Back in the more leisurely period of my recent fact-cramming, when I took the time to read entire books on subjects I didn't know so well rather than just trying to memorize lists from the almanac, I picked up a book called A History of Europe: Volume II, From the Thirteenth Century to the Renaissance and Reformation at a used book store run by an expat Sox fan in Nakusp, B.C. I had never heard of the book, but it covered a period of history I knew almost nothing about, and it was one of those wonderful Anchor paperbacks from the '50s with a matte cover and deathlessly sturdy pages*, so I picked it up and soon started to learn a little about Popes and Antipopes, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Hanseatic League. (In my favorite passage in the book, Perrine sums up the entire period from the middle of the 13th century to the middle of the 14th: "No technical progress was manifested. Machinery and methods were still very much what they were in the days of ancient Egypt. The curing of herrings, first introduced in Holland, during the 14th century, seems to have been the only novelty of any importance to be recorded.")**
The book was so good--clear and lively and bewilderingly authoritative, with just the sort of opinionated-but-not-axe-grinding tone that's ideal for a sweeping history--that I started to become curious about the author. But because it was Volume II, it had no introduction, and so I had little background to go on. There was, though, this oblique remark in one of the blurbs on the back of the book: "Standing in a class by itself, the History of Europe is unique in plan, unique in origin and in the conditions under which it was composed; unique in the fact that it lay untouched for twenty years before again seeing the light of day," says Professor Gray Cowen Boyce of Princeton University. What "conditions"? Why did it "lay untouched for twenty years"? The short biographical note inside the book didn't explain further, except to say that Pirenne "was arrested and deported to Germany as one of the leaders of Belgium's passive resistance" during World War I. And so the mystery continued--and for a change in this age of immediate data retrieval it was allowed to marinate, because I was reading the book in a cabin in the woods with no access to the internet.
Most mysterious of all was a small footnote late in the book, evocative in its preposterous modesty. On page 227, after sweeping through two hundred years of political, religious, and economic history from the British Isles to Byzantium, Pirenne wrote, "The development of capitalism involved still further consequences,1" with the "1" leading to this apologetic note below: "Here I should need my books and my notes before I could say anything definite." Really: after detailing the monarchial lineages of Burgundy and Bohemia and the history of the Flemish weaving industry and a hundred other subjects, now he needs his notes?
On my return to the data hive I was able to find that, per Wikipedia, he had indeed written the History entirely from memory while held prisoner by the Germans, but I didn't get the fuller story until the copy of Volume I that I had ordered arrived in the mail. There, along with an admiring, even awed introduction by a younger Belgian scholar, is a preface by Pirenne's son Jacques, who published the history after his father's death and who tells of his father's wartime journey through German captivity after he, along with the rest of the faculty of the University of Ghent, refused to continue teaching during the German occupation of Belgium.
In both accounts Pirenne comes across as larger than life: courageous, selfless, and impossibly industrious. Immediately after his arrest he got right down to work, learning Russian from officers interned at his camp and teaching courses on economic history and the history of Belgium to hundreds of fellow prisoners. And then, after being transferred against his will to house arrest in a small German town, he embarked on his great project, writing a history of Europe without a library or his own materials to draw on. His son quotes Pirenne's description of his method:
I decided immediately that I could never hold out against the monotony of my detention unless I forced myself to undertake some definite occupation, with every hour of the day reserved for its special task. I continued the study of the Russian language.... Every afternoon, from two o'clock to five, I went for a walk. At five o'clock I set to work on the draft of a book of which I had often thought before the war, and of which I still carried the plan in my head. This occupied me until supper-time. I read the newspaper, and the day was done, and on the following day I observed the same timetable. I never departed from this regimen, whatever the weather or season.... Having no duties to perform, no work to do, and being free from all mundane or social obligations in my solitude, I tasted the charms of meditation, of the slow and progressive elaboration of the ideas that one carries in one's mind, the ideas with which one lives, and in which one finally becomes absorbed.
His detailed outline for the history extended up to the outbreak of the war he was living through, but in the actual writing he only made it as far as the Reformation before the armistice ended his exile and his project. (There is no Volume III.) He put the manuscript aside, planning to finish it one day, but was too busy completing his seven-volume History of Belgium and writing later works like Mohammed and Charlemagne ever to return to it again, and after his death in 1935, his son published it, having filled in dates and other small details his father was unable to confirm while writing.
Knowing this story, you can hear its echoes in some of Pirenne's implicit themes in the History: his dismissal of racial theories (so popular among his German captors) as a factor in history, his patriotic emphasis on the economic and political importance of his native, oft-occupied Low Countries. But along with those themes, one feels even more strongly his generosity toward the whole variety of cultures he describes and his striving for an objective view of history. His story echoes some of the most moving ones I know from the next world war, of scholars and artists whose faith in civilization led them to take the long view and soldier away at encyclopedically ambitious works even in the most desperate of circumstances: Klemperer's diaries and his analysis of Nazi language, Nemirovsky's unfinished Suite Francaise, and Auerbach's Mimesis, written, like Pirenne's History, in wartime exile with few scholarly resources to draw on.
However objective a tone and outlook Pirenne might have achieved, though, the effort it took can be imagined by his own short preface to the book, which he wrote in Germany in January 1917, just before he started on the manuscript and a little more than two years after his son Pierre had been killed in the Battle of the Yser. I quote it in full:
I am alone here with my thoughts, and if I cannot succeed in controlling them, they will end by allowing themselves to be controlled by my sorrow, my ennui, and my anxieties for my dear ones, and will drive me into neurasthenia and despair. I absolutely must react against my fate. "There are people," my dear wife writes to me, "who allow themselves to be prostrated by misfortune, and others who are tempered by it. One must resolve to be of these latter." I shall try, for her sake and my own.
At Holzminden the Russian students for whom I improvised a course of economic history expressed the desire, and I could see that it was sincere, that I should publish my lectures. Why should I not attempt to sketch here, in its broad outlines, what might be a History of Europe? The lack of books cannot prove a great handicap, since this is a question of a broad sketch only. I had already thought of it at Jena, and I made some notes for it. It seems to me that I saw certain relations unravelling themselves. In any case, this would be an occupation. It seems to me that I am no longer thinking very clearly, and my memory has certainly deteriorated. But perhaps the effort will do me some good. The essential thing is to kill time and not allow oneself to be killed by it.
I dedicate my work to the memory of my beloved Pierre, to my dear wife, and to my dear sons.
I'd like to learn more about Pirenne's history. There appears to be a scholarly biography from the '70s that I'll try to track down, but it seems like his story hasn't really been told, at least for an English-speaking audience. If I were as tireless and undaunted as Pirenne, no doubt I'd start teaching myself French, German, and Russian so that I could tell it myself.
*--Thanks to this Flickr feed I made the delightful discovery that the book was part of the line designed by none other than Edward Gorey, who often illustrated the covers but in this case only did the typography. I've already had Gorey on the brain, having toured the Gorey House on Cape Cod this summer and then read Alexander Theroux's kooky biography, about which I've been meaning to blog ever since.
**--My wife's favorite passage from the book, meanwhile, is one I read aloud to her. It's just a phrase from the opening sentence of chapter four, which begins, "The death and the catastrophic failure of Frederick II (1250)...." "The death and catastrophic failure?" she said and laughed. "That's so sad!"