The Birth of Western Economy: Economic Aspects of the Dark Ages

By Robert Latouche | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
The Eclipse of Town Life and the influence of the Church on its Evolution

A FTER THE FIRST BARBARIAN invasions in the third century, town life throughout Western Europe suffered an eclipse from which it did not recover until the eleventh century. This broad generalization has become something of a truism, a commonplace which has crept into every textbook. Henri Pirenne, who took the view that the history of the ancient world continued up to the Saracen conquest, conceded the towns a languishing survival during Merovingian times. The reality was far more complex and subtle. The word 'town' is a general term which has still to be accurately defined. It suggests a closely knit human settlement which, by reason of its density and the way of life of its people as a whole, has ceased to look like a village and at the same time has lost direct contact with the land. This we believe to be the only valid definition which will cover human communities as widely different from each other as a city of the ancient world, a medieval and a modern town. Viewed in this light, the town represents a permanent element in world civilization; it is the tangible expression of man's need to live in groups. To speak of the decay of town life is meaningless. At certain periods, however, it does undergo a kind of temporary eclipse when economic conditions no longer allow the people crowded together in a community to find within its confines adequate provision for food and lodging. In a country under enemy occupation, strict rationing imposed on an entire population brings hardship to

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