Everyone’s heard it once, “Charlemagne,” in passing conversation or perhaps parsed from a page. Carolus Magnus. Charles the Great. Those of you that have heard of Tours are probably wondering why I’m prefacing with Charlemagne. Well, it’s important to develop a sense of scope, a sense of consequences.
Charlemagne was the founder of the Frankish Empire and its many successors, which would lay the foundations for the sort of cowardly, limp-wristed Europe we see nowadays that its ancestors would be ashamed of. He conducted excellent campaigns, annexed territories throughout much of Northern Europe, and quite significantly he even campaigned in Muslim Spain. It is said that his dominion included the holdings of Lombardy to the various lands of countless Germanic and Slavic tribes. The icing on the cake, something to legitimize his unreal set of military achievements is that he was able to secure the title renewed of “King of the Romans,” from the pope in exchange for military protection. To that end he had the physical possession of much of Italy. Considering that the Muslims did indeed sack Rome in 848 AD, this was a legitimate concern. They built bigger walls afterwards.
Charlemagne had constructed a huge kingdom which unfortunately balkanized sometime after his death. Goodbye Rome renewed, but as to whether this turn of events was good for Europe in the longrun, I’m not really equipped to answer, but things would certainly have been different; and though the unity of his success did unravel after his death, he nevertheless left his various successor kingdoms with a political, religious, and diplomatic framework that would guide them in the centuries ahead. Not bad considering what a backwater western Europe was at the time.
Somewhat in his honor there was an heroic epic, composed likely centuries after his death, rehabilitating the absolute disaster which was the obliteration of the carriage van at Roncevaux which had included the slaughter virtually of all Charlemagne’s court, which put a pretty sour end to what had been an otherwise successful Spanish campaign. It’s called La Chanson de Roland, and my English translation is absolutely terrible, because it was intended for students of Old French, which I don’t speak, and is an unerringly literal translation.
It’s actually a fascinating work of literature when you consider the relative secularism of the West. The text belies an extremely religious outlook, not merely religious but publicly religious, without the very ounce of shame, possessing the same sort of confidence in the rightness of the church with which we declare that the world is round and that pathogenic disease is caused predominantly by microorganisms. The work declares a thorough loathing of the Mohammedans that in today’s political climate is refreshing, despite its crassness, going on even to declare them pagan polytheists. The condemnation of the innocent Apollo is amusing. But this is all missing the point. While the French forces are composed of both French knights and various different Germanic auxiliaries, the diversity of their opponents is mind boggling, who outnumber them at every term and swim in a wealth that your typical European could only dream of, hearkening back to the Persian invasions of Greece. In fact, it paints their campaign in Muslim Spain somehow a defensive action, when they were in fact the assailants. The narrative nearly required the fulfillment of the Athenian Marathon.
But where did Charlemagne come from? Whence came the Franks? And finally, what the hell is Tours?
Rome had long been fallen; the Western Roman Empire was little more than a figment of the imagination. Gaul was predominated with settled German tribes, most notably the Franks–for whom France would eventually be named–intermingling with the Latin and Gallic residents that preceded them. There is no crystallization of states, no rise of nations, no unifying force that can step into the vacuum left with the utter collapse of the western aquila.
In the East, matters were even worse. A new religion had risen out of the previously uninteresting Arabian Peninsula and in the scope of the Seventh and Eighth Centuries has driven all before it, complete with the collapse of the Sassanid Empire and the vicious mauling of the Eastern Roman Empire, which would hold on desperately for centuries until it finally collapsed before the Ottoman Empire. The Arabs grabbed huge tracks of land from the Eastern Roman Empire: the Levant, much of Anatolia, North Africa, and they even snatched up the Visigothic kingdoms inhabiting what would one day become Spain, and they were poised to rush in raping and pillaging into Europe, just as they’d already done whithersoever they went. That point will become meaningful later.
Anyways, things are looking pretty grim aren’t they? Whatever your views on the relative merits of religion, it’s a miserable thing to live under the yoke of another man that killed your son and carried your wife and daughter off to be his servants and worse, exacerbated when you know the reputation of their founder who was an unabashed pedophile and rapist.
I’m talking about the Battle of Tours, sometimes called the Battle of Poitiers, but there’s actually a different battle of the same name so “Tours” is preferred. The Poitiers I’m talking about is the Battle of Tours/Poitiers in 732 AD, a strange period of what is sometimes termed the “Dark Ages,” that we know precious little about. You could call this the early medieval period.
Southern France, then still called “Gaul,” had been menaced frequently and disgracefully from the Saracens out of Al-Andalus, which is just most of the territory of modern Spain, predominantly under the direction of its administrator Abd Ar-Rahman Al Ghafiqi. A strong leader in both campaign and administration, but he wasn’t entirely without his reverses. The Duke of Aquitaine, “Odo,” managed an impressive victory at the Battle of Toulouse that sent the Saracens scrambling. But this didn’t last long, the unpronouncable lord of the Saracens returned with a more impressive force, and Odo with his remaining nobility was compelled to seek the aid of the de-facto ruler of the northern Frankish kingdom, the grandfather of Charlemagne, Charles who would eventually earn the title “Martellus” or Martel from the Latin for hammer.
Naturally the Arabs pursued, raping the countryside in the process, but about 10 miles out of Tours they were surprised to encounter a thorough infantry square–a phalanx–of unknown number and quality impeding them from their continued raping. They hadn’t apparently expected anything resembling a cohesive military force this far North–such was their contempt for Europeans. Again, thematic. Charles had arrived and established himself upon a hill screened by trees daring the admittedly impressive heavy cavalry of the Arabs to come and get him, attempt to break his block. Again, march of the ten thousand.
Now, as regards the numbers involved, there’s virtually no agreement save for that the total number of belligerents was at least sixty thousand, and that the Saracens almost certainly outnumbered the Franks. Some sources say the numbers were nearly even, while others claim the Saracens had one hundred and twenty thousand belligerents or more. So you can see why this is a big deal, a very big deal.
Over two days of constant fighting, only retiring to sleep, the Saracen cavalry and the Saracen infantry threw themselves again and again at the immobile block of veteran infantry Charles had accrued over a decade of campaigning, terrible wounds received on both sides, and the Saracens did at one point pierce the block, but they were unable to take advantage of this. The tide turned with a bit of cleverness. Charles had his scouts assail the baggage camp of the Saracens, which was virtually undefended, and when the Arabs saw enemies in their rear, they took to flight, abandoning their military responsibilities. In all the panic, the unpronouncable general of the Saracens was cut to pieces, and by the next morning, the Arabs had consented to retire, unable to elect a new general.
Now, while the baggage is certainly important, why did the Arabs throw down their arms at such an essential moment? Well I did tell you to pay attention to all that raping the Arabs were doing on their way up Gaul, on all the campaigns previous. In addition to all their accumulated wealth, their war-brides also traveled with them. It’s actually karmic.
Now, at first glance, while the victory is impressive, with a huge number of the enemy slaughtered, it doesn’t really seem formative, until you consider the aftermath and implications. The Arabs failed to constitute another impetus with the death of their leader, and the succeeding leaders of Al-Andalus would prove less functional than their predecessor. This battle also galvanized the creation of a Frankish heavy cavalry corps, and the development of a more modern army in general, predominantly inspired by their opposition. And it is this heavy cavalry that would dominate the European battlefield for nearly a thousand years.
And what would have happened had the Franks fallen? Historians differ, but it is generally agreed that the Arabs would have penetrated as far as Poland and even beyond. The Roman Catholic Church would have become a thing of the past, and the Greek church would have become isolated and moribund. Christendom would have fallen, and the minarets would have become ubiquitous. It’s impossible to suggest all the ways this would have altered the development of Europe, but I can’t help believing that it wouldn’t have been for the better of Europe or the world at large.
Thanks to a variety of factors, the Umayyad Caliphate collapsed shortly afterwards, owing to a dizzying array of defeats in short order–against the Greeks at Constantinople and Akroinon and against those who would become the Abbasids at the Battle of Zab. The Caliphate shrank somewhat in the mean-time, with lesser kings taking dominion over previously Caliphate holdings.
Charlemagne was Martel’s grandson. Must have been in the blood, but did inherit more than body from the man who began establishing the reforms in both the army and the state that would make his deeds possible. Some have even argued that the development of heavy cavalry in Europe led to the rise of Feudalism, producing a network of interlocking allegiances that produced at least relative political stability, public wealth, and a modus operandi for the levy of armed forces as necessary.
It wasn’t perfect, not nearly the political stability of old Rome or the power in her standing armies, but for the time it worked.