The Most Famous Battle of the Eighth Century

Let’s look at the most famous battle of the eighth century, and one of the most famous in world history, the Battle of Tours.

First we have to figure out what to call it. Battles are usually named for a location, but the archaeologists have yet to pinpoint the exact location of this battle. It was fought somewhere between the towns of Poitiers and Tours, and so you’ll see it called either one of those. There was another Battle of Poitiers fought during the Hundred Years War, which is one reason why more people refer to the Battle of Tours, to avoid confusion.

The battle was fought in 732 between Charles Martel, father of Pepin and grandfather of Charlemagne, and the Arab ‘Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi of the Umayyad dynasty. The result was a sharp defeat for the Arabs, who withdrew to their kingdoms south of the Pyrenees and along the Mediterranean. Let’s set the stage:

On the Arab side, the Muslim faith had spread with astonishing speed since the death of Mohammed in 632. By 717 combined Arab and north African Berber forces had conquered the Visigothic kingdom in Spain and crossed the Pyrenees into Gaul. They conquered the lands along the Mediterranean, called Septimania, and its capital Narbonne. From there they began to eye the rich lands to the north, called Aquitaine. The Muslims were defeated in 721 at the siege of Toulouse, one of Aquitaine’s major cities, by Eudo, the Duke of Aquitaine. After that things stayed quiet for a decade, until Charles Martel attacked Eudo from the north in 731.

Al Ghafiqi took advantage of the distraction to launch his own attack against Eudo’s southern flank. Eudo met Al Ghafiqi in battle near Bordeaux, but was crushed. Now desperate, Eudo was forced to appeal to Martel for assistance as the “Saracens” swept northward. Charles took the opportunity to extract an oath of fidelity from Eudo. While the details are sketchy, they came to some sort of agreement, and then in October of 732 the Frank met Al Ghafiqi somewhere on the road between Poitiers and Tours. The result was the second decisive defeat for the Muslims in France, who lost Al Ghafiqi in the battle. Their forces were not completely destroyed, however, and fought and looted during their retreat south.

Beyond that bare outline, what can we know for certain about the arms, armor, and armies that met? Not very much. The date, and even the year, are open to debate. As to tactics, Charles seems to have drawn up his men into some kind of formation, which the Arabs then broke themselves against. Breaking off the attack the Arabs retreated in the night. Sources mention the Arab tents being taken, probably for all the booty they had collected during the drive north. Eudo is noted as harassing the stragglers during the retreat.1.You can get a flavor for some of this at the Internet History Sourcebook, where they have a page of a few translated sources on the battle.

One account has Charles killing 300,000 men, which is clearly ridiculous. A large army of the age probably numbered no more than a few tens of thousands, including followers.

The battle is usually dated to 732, but as far back as 1955 a historian named Michel Baudot dated the battle to 733. The scorn was immediate, and continues, but at least a couple of modern historians concur.2.William Watson has a nice summary of the historiography and the battle hereRoger Collins agrees with Baudot, and details some of the chronological confusion, p.90.

The impact of the battle was profound, but not perhaps or how it is conventionally recognized. Awareness of the encounter rose with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall in 1776, and continued with the publication in 1851 of Edward Creasy’s The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo. Gibbon and Creasy saw the battle as one that “saved Christendom” from the Mohammedan hordes. Recent scholarship has taken a more nuanced view. The battle marked the northernmost reach of the Muslim faith in Europe, but there is no indication that further advances had been planned. There is more evidence that this was a more of “raiding party” than an army of conquest. Of course, there is also no indication that the Arabs didn’t plan to advance deeper into Francia. In any case, internal political squabbles brought further expansion to a halt, not just in Europe, but throughout the Moslem empire.

The battle definitively marked the end of any hope of Aquitanian independence. It also further solidified Charles and his family as the preeminent rulers of Francia. It was after this battle that Charles was given the sobriquet Martel, The Hammer. The Arab chroniclers are much more interested in the siege of Constantinople in 718 than in the backwaters of the west. But there is no doubt that, backwater or no, if Charles had been defeated the history of Europe would be much different. The Arabs, already nibbling around the edges of Italy from the sea, would have had almost nothing to stop them from taking Rome, and perhaps snuffing out the Church before the first millennium. But “what if” history is feckless speculation, no matter how much I indulge in it.

Charlemagne and the battle of Poitiers are the two things the average person might know about the eighth century. The next time it comes up in conversation (admittedly a somewhat unlikely possibility), thrill your table mates with the knowledge that the grandfather saved the Christian kingdoms for the grandson’s empire.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. You can get a flavor for some of this at the Internet History Sourcebook, where they have a page of a few translated sources on the battle.
2. William Watson has a nice summary of the historiography and the battle hereRoger Collins agrees with Baudot, and details some of the chronological confusion, p.90.

Leave a Comment

610 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments