Colloque (en ligne) – (De)Connections. From Henri Pirenne’s Divided Sea to the « Liquid Territories » of Global History

Webinar, 2 and 3 May 2022 – YOUTUBE.COM/LEMEUSP

Marcelo CÂNDIDO DA SILVA (Universidade de São Paulo)
Jean-Pierre DEVROEY (Université Libre de Bruxelles)
Alexis WILKIN (Université Libre de Bruxelles)

In recent years, it has become a commonplace to assert that medieval history is a European invention. This is true for the concept itself, but also for the chronology and certain interpretive models that derive from it. Indeed, at least since the 19th century, historians have tended to treat the Middle Ages as the prehistory of the nations of this continent, especially in its western part. However, national history has not been satisfied with projecting itself into the notion of the Middle Ages but has intervened in the very logic of organising the archives of this period. Thus, research topics as diverse and non-national as monasticism and religious orders, piracy, barbarian kingdoms, among others, ended up being interpreted within a territorial and institutional logic that corresponded roughly to the frame- works of modern nation states. In this perspective, the Mediterranean appears essentially as a frontier: an often- impassable barrier for international trade, especially from the eighth century onwards, and also the place of confron- tation between Latin and Greek Christians, between Latin Christians themselves and, above all, between Christians and Muslims. This shared Mediterranean was built at the cost of erasing the diversity within these communities and exaggerating the differences between them. The image of the Mediterranean as a divided sea owes much to the work of Henri Pirenne, in particular the classic Mahomet et Charlemagne, published in 1937, and to the article that gave rise to it, has been published almost one century ago, in 1922. Pirenne’s thesis, which associates the Muslim expansion of the 7th and 8th centuries with the closure of the Mediterranean to Christian trade and navigation, was soon the subject of much criticism. These criticisms showed the permanence of intense trade networks that were based in the Mediterranean and whose ramifications extended to Scandinavia, the Baltic and the North Sea. How- ever, the challenges to Pirenne’s thesis have not produced a connected history of the Mediterranean, whether from a political, economic or cultural point of view. Fernand Braudel’s Mediterranean, despite its innovative character, is still a shared sea, in which political actors and local societies are largely absent. The weight of national histories, as well as the imperatives of specialisation in the fields of history and archaeology, which led to the production of re- gional monographs, help to explain why historians did not embark very early on a connected history of the Mediter- ranean. The emergence of global history seems to have changed this. Horden and Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea (2000), already proposes another vision, which insists on the existence of micro-societies united by the sea, in a continuous movement of connectivity on a daily basis (through coastal shipping, roads), or sometimes experienced on exceptional scales (Roman supplies), and marked by incessant environmental challenges, to which these societies brought contrasting responses that have shaped the history of the great sea. The result of this investigation is there- fore a panoramic vision of a highly fragmented history, while also minimising the difficulties and gaps in this history.

From another perspective, David Abulafia’s work also rewrites Braudelian space, notably with The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (2011) and The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans (2019). These two books bring navigation techniques, competition and the role of the merchant as a smuggler back to the forefront of the debate.

Therefore, from the perspective of ‘liquid territories’, the river, the sea and even the ocean constitute spaces of connection between communities rather than obstacles or borders (the same discourse is held for other physical barriers or limits, such as mountains). The analysis of the construction of the Iberian empires from the perspective of global history has shown, on the one hand, that these ‘liquid territories’ are formidable tools of communication, circulation and domination, in a word, vectors of integration. On the other hand, it has also revealed that borders in the New World do not disappear, even if they do not have the rigidity of the borders of the nation state. These borders are part of a political game, appearing and disappearing according to the balance of power between the groups participating in the process of colonisation. The optimism born of connected history should not make us forget the limits of integration and connection.

This conference, organised on the occasion of the centenary of the 1922 article mentioned above, has a multi-scalar objective and is based on the fruitfulness of a shared vision by researchers in medieval, modern and contemporary history from Latin America and Europe. This is about:

  • Starting from Henri Pirenne’ work, to think about the tension between compartmentalisation and integra- tion, in order to better reflect on the ways in which « liquid territories » integrate and separate communities. The different models of connectivity, of centre and periphery, of world-economies conveyed by Pirenne, Braudel, Wallerstein or recently by Horden and Purcell or Wickham in the Mediterranean space, and their echo in the historiography of Latin American medievalists and modernists, will be discussed in an historio- graphical manner.
  • To assess the question of the reception of Pirenne’s work in Latin America, from 1922 to the present day, and in particular to reflect on the resonance that Pirenne’s work and ideas have had in the scientific commu- nity: The aim is to examine the way in which his vision of the Mediterranean has been appreciated, particu- larly in the light of his contacts with Latin American researchers, but also with the whole world of Portuguese and Spanish-speaking research; as well as the echoes that his vision of exchanges, connectivity and the re- lationship between centre and periphery have had.

Programme :


Opening presentations : 8h00-9h30h (GMT – 3) / 13h00-14h30 (GMT+1)

La mer qui sépare ou réunit. Réflexions inspirées par la Méditerranée, de Pirenne à Horden et Purcell, en passant par Braudel – Alexis Wilkin (Université Libre de Bruxelles-Sociamm) and Jean-Pierre Devroey (Université Libre de Bruxelles- Sociamm)

Expériences impériales prémodernes et « territoires liquides » – Marcelo Cândido da Silva (Universidade de São Paulo) and Maria Filomena Coelho (Universidade de Brasília)

Roundtable 1: 9h30-11h30 (GMT – 3) / 14h30-16h30 (GMT+1)

What Pirenne got right and what he got wrong in his thesis. A new appraisal – Eduardo Manzano Moreno (University of St. Andrews)

Competition on a Connected Sea: The Material Culture of Expanding Empires in the Mediterranean – Joanita Vroom (Universiteit Leiden)

Remettre l’Europe à sa (juste) place. La scène maritime des Grandes découvertes (Insulinde, XVIe-XVIIe siècles) – Romain Bertrand (Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris)

Roundtable 2 : 13h00-15h00 (GMT – 3) / 18h00-20h00 (GMT+1)

Une ville au cœur de la connectivité méditerranéenne: Sabta (Ceuta), Xe-XVe s. – Yassir Benhima (Université Paris III – Sorbonne Nouvelle)

Les cités contre les villes dans les thèses piréniennes – André Miatello (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais)

Marchands, moines et sauniers. Les communautés côtières de l’Atlantique au premier Moyen Âge – Adrien Bayard (Université d’Artois)

Roundtable 3: 9h00-11h00 (GMT – 3) / 14h00-16h00 (GMT+1)

Very far from the Mediterranean: the impact of Pirenne’s theses on Argentinian Medieval Studies (1940- 1990) – Eleonora Dell’Elicine (Universidad de Buenos Aires)

Deux formes d’engagement politique, Pirenne et Sanchez-Albornoz – Agnès Graceffa (ULB – SociAMM)

Henri Pirenne in Mexico: influence and impact – Diego Spínola (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México)

Concluding round table: 11h00-12h00 (GMT – 3) / 16h-17h00 (GMT+1)

Neri de Barros Almeida (Universidade Estadual de Campinas) Chris Wickham (University of Oxford)

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