October 10, 732
It’s the date that one man changed everything. Well, maybe not everything, just the course of European history.
As a historian I’ve long known that the Battle of Tours is a key moment in world history. Why doesn’t it receive more than a paragraph or two in world history textbooks? I can’t really answer that, but I suspect it has something to do with political correctness.
Born in Belgium in 686 AD, Charles Martel is one of the most important figures in Western European history. Not only did he save Europe from certain defeat at the hands of the Arabs, but he is Charlemagne‘s grandfather, and founder of the European Middle Ages. He is also a bridge between the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties. There’s something fascinating about the Merovingians. Especially Childeric and his bees. Charles Martel lived during that murky era a few centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. That bleak time known as the Dark Ages happens is my favorite time period in history. The Franks are the leading military power in Europe during this time, and Charles Martel is their leader. Unfortunately for modern historians, sources are thin, facts are scarce, and it’s a time of legend and myth.
Back to Charles Martel. Why is he so important? Because if he had lost the Battle of Tours everything that we know about world history would be different. Europe would have become an Islamic, instead of a Christian empire. The Franks and eventually the rest of Europe and England would have been overrun by the Umayyad Caliphate. If Charles Martel had died at Tours, then Charlemagne and the European Renaissance never would’ve happened. Of course that’s a lot of hypotheticals in history, but yes, the Battle of Tours is really that important.
Prelude to Battle
In 732 AD, the Umayyad Caliphate was one of the most powerful military forces in the world. They rule of almost all of Spain and they’re ready to expand. The Arabs defeated Count Odo, one of the Frankish military leaders, not once, but twice. Without turning this post into a Master’s thesis, Odo asked Charles Martel for help. Martel agreed to help Odo on the condition that Odo acknowledges Martel as the supreme Frankish power.
The Battle of Tours is also known as the Battle of Tours – Poitiers. Scholars disagree on how many soldiers actually met on the battlefield. Estimates vary from 15,000 – 80,000 on each side. Historians in the past tended to overestimate the number of Franks and proclaim that they won the battle with 4-1 odds. However, a recent analysis of the battle site indicates that each side probably mustered no more than 30,000 forces.The Frankish army and their allies faced an army of Arabs and Berbers led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi. The armies probably met where the rivers Clain and Vienne join between Poitiers and Tours. This battle site, along with the site of the Roman defeat at the Teutoberg Forest in Germany, are now on my must-see list.
Charles Martel and his men definitely had the home field advantage. The Franks were well-prepared, accustomed to the cold, and had a detailed knowledge of the land. Additionally, Martel’s army had the advantage of being required to defend their homeland at all costs. Abdul Rahman’s army was poorly equipped and in unfamiliar territory. Although the Franks were mainly a force of foot soldiers, they were well-disciplined and well-trained. These weren’t the part-time summer soldiers that were common in early medieval society. Charles Martel’s soldiers are paid a salary and drill full-time. Despite repeated attempts to break their line, the Franks crushed the Arabs. Abdul Rahman was killed in battle.
“And in the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Austrasians (Franks) carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts of the foe.” ~ translation from a medieval Arab text
The Franks defeat the Arabs, and they have no choice but to retreat. This was not the last Martel would see of the Arabs. He used the knowledge gained at Tours and the experience of his military veterans to secure several more defeats against the Arabs, eventually driving them out of Europe forever. Abdul Rahman’s son attempted another invasion, and Charles Martel defeated the Arabs once again, pushing them back into Spain forever. Charles Martel secured his place in history as the savior of western civilization. He also earned the name Martel, which means the “hammer.”
“Charles was that rarest of commodities in the dark ages: a brilliant strategic general, who also was a tactical commander par excellence, able in the crush and heat of battle to adapt his plans to his foes forces and movement — and amazingly, defeated them repeatedly, especially when, as at Tours, they were far superior in men and weaponry, and at Berre and Narbonne, when they were superior in numbers of brave fighting men.”
“The defeat of the Saracen invaders of Frankish lands at Tours (more properly Poitiers) in 732 A.D. was a turning point in history. It is not likely the Muslims, if victorious, would have penetrated, at least at once, far into the north, but they would surely have seized South Gaul, and thence readily have crushed the weak Christian powers of Italy. It is very unfortunate that we do not possess scientific accounts of Charles Martel’s great victory, instead of the interesting but insufficient stories of the old Christian chroniclers.” ~ Isidore of Beja’s Chronicle
October 10, 732 is a day in world history that should not be forgotten. It is one of those rare moments where the course of civilization hinged on a single event, and the future changed forever.