completion of his magnum opus in 1932 another three volumes of the Histoire de Belgique appeared. In the atmosphere of exalted patriotism after the war, Pirenne more than ever was regarded as a national icon. In 1921 he was honoured by King Albert and the Ligue Nationale du Souvenir as ‘one of the few people who truly personifies the national ideal’. He was sent abroad to speak about the origins and importance of the nation state now internationally known as ‘poor little Belgium’, and in countless national and international lectures he refuted the claims of the German and ‘Greater Netherlands’ historians that Belgium was an ‘artificial nation’.54 Pirenne’s treatment of the narrow nationalistic German historiography was in no way a hindrance to his continual (and even exalted) engagement as national historian after the war. Was not Belgium the prototype of the cosmopolitan, tolerant, freedom-loving and peace-loving Europe of the future?

The last Belgian

Pirenne’s ambiguous attitude after the First World War – hesitating between scholarly revenge and the worthy pursuit of objectivism, between growing internationalism and continuing patriotic pride – displayed the same mental desperation felt by so many intellectuals. Up to the First World War it was rare that the compatibility of professional and patriotic engagement was questioned in the community of scholars of history. The experiences of the War had mercilessly exposed the contradictions of academic research in the service of the nation.55 In the wake of this evolution criticism arose – from academic circles and beyond – of the role Pirenne had built for himself as ‘national historian in the service of public interest’.

The Belgian project to which Pirenne, as the principal representative (and in a certain sense even as the initiator), had bound his identity – Belgium as a cosmopolitan cultural mix and as a training ground for a peaceful, progressive and eminent civilisation – was increasingly undermined. At the international level the United States rapidly gained ground in both politics and scholarship after 1918.56 Moreover, in the post-war readjustments of the international playing fields of power the over-ambitious Belgium was quickly put in its place. Within its own borders the increased striving for autonomy of the Flemish and Walloons movements attacked the roots of Pirenne’s idea of a historic joint ‘Belgian civilisation’.57 Pirenne was blamed for nationalistic finalism: it was a recurring criticism that he presented Belgian history as a process in which the independence of 1830 must be regarded as the ultimate achievement.

Pirenne’s defence of his view of Belgian history automatically implied opposition to the ‘Dutchifying’ of Ghent University and a plea for national (and linguistic) unity.58 As rector of the university between 1919 and 1921 Pirenne managed, not without difficulty, to hold the tendencies in check. In the early 1920s the demands for the (partial) ‘Flemish-isation’ became ever more vociferous. Pirenne reacted strongly: the loss of French as the principal working language would lead to great cultural impoverishment, destroy the leading role of the university and greatly reduce the number of students. Above all, to Pirenne the demand for making Ghent University Flemish was the symbol of a radical and short-sighted Flemish nationalism that would mean the beginning of the end of the united Belgium that he had documented in his Histoire de Belgique. To Pirenne, the Belgian nationalism of which he was accused was the very antithesis of the abhorred narrow nationalism that had manifested itself in Germany and of which Flemish nationalism, partly due to the association with activism in the First World War, could be regarded as an off-shoot.59

In Pirenne’s fight to maintain Belgian unity, professional, political and strongly personal motives and aims became increasingly intertwined – particularly after his son Jacques Pirenne became the leading figure in the anti-Flemish opposition movement in the interbellum period. As a reaction to the proposal made by Minister Nolf in 1923 for a dual language system at the university, he set up the Ligue Nationale pour la défense de l’Université de Gand et la liberté des langues.60 In demonstrations, pamphlets and a formal appeal to the king that Henri Pirenne handed to the monarch personally, the organisation pointed out the importance of Ghent University for building the Belgian nation. After all, had not the historical research carried out at that university contributed considerably to the awareness of national unity among the people?61 It was a bitter pill for Pirenne that even the reference to his own scholarly prestige and to his dedication to the nation could not change the minds of the politicians.62

With the publication of a series of preparatory studies for his influential Mahomet et Charlemagne during the 1920s Pirenne continued to confirm his international scholarly reputation.63 In his own country however, the growing contestation of his role as national historian gnawed away at his authority. Thus the incontournable leader and guide of Belgian historiography at the end of his career became somewhat of a superseded icon of a Belgium that no longer existed. An extremely symbolic illustration of this loss of authority can be found in the report of the Faculty Committee of 22 October 1929, when a new dean was to be chosen – the Flemish-isation of Ghent University, by that time, had already become politically unavoidable. Up to that moment Pirenne, the eternal advocate of compromise, had always carried the greatest weight and always had the final word. Now political reality caught up with him and the new head of the university, August Vermeylen (1872–1945), simply set him aside.64

To put it briefly, the conflict concerned the political agenda of the vote whereby a French-speaking candidate from the Pirenne group stood against a Flemish candidate from the Vermeylen camp. Referring to the old university tradition of open debate and the importance of unanimity – especially on the eve of the celebration of Belgium’s centenary – Pirenne opposed a secret ballot. He hoped that in an open vote his authority would be sufficient to suppress the dissidents. However, only some of those present applauded after his speech – an unprecedented humiliation for Pirenne and ‘his great defeat in the faculty’, according to Trüper.65 The secret ballot was taken and resulted in the selection of the Flemish candidate. Shortly after, the ‘Dutchifying’ was a fact. Pirenne requested retirement as emeritus and moved to Ukkel, never to return to Ghent. When Pirenne died in 1935, in consideration of the political sensitiveness, the government decided not to organise a state funeral. It was a final symbolic rejection of Pirenne’s engagement as national historian. In that sense the old idea of ‘Belgium’ died with him.


What can we learn from this biographical sketch with respect to the scholarly persona of Pirenne? Was his success due to the fact that, more than his contemporaries, he personified the ideal-typical scientist? Was he the model for a new type of scholarly persona? Or is the persona concept not really useful for an icon such as Pirenne who was both admired and opposed?

Caricature created by Henri Lemaire, published in L’Horizon Bruxelles on 2 November 1935 in response to Pirenne’s death.

Université libre de Bruxelles, 026PP/01/07/006, Hommages à Henri Pirenne, Tome II, Presse.

An interesting debate in this regard is the question whether or not Pirenne founded a school. Pirenne is known as the ‘father of the Ghent school of history’, but according to Walter Prevenier such a school has never existed.66 Pirenne’s students went in all directions, geographically, methodologically and thematically, so we cannot speak of an overarching structure or paradigm. Therefore Prevenier speaks of a ‘legacy’ to give a name to the continuity of the link with Pirenne rather than calling him the ‘father of a school’. The strength of this legacy was expressed, for instance at the International Historical Conference in Rome in 1955, when it appeared to be alive and well twenty years after his death.67

According to Marnix Beyen, on the contrary the Belgian historians could just as well present themselves as a ‘school’ because ‘they all saw themselves more or less as the children of Henri Pirenne’.68 Beyen even perceived something of a ‘Pirennian paradigm’ that seems to perfectly combine the influences of Pirenne’s own scholarly predecessors. The Pirenne school historian, according to Beyen, is a medievalist ‘with a strong methodological basis’ (cf. Ranke), ‘convinced of the influence of economic factors on history’ (cf. Lamprecht) and ‘concerned with both the German and French historical world’ (cf. the syncretism of Kurth).69

Bryce Lyon, author of Pirenne’s biography published in 1974, brought forward yet another Pirenne model. In his in memoriam for Fernand Vercauteren (1903–1979), another of Pirenne’s alumni, he referred explicitly to Pirenne’s ‘Bourgundian man of the world’ and to a certain ‘Belgianness’ that went with it: ‘The Belgian tradition, most honored by Henri Pirenne and his school, has promoted a combination of intensive scholarship with joie de vivre. (The Pirennian historian, S.K.) was a thoroughly convivial person, never tired of travelling, meeting people, and telling stories about tables laden with food and drink’.70

Does all this mean that Pirenne presented a new sort of scholarly persona that was emulated even posthumously? Although the influence of Pirenne, particularly on contemporaries and immediate students of the master, was unmistakeably great, there is no consensus on the existence or the nature of a Pirenne school, let alone of a ‘Pirennian persona’. Pirenne combined the ideal collection of skills, values and standards that were required of historians in his time with very specific personal characteristics, such as notable emotional intelligence, a talent for daring syntheses and one-liners, an exuberant social life and a great social openness and tolerance. At the same time he was inextricably linked to a certain era and a certain Belgium, which has died with him. Therefore the nostalgic idealisation of Pirenne by his students must also be interpreted as a longing for a long-vanished ‘Pirennian’ Belgium and its corresponding academic culture, just as Jan Dhondt’s criticism of Pirenne was also an unmistakeable attack on these old structures (and their principal representative, François Ganshof).71 Apart from being an influential scholar, Pirenne can better be regarded as a mythologised personality than scientific persona: the fact that he is often described in such terms as ‘icon’ or ‘phenomenon’ underlines this conclusion.