A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, October 10, 2014

October 10, 732 (Maybe): The Battle of Tours

On this date (or close to it; see below) in AD 732, Charles Martel, Mayor of the Palace in the Merovingian Frankish Kingdom, and Odo, Prince of Aquitaine, won a battle with a Muslim force from Umayyad Spain (al-Andalus) between the towns of Tours and Poitiers in Gaul, after several days of maneuvering. Usually called the Battle of Tours (though sometimes Poitiers), the battle came to be regarded by Europeans as one of the most decisive in history. It has long featured in "Great Battles" type books, from Edward Creasy's 1851 Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World onwards, and a century earlier, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon had penned his memorable vision of a Muslim conquest of Europe:
A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.
Charles Martel became a hero not just to France but to all of Christian Europe, portrayed as having been the only thing standing between Europe and an Islamic conquest. For nearly 1300 years Tours has been a powerful symbol, and European nativists and Islamophobes have even adopted it as a symbol for their own hostility to Muslim immigrants.

But was Tours really that decisive? Though mentioned by most of the (relatively few) chroniclers of the era, both Christian Franks and Muslims (and one Mozarabic Christian chronicler living in Muslim Spain, author of the so-called Chronicle of 754, formerly attributed to  an apparently nonexistent Isidore of Beja), and by later chroniclers on both sides, the actual descriptions of the battle are fairly sparse. For a battle for which so much importance is claimed, we know little for certain, including the exact date and place, the numbers involved or the long-term intentions of the Muslim operation (raid?)(invasion?)(attempted conquest?).

The Date:
I am posting this on October 10 because this is the traditional date found in standard modern  European accounts; the contemporary and other early sources generally only specify that it occurred in October of 732. Two rather later Latin chronicles say It took place on a Saturday. On the other hand, the Arab chronicler Ibn ‘Idhari in his Bayan al-Mughrib fi Akhbar Muluk al-Andalus wa'l Magrhib dates the battle to Ramadan AH114. If we accept these two statements, which are not contemporary to the battle, it cannot have been on October 10, since October 10 was a Friday in 732 (a leap year in the Julian calendar), and it coincided (give or take a day or two for differences in sighting the moon in differing countries) with 26 Sha‘ban, AH 114. So not only was October 10 not a Saturday but it also was not in Ramadan. If we insist on meeting both conditions, the only date in October 732 that was both a Saturday and in Ramadan would be October 25, which was a Saturday and the first of Ramadan AH114. On the other hand the monkish annals mentioning Saturday date from the century after the battle and Ibn ‘Idhari from about 1312,  so assuming both are accurate is a leap of faith, but is still the best guess.

Where was the Battle? And Why was it Fought?
We can be a bit more confident here. The commander of the raid, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Ghafiqi, had been named the governor of al-Andalus by the Caliph Hisham two years before. The Berber governor of Catalonia (today Catalunya) allied with Odo (or Eudo) of Aquitaine to rebel against ‘Abd al-Rahman. After putting down the rebellion, ‘Abd al-Rahman crossed the Pyrenees, where Muslim rule in Narbonne and Septimania had been established since 719-720. The earlier invasion of Gaul had been stopped at Toulouse and remained limited to the area around Narbonne. This time, determined to punish Odo, ‘Abd al-Rahman raided farther north, taking and sacking Bordeaux and defeating Odo on the Garonne. Odo fled and sought help from Charles Martel, though they were old enemies.

The Muslim Army, probably mostly cavalry and of both Arab and Berber ethnicity, continued northward in the direction of Tours; the Christian chroniclers generally agree that the immediate goal was to take and sack the Shrine of Saint Martin at Tours. Martel reportedly took indirect routes to intercept ‘Abd al-Rahman.

They met somewhere between Tours and Poitiers, but then as now the two towns are about 100 kilometers apart. The battle almost certainly took place along the old Roman road between the two; the traditional Arabic name for the battle, balat al-shuhada'  (road or literally "pavement" of the martyrs) implies a paved road.  The exact location is uncertain, though the village of Moussais-la-Bataille claims the honor; it is a strategic position where the road crosses the Clain and Vienne Rivers near their juncture, though there are arguments against it (would Martel have fought with his back to a river with a single bridge for retreat?). You can find a rather detailed argument about the site here; another detailed account here; and you can reflect on what meticulously detailed maps people have drawn of a battle whose location is uncertain and so are the strengths of the Armies. Which brings us to:.

The Christian sources agree that the Franks were badly outnumbered by the Muslims, and the victory was a miracle that saved Christianity. The Muslim sources agree that they were vastly outnumbered by the Franks, and the results were inevitable. Numbers range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands (the enemy always being bigger) and are totally unreliable. Casualties were high, and ‘Abd al-Rahman himself was among the dead.

What Was ‘Abd al-Rahman's Goal?
There is no real reason to doubt the assumption that ‘Abd al-Rahman.'s immediate goal was Tours and the rich pilgrim's shrine at Tours. Martel's victory certainly saved Tours. But did it also, as the conventional European narrative had it, save Paris, save France (which didn't exist yet), save Europe, and save Christianity? Was Charles Martel, the "hammer," all that stood between ‘Abd al-Rahman. and Gibbon's vision that:
the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.
Leaving aside the fact that the interpretation of the Qur'an is taught at Oxford and has been for at least the last couple of centuries, was the Battle of Tours all that prevented a Muslim conquest of all of Europe?

There is plenty of reason to question that. Most of the Arabic accounts spend less time on the battle itself but on the death of ‘Abd al-Rahman, who after all was governor of al-Andalus.The Arab historians clearly saw this as a raid on enemy territory (several note that ‘Abd al-Rahman died as a ghazi, the term used for the border raiders along the Byzantine frontier). In fact most of the Arab historians seem to portray this as a ghazwa or border raid, for plunder and retaliation against Odo of Aquitaine, remembered mainly for the "martyrdom" of ‘Abd al-Rahman and the other casualties; hence, balat al-shuhada'.

There is an old saying, "Amateurs talk about strategy; professionals talk about logistics." Tours is a very long way from the center of the Umayyad Caliphate, in Damascus. The width of Africa, the Strait of Gibraltar, all of Iberia, and the Pyrenees lay between. And distant Gaul was hardly the main priority of the Caliphs. In 717-718 the Second Arab Expedition against Constantinople had been beaten back; taking Constantinople was a far higher priority for the Caliphs.

Tours in the Arab chroniclers is a sidelight of the history of al-Andalus, mainly remembered for the death of ‘Abd al-Rahman. By contrast Martel's victory, and the much later victories at Vienna in 1529 and 1683, became enormous symbols of the defense of Europe.

And it probably didn't look much like this French Romantic painting from the Palace of Versailles, either (and no, I don't know what the partially unclad woman is doing right in the middle of the two armies, unless she represents France being rescued by Martel from a fate worse than death — a sort of proto-Marianne — nor do I know why the cross looks Celtic):
Steuben - Bataille de Poitiers.png
Charles de Steuben, La Battaille de Poitiers


Laguerre said...

I'd always presumed that the Muslim army was out on a plundering raid. Tours was far too far away to actually conquer in a permanent fashion. It was in the European interest to present the conflict as a great battle saving Europe. The historian Hugh Kennedy thinks that further and further raids (booty) were necessary to make the Caliphal economy work.

Nevertheless, an emirate was set up in Toulouse in the those years, and it lasted 25 years, then was abandoned as indefensible. That says it all really. Toulouse was indefensible; how much more so would have been Tours or Poitiers.

Michael Collins Dunn said...