October 10, 732. The Dark Ages have never looked darker for a nascent Kingdom of the Franks. Subjected to heavy raids by invading Arabs, they are facing the largest attack in their history – one that might threaten to conquer France entirely. Only Charles Martel and his heavily armed militia will stand between the Arab raiders and Western Europe – and they will make their stand at Poitiers. Or Tours. (We actually don’t know.)
Now that I’ve used the term “Dark Ages” in my intro, it’s time to do a complete 180 and disavow the term. For a long time, historians referred to the period from 400 to 800 as the Dark Ages – and this was not, as you might think, because it was a bad time that was bad for everyone. The truth was that historians simply had a lack of written sources from the period. Compared to the veritable cornucopia of documents from the later Roman Empire, and the later cultural flowering of the High Middle Ages, we have very few documents with which to understand or interpret the Early Middle Ages. Indeed, archaeology has to fill in most of the gaps in places like Britain, Germany or Spain; there are time periods when we’re not even sure who’s in charge in large stretches of Europe.
But that doesn’t mean that people hated their lives. The “Fall of the Roman Empire” actually tended to be something of a boon for many local populations. They no longer had to pay taxes and provide troops for a distant foreign ruler, and the tax burden had been crushingly heavy in the last years of Roman rule. As “barbarian” Germanic rulers invaded the former Western Roman Empire, they didn’t destroy the local church or civil organizations, they just took them over. In an odd synthesis, barbarian kings that had never been concerned with much besides fighting, drinking, and tribal politics found themselves serving as law-givers, tax collectors, and religious leaders – the old functions of the Roman Emperor, now devolved to a local level. In short, the Roman ideas of rule and the barbarian ideas of kingship gradually merged into the medieval monarchies we’re more familiar with.
One such group was the Franks. Bursting out of Germany in the 300s AD, the Franks moved into the power vacuum left behind by the crumbling Romans and came to dominate the area around the city of Lutetia Parisiorum – the city that would become Paris. From there, the Franks spread their power across northern and central Gaul, setting up a tribal landed monarchy under the Merovingian Dynasty. The Franks, like the Visigoths in Spain or the Ostrogoths and Lombards in Italy, took over the old Roman structure of churches, provinces, and city governments, and just filled in the gaps. So rather than the famous “collapse of civilization” after Rome, there was a major change – but it was a shift, not a sudden decline. The Franks were in charge now, doing what the Roman governors and prefects had done, just in a different way.
One thing that shocked and scandalized the local Gallic-Roman elite, though, was how blatantly violent and murderous the Merovingian Dynasty was. One of the major issues with Frankish tribal law was that, unlike in later years when one son would inherit the kingdom, every time a king died his lands were split amongst his children. The upshot was that basically, every time a king died, his sons would get into massive blood feuds over who got what territory. The result was constant political chaos, with one man gaining prominence only on occasion before he died and the whole shitfest started over again. The political fracturing of the Frankish state actually enhanced the position of the Catholic Church throughout the 500s and 600s AD, since only they provided some long-term stabilization to the kingdom, and their support behind a chosen candidate often carried a lot of weight.
By the 700s AD, though, the constant infighting had turned the Merovingian Kings into little more than figurehead leaders. The real power behind the throne had become the “Mayors of the Palace,” men who had started as little more than chancellors but had turned into the main military and political leaders of the Frankish state. Much like the Shoguns would behave throughout Japanese history, the Mayors of the Palace were essentially military dictators that dominated their feeble monarchs. By 715, the Frankish Mayor of the Palace was a man named Charles Martel – Martel meaning “hammer.” When some dude is called “the hammer” by OTHER people that should give you an idea of how powerful he is. It was a good thing that the Franks had strong leadership, too, because the storm was coming.
It had been less than a hundred years since the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and the Caliphate was spreading hard and fast across the known world. The Muslim conquests were among the most remarkable military and political achievements in the history of humanity, and the Umayyad Caliphate was the greatest power in the world by the 700s AD. It stretched from the borderlands of China and India in the East across the Middle East and Egypt and well into North Africa. The Arab conquests seemed limitless, as provinces and nations fell before them. They had only been stymied once in the last century. During 717-718, Muslim armies had tried to capture Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and failed – a troubling setback to their previously unstoppable achievements.
Although the defeat at Constantinople kept Islam out of Eastern Europe for another 700 years – until the Ottomans came knocking – that did not stop efforts elsewhere, and soon Arab expansionists were turning their eyes to Western Europe. Having conquered all of North Africa, it was a quick hop across the straights of Gibraltar to Spain. The Muslim general Tariq ibn Ziyad landed in the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain in 711 AD. His landing site would be named “Jabal Tariq,” or the “Mountain of Tariq” by his Muslim followers – and “Jabal Tariq” would later become “Gibraltar.”
Tariq destroyed the army of Visigothic Spain at the Battle of Guadalete later that year, and within months the Arabs had overrun almost all of Spain except for a few mountain kingdoms in the north. Though these kingdoms were the seeds of future Christian Spain, the Muslims would rule a large portion of Spain for the next seven centuries. The cultural and artistic achievements of “al-Andalus,” Muslim Spain, were among the greatest of the Medieval Age and would have a heavy influence on Spanish and later Latin American civilization – but that was in the future. As it stood now, the rapid absorption of Spain into the Umayyad Caliphate left the Frankish kingdom vulnerable to invasion. Before they knew it, Charles Martel and his Merovingian puppets were suddenly on the frontline of the war against the Arab invaders.
The Franks weren’t even united at this point. Charles Martel was still fighting wars to reunify the Frankish realms under the rule of his current puppet king, and one of his main opponents was Odo, the powerful Duke of Aquitaine (today most of southwestern France) with his capital at Bordeaux. He had declared his independence from the Frankish Kingdom and earned Charles’ wrath, whereupon Charles invaded Aquitaine and subdued Odo in 718. After defeating his rival, Charles – not fully aware of the Muslim threat from the south – turned towards the German frontier to secure his eastern flank, fighting the Saxons, Swabians and Bavarians. Charles spent year after year to secure his position in hard fighting, even as the Arabs began to raid the southern fringes of the Frankish domain. Only by 725 did Charles return his attention to southern Gaul.
Odo of Aquitaine feared for his future, since he was located between aggressive Muslims to the south and an aggressive Charles to the north. He had defeated a major Muslim attack on his capital in 721 at the Battle of Bordeaux – the first Western Christian ruler to defeat an Arab army in battle – but his position was still fragile. Odo therefore allied with a renegade Muslim leader named Uthman ibn Naissa. That alliance ended up provoking a reaction from the Umayyad Governor of Spain, Abdur Rahman al-Ghafiqi, AND from Charles, who was convinced (correctly) that Odo was trying to squirm out from under his rule. Charles Martel invaded Aquitaine and socked Odo in the nose once again in 731, leaving him weakened for the events of the next year.
For 732, Abdur Rahman planned a major expedition north. The defeat at Bordeaux some years beforehand had convinced the Arab leadership that these Franks might actually be something of an obstacle, and he wanted to assert Muslim military supremacy north of the Pyrenees Mountains. He began to assemble a heavy strike force of Arab cavalry – some of the best cavalry in the known world – for his expedition north into the lands of Gaul that were occupied by this Frankish people. What his intention was exactly is somewhat unclear; historians differ SHARPLY on the actual size of his army. The medieval chroniclers describe an army 400,000 strong, which is obviously false; some modern historians have rounded it down to as low as 20,000. Based on the normal size of armies at the time (which was quite small, Tariq only invaded Spain with 7,000 men), the closest estimate is between 25,000 and 40,000.
This is critical, because the size of the army helps answer the key question of Abdur Rahman’s intent. A large army might indicate that he was invading to conquer and stay; a smaller army might indicate that he planned nothing more than a large raid. Abdur Rahman’s eventual target – the monastery at Tours – seems to indicate a raid for plunder and profit, rather than a concerted effort to conquer Frankish Gaul. On the other hand, the previous and future activities of Arab armies in southern France indicate a wholly different strategy of gradual conquest. It is safe to assume that Abdur Rahman’s invasion of the Frankish lands was opportunistic: if he conquered something, cool; if not, stabby shooty plunder looty.
Abdur Rahman and his Arab army first took out the turncoat Muslim Uthman ibn Naissa, then swung north into Odo’s territory of Aquitaine. Odo would not have a chance this time; Abdur Rahman blew his force to bits, sending the rogue Frankish Duke scurrying north as the Muslim armies plundered his lands. Odo fled to Paris, the base of his great rival Charles Martel, to beg for aid. Charles agreed only on the condition that Odo swear fealty and never again rebel against him. With that promise, Charles assembled an army and began to march south, angling for a confrontation with the Arab invaders.
The Frankish army of the time was far from a professional organization, mainly consisting of feudal warriors in the service of the Mayor of the Palace. Despite how that sounds, though, most of these warriors were highly experienced and well-armed, and many of them were long-term veterans of Charles Martel’s campaigns. They had followed “The Hammer” to the Rhine, to the Alps, and to the Pyrenees, and they trusted their leader. The Franks, contrary to the future portrayal of medieval knights, fought mainly as heavily armored spear infantry in dense formation. The age of the mounted chivalric warrior was still in Europe’s future, and warfare in Western Europe was still ruled by infantry. Charles Martel probably had no more than 30,000 men, and all sources agree that he was heavily outnumbered by the Arab invaders.
The army he faced consisted mainly of Arabs and Arab allies – largely North African Moors – who fought from horseback, depending on courage and religious zeal to carry their attacks home. They fought primarily with the scimitar or the lance, and suffered from a relative lack of armor and few missile weapons. Their standard method of attack was the mass cavalry charge, which to be honest usually worked. Let’s face it – a cavalry charge is utterly terrifying, and even the threat of one is enough to make undisciplined soldiers flee. Both armies had virtually no supply train, so their decisions to fight were dictated as much by the weather and their food supplies as by tactical or strategic considerations.
The two armies approached each other slowly in late autumn 732. Abdur Rahman’s army had been looting across the local area, and approached the Frankish force while burdened with loot. The two armies finally ran into each other at an unknown location anywhere between Tours to the north and Poitiers to the south – hence why this battle is often known by both names. The two armies squared off for days, with Charles using the dense forest and hills to conceal his smaller numbers, while Abdur Rahman tried to consider his options. Charles refused to attack his opponent, remaining in a defensive stance, but the Arab governor could not back down from a fight or risk losing face among his soldiers. Attacking was risky too, since it would mean leaving all their loot behind. The Franks and Muslims eyed each other for a week like wary boxers, before Abdur Rahman finally decided to risk an attack.
On October 10, 732, the Muslim army went onto the offensive. The details of the battle are obscure and fragmented; medieval chroniclers, especially in the Early Middle Ages, are notoriously inexact and vague about things like tactics and exact narratives of military encounters. This is largely because most of them were clergymen who had never experienced battle or war themselves, and THIS is largely because the clergy were the only ones literate and dedicated enough to write long-ass chronicles about a bunch of dead people when those beetroots aren’t going to plant themselves. It’s no exaggeration to say that without medieval monks and bishops, we wouldn’t know 90% of what we DO know about this time period. It’s also fair to say that they aren’t always as helpful as we’d like.
From what we can surmise, the Franks formed a large defensive square formation, much like a Greek phalanx or a later pike square. Charles, familiar with Muslim tactics, used this formation to counter the famous cavalry charge. Abdur Rahman had not conducted proper intelligence surveys or scouting of the Frankish realm, so probably underestimated the ability of the Frankish leader and the experience of his troops. The Muslim general thought he was facing a ragtag bunch of militia, and if he had been right his charges probably would have scattered them. As it turned out, the Arab cavalry impaled itself in wave after wave of charges against the heavily armored Frankish infantry, and the javelins and throwing axes of the Franks inflicted severe damage on the Muslim attackers.
The Muslim armies that had carried territory after territory and defeated army after army had been bit by the victory bug. Abdur Rahman was not the military genius that early Arab generals had been, and lacked their flexibility. Much like Ambrose Burnside, the Civil War general at Fredericksburg, when one charge failed he ordered another, hoping that would fix the problem. These constant attacks demoralized the Muslims and encouraged the Franks, and gave Charles Martel the opening he needed. He and Odo of Aquitaine led a small force of horsemen around the Muslim flank, angling at the invaders’ camp. Some of the Muslim troops, fearing for the safety of accumulated months’ of loot, panicked and raced for the camp to secure their spoils of war. The rest of the army saw this, took it for a retreat, and began to flee.
Abdur Rahman tried to rally his troops and prevent them from routing, but he made himself a prominent target for the pursuing Frankish infantry, who hacked him down. The Muslim army collapsed in on itself, and once word got out of their leader’s death they just kept running. Charles Martel had assumed the battle would resume the next day; imagine his surprise when he woke up and found the Muslims gone, with all their loot left behind. The Franks didn’t bother trying to chase down their lighter, mounted foe, but instead busied themselves with picking up the loot. They had no inkling of it at the time, but they had just stopped the Caliphate’s invasion of Europe at its high water mark. The Arabs would never get so far again.
The battle of Tours is somewhat exaggerated as a turning point, even to the extreme of being included in lists of “most decisive battles in history” more frequently than it deserves to be. It was not the last Arab invasion of the Frankish realm, or even the most dangerous. That one was probably in 735, when the new governor of Arab Spain invaded southern France and conquered multiple cities on the coast. Pockets of Muslim power would remain along the southern frontier until 759, when Charles Martel’s son Pippin the Short would dig them out. For the most part, though, Islam settled into Spain and never made a serious effort to conquer the northern lands again – if that’s even what Abdur Rahman’s raid was. Their failure to advance farther north was probably due as much to internal struggles as it was to the Frankish victory.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine what a Muslim victory at Tours would have implied for the future of the Frankish Kingdom. Eventually, this tribe of warriors would stamp its name on the land today known as France. Eventually, Charles Martel’s grandson Charlemagne would kick-start the rival of Western European civilization in the 800s AD that became the medieval Europe we all know and love. Whether, as some claim, Charles Martel “saved Christian Europe” is a matter of serious debate. Apart from that, Martel’s victory certainly secured the future of France and the Carolingian Dynasty, and without those in the mix there’s no telling what Europe would look like today.
The Battle of Tours was not important for some “Christian vs. Muslim” reason, then, but for the role it played in shaping the future of Western Europe and France itself. No need to turn it into something it’s not. Not everything has to fit a convenient modern narrative.