Episode 47: The Battle of Poitiers
Chapter 1: The Arabs and the Last Revelation
The Battle of Poitiers, often called The Battle of Tours in the Anglosphere, has long been mythologized as a world-changing event. Edward Shepherd Creasy listed it as one of the decisive battles that shaped human history, as did a number of 19th and early 20th century historians. Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire famously envisaged what would have happened to Europe if Charles Martel was defeated by the Muslim army, saying “a victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the bank 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 pupils might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Muhammad.” Funny, since Oxford wasn’t even founded yet; I guess Gibbon thought that in all possible realities Oxford would become a world-renowned university? Talk about sticking up for your alma mater.
Modern historians are divided on the battle’s relevance, though they take issue with the idea that Charles Martel saved Europe or Christianity from an Arab-Islamic invasion. They argue that this battle has become an overblown topos of an imagined West triumphing over Eastern hordes, much like the Battle of Marathon between the Greeks and Persians. Yet, for those at the battle it must have felt like a remarkable clash of two very different peoples. Christian European Franks facing Muslim Arabs and Berbers from Arabia and North Africa. While these peoples had fought each other before, this was the first time that the governor of Al-Andalus met the leader of the Franks, and both stood at the head of massive armies.
Today we’ll explore the precursors, the battle itself and the aftermath. Then we’ll ask three major questions: What significance can we attribute to the battle? How did the struggle shape Europe and the Islamic world? And what might have happened if the battle had ended differently?
To start we need to know about the Arabs and Islam. I won’t go too far into the weeds, though I will set up a background for future episodes as these people and the new religion will have a significant impact on France from the early 8th century to present. The Arab peoples originally lived within the Arabian Peninsula, concentrating on the western coast between the mountains and the Red Sea. By the first centuries of our age this area was one of the world’s central trading nodes. To the south were the wealthy African city-states along the Horn of Africa. Rome and its enormous markets lay to the northwest. To the northeast was the Persian Empire and its access to the far east. Arabs developed vast trade networks as they ferried goods between Europe, Africa and Asia. But whenever there’s valuable trading, there’s raiding. The Arabs bred stallions that might have been the largest and strongest horses on Earth, and they became adapt at rapid attacks and retreats as they ransacked caravans running between Rome and Persia. Moreover, the various Arab states were never united, so there wasn’t a strong kingdom to clamp down on raiders, so they often raided within Arabia as well.
Arabia’s geography also protected it from its powerful neighbors. The long stretches of deserts and high mountains made travel dangerous and slow for anyone who wasn’t an expert in the area. Moreover, the wealthiest Arab cities lay far to the south. For all these reasons Rome and Persia rarely fought against the Arabs, and instead employed them in their numerous wars against each other. In this way the Arabs developed martial skills and accumulated wealth as mercenaries for the warring superpowers without being seriously threatened by either of them. Classical Arabia was the opposite of Armenia. Armenia was the chew-toy of empires, and when Rome or Persia fought, they inevitable ravaged through the kingdom, or warred for privileges over it. Armenia really was the Belgium of its time.
In the year 570 of the Christian calendar, a boy named Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim, better known simply as Muhammad, and later The Prophet Muhammad, was born in Mecca. Muhammad was a member of the Banu Hasim clan, a powerful aristocratic family charged with protecting pilgrims who visited the Kaaba, a shrine which locals claimed was made by Abraham and his son Ishmael. As a youth, Muhammad was sent by his family to Syria with a caravan to learn how to be a merchant. But his life took a far different course when in 610 he claimed to have spoken with the angel Gabriel. Muhammad told a number of close friends and relatives that he had received the last testament of God, which was an addition to and correction of the Jewish Torah and Christian Bible. Many of the stories were kept, such as the Creation, Adam and Eve, the Flood, Moses. But Muhammad’s revelations changed a number of stories. Moreover, Muhammad claimed that Jesus did indeed preach God’s word, but that he was a prophet, not the Son of God, or God himself. In addition to Muhammad’s history he preached a way of life that attacked what he believed were the evils of his society and called for a renewal of faith, a new moral code and condemnation of false gods.
Muhammad claimed to be the Last Prophet, whose message completed the revelations of God. By 613 he preached publicly. He garnered a decent following though he was widely hated by the aristocrats since he preached that there was one God and all other gods were false. The Kaaba, with its hundreds of idols to various gods, was a religious center for the city, drawing countless pilgrims and their wealth. Muhammad preaching against polytheism was a direct assault on the religious and commercial power of the city and its leaders. The Arabian nobles opposed Muhammad but never moved against him outright due to his position as a powerful noble of the Banu Hasim clan. Eventually, Muhammad and his followers left Mecca for Medina in 622 of the Christian calendar, or Year 1 of the later Islamic calendar.
Within two years Muhammad raised an army and began the conquest of Arabia. By his death in 632 his followers ruled over most of the peninsula and for the first time the Arabs were united. The sudden union of a warlike group of different tribes bears a striking resemblance to the Huns under Atilla and later the Mongols under Chinggis Khan. Before Muhammad the Arabs were a peripheral force living on the edge of empires. Within a decade a new great power emerged. It could not have happened at a better time for the Arabs as the two traditional empires that dominated the region neared collapse.
The Eastern Roman Empire, which we call Byzantium, was never as strong as its predecessor. Despite Justinian I’s attempts to remake the old Roman Empire, Byzantium was confined largely to the Eastern Mediterranean, which included Greece, Anatolia and Egypt. It was during Justinian’s reign that the Black Death struck, killing a quarter of the empire’s population. Numerous migrating tribes, notably the Avars and Bulgars, invaded northern Greece and at times even besieged the capital at Constantinople. Then in 602 to 628, Byzantium and Sassanid Persia fought an apocalyptic war to the death. The Persians conquered most of Asian Byzantium, forcing Emperor Heraclius to launch an unimaginable gamble: he abandoned his empire and marched into Persia, absolutely ravaging the country for years. This forced the Persian armies to double back and defend their homeland. By the end of the war both sides were utterly exhausted, their fortresses torn down, city walls wrecked, armies annihilated. Then from 628 to 632, Persia fought a civil war, further depleting whatever strength the old country had.
In 633, without any possible way of knowing how amazing his situation was, Abu Bakr, first caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, invaded Persia. In less than thirty years, the Arabs conquered Persia, Syria, the Levant and Egypt. In 661 the Umayyads took control of the vast Islamic world. They spread west, rapidly conquering North Africa. In 711 an Arab force, supplemented by local Berber converts, sailed through the straits of Gibraltar. By 718 Visigothic Hispania became Al-Andalus.
In less than a century Muhammad’s followers had conquered an area of land greater than the Roman Empire under Trajan. Like the Huns and later Mongols, the Arabs united their tribes and completely changed the geopolitical landscape. But unlike those two, the Arab’s political and cultural accomplishments lasted far longer. They developed a complex political and religious identity, so that even when one dynasty fell, a civil war broke out or outsiders invaded their territory, there was a clear continuation between the traditions of the first Islamic empire and its successor states.
There are many reasons why the Arabs conquered as much territory as they did, but three are particularly important for our story. The first is that the Arabs were masters at raiding. These excellent horsemen entered enemy lands where they slaughtered small war parties. When larger armies chased after them they simply sped away. The Byzantines and Persians couldn’t match this new foe; they didn’t have enough soldiers to hold long lines of fortifications, meaning that raiders could slip between fortified cities, weakening provinces until they could launch direct invasions.
The second reason why the Arabs were so successful is that they created a war apparatus that incorporated massive numbers of new recruits from conquered peoples into their armies. As the Arabs expanded their influence across territories, the people living in those areas could choose to join them, and in exchange these mercenaries would receive a share of whatever booty they took. Few strong warriors wanted to miss out on this chance for wealth and glory, especially when the alternative was fighting against this rising power. The Arab armies were like spears thrust across the world with a net tied to the end, trapping those behind them and pulling them along as they conquered more territory. In Northern Africa Arab armies defeated some Berber tribes, while the rest joined them. It was an Arab-Berber force that conquered Hispania and Septimania. The leaders of Al-Andalus were Arabs, but much of their core army came from warriors who chose to ride this all-consuming wave, rather than be drowned underneath it.
The third and final reason why the Arabs conquerors were so successful was due to their religion. Islam provided a framework for political and religious organization for this new empire and infused it with zealous energy. But what’s more, it also allowed for widespread conversion of peoples they conquered, notably in the former Roman Empire. From the Crusades to our current conflicts, there is a narrative that the world is neatly split between Christian and Islamic countries. Many people take this lens and apply it to the past and assume that the first Islamic Empire converted Christians at sword-point in the Levant, Northern Africa and Hispania.
However, this is mostly false. In the 7th century the lines between these two religions were blurred, because their own theologies weren’t settled. Recall that the Christian world was torn apart over numerous issues, the most important of which was of Christ’s nature. Orthodox Catholics held that Jesus was God in the flesh, while breakaway sects claimed that he was a literal son of God, a human prophet or some lesser being. Catholicism was the majority belief in western Anatolia, Greece, Italy and Francia, but most other Christians held very different beliefs, which the official church deemed heretical. Most Egyptians, North Africans and a large number of people in Hispania were Monophysites who believed they were the true Christians; and yet they were constantly persecuted by those who claimed that anyone who denied Christ’s divinity was a blasphemer. When the Muslims entered Byzantine lands and told the people that they also believed that Jesus was not God but a messenger from him, many of the Monophysite Christians of Egypt and the Arian Christians of Spain found more in common with Islam than with Catholicism. Thus, many North Africans and Spanish Visigoths did not see Islam as a separate religion from Christianity as we in the current age do, but as one interpretation of older stories that was more in line with their own theology. Just as the Byzantine-Sassanid wars weakened their armies, conflict within Christianity turned Christians against each other, and those in close vicinity to Arabia were ready to accept the Latter Prophet’s final revelation.
There were many reasons why the Arab Muslims conquered from Pakistan to Portugal within a century, but the three most relevant to us are: their mastery of raiding, their recruitment of new peoples into the army and their ability to convert conquered peoples. These three aspects all failed when the Arabs reached Francia, as we shall see.
Chapter 2: Invasion
Now that we’ve blazed through a few centuries of Arab-Muslim history, let me set the stage for the battle itself. By 718, Islamic forces consolidated their control of the Iberian peninsula and transformed Visigothic Spain into Al-Andalus. The Visigothic lords largely accepted Islamic suzerainty if they were allowed to retain their lands. However, some devout Christians and enemies of the new Arab-led country fled to the northern mountains and formed the Kingdom of Asturias. But the new Muslim rulers ignored Asturias; it was weak, poor and the rough terrain made it difficult for their horses to navigate. Moreover, their main pack animal was the one-hump Arabian camel, which easily traversed long stretches of desert but was ill-suited for cold and mountainous terrain. Unlike the two-hump Bactrian camel which the Turks would later use to conquer the high places of Anatolia, though that’s another story.
With Iberia under control the governor of Al-Andalus, as-Sham ibn Malik, invaded Septimania in 719. Within a year he had conquered the country and made Narbonne the local capital. The following year as-Sham gathered a force of Arabs, Berbers, Visigoths and Basques and marched on Aquitaine. At that time, Charles of the House of Pepin ruled Francia, except for a few breakaway provinces, among them Aquitaine, which was controlled by Duke Eudo. When the Islamic armies entered his lands, Eudo called on Charles for help. But Charles wanted these two armies to exhaust themselves so he could step in and sweep up Aquitaine so he declined to help him, though he did offer thoughts and prayers. As-Sham’s army ravaged the countryside until it reached the capital at Toulouse. Duke Eudo had left the city, and the Muslims began a siege. With what seemed an overwhelming force, they settled in and waited for the siege engines to do their work.
According to Muslim chroniclers, the army became overconfident and complacent, and didn’t properly defend their siege equipment. More likely, an army of such size had to spread out and forage for food to keep itself fed while it waited for the city to surrender. On the 9th of June 721, Duke Eudo returned with his own army assembled from across Aquitaine. The venerable Frankish general saw the Muslim forces were dispersed and out of formation and he ordered a sudden charge. The battle was an overwhelming route and an utter disaster for the Muslim forces. Governor as-Sham was mortally wounded and died shortly after his return to Narbonne.
Since Hispania and Septimania had fallen relatively quickly and easily, its unsurprising that the Muslims assumed they would meet little opposition in Francia. But the Franks were numerous and militaristic. This and as-Sham’s overconfidence chastened the rulers of al-Andalus. For the next decade Muslim rulers allowed their lieutenants to launch punitive raids into Francia, rather than attacking with a full army.
The battle wasn’t just a disaster for the Muslims, it was a disaster for Charles and his goal of reuniting all of Francia. Pope Gregory II named Eudo a defender of the Christian faith and his reputation as a general and Christian soared. What possible excuse could Charles use to launch a war against him now? I mean, if he attacked a defender of the faith, then he would be an undefender of the faith; that’s just math. Instead, the leader of Francia consolidated his hold over his realm. First he reorganized the church, turning it into a bureaucratic machine that administered the kingdom. Second, he reformed the army. The armies of the early medieval period were largely ad hoc assemblies of temporary conscripts. Each wore their own armor, wielded their own weapons and did not understand complex maneuvers and formations since they had little training. Charles commissioned uniform weapons and armor for his soldiers and drilled them more than perhaps any Merovingian monarch ever had. Not since the Roman Empire had armies of Franks been so well out-fitted and trained. Under his reforms ax-throwers virtually disappeared and were replaced by archers. Moreover, he added heavy cavalry. Before, Franks preferred to fight as infantry, and wealthy Franks used horses to travel to a battle where they would dismount and fight on foot. Finally, Charles produced and improved Frankish siege weapons, which included: onagers, a catapult-like device used for hurling stones. Tortoises, which were moveable wooden tents covered in leather which allowed soldiers to march under enemy fire to a wall where they could weaken the foundations with mining equipment. And the ever-classic battering rams. More than all of his neighbors, Charles created a diversified, well-trained, uniformly-equipped army and waited for the opportunity to use it.
Opportunity presented itself in 731 when the governor of Al-Andalus, Abd ar-Rahman al-Ghafiqi, learned of a secret alliance between Duke Eudo of Aquitaine and Uthman ibn Naissa of Cerdanya. Uthman, better known as Munnuza, was a Berber, and like many of his kinsmen he had joined the Arabs out of promises of plunder. But he and his fellows were disappointed at how little spoils they acquired since the Battle of Toulouse. This had become especially wearing since the governor of Al-Andalus imposed exorbitant taxes on his people, which he did because the Umayyad Caliphate put exorbitant taxes on him, up to 25% of all earnings! These incredibly high taxes had served as a goad for Muslim leaders across the vast empire since they had to raid and conquer just to pay the Caliph in Damascus. Munnuza and many of his Berber allies were done with the Umayyads, Al-Andalus and all their damn taxes and so they formed their own kingdom in northeastern Iberia. Eudo learned about this inter-Muslim conflict and decided to take advantage of it by allying with the breakaway Berber. The Duke of Aquitaine was still recovering from the Muslim devastation of his lands a decade earlier and Charles kept improving his armies while giving him menacing looks. Eudo knew he needed allies to keep the powerful Frank and bay and so he sealed an alliance by marrying his daughter to the Berber leader.
When governor ar-Rahman heard about the wedding, which I assume he wasn’t invited to for obvious reasons, he was livid. He raised an army and invaded Cerdanya, where he destroyed Munnuza’s army at the fortress of Llīvia. The Berber left his bride and fled into the mountains with what few followers remained, while the Arab-led forces pursued him. They cornered him and he committed suicide by leaping off a peak. Ar-Rahman’s men recovered his broken body, cut off his head and sent the grisly trophy and his grieving widow to Damascus as gifts for the Caliph.
But ar-Rahman wasn’t finished. He had assembled a massive army of soldiers who were used to taking plunder. But ar-Rahman couldn’t let them ransack Cerdanya as that would outrage the people there, who he hoped to govern. And if the Roman legions taught us anything, anything at all, it’s that you have to keep your soldiers well-paid. The governor of Al-Andalus marched on Aquitaine where his army ravaged the countryside, taking as many treasures as they could carry. The Muslim force sacked cities all the way to Bordeaux where Eudo had gathered all the forces he could muster alone. He refused to call Charles for help, for fear that if he did the Frankish warlord would take over his lands. Eudo was confident, as a defender of the faith, anointed by God and the Pope that he would repeat his victory from ten years ago. He met his foes at the Battle of the River Garonne. Yet, Ar-Rahman had learned from his predecessor’s failure. This time, the Muslims handily crushed the Aquitanians and Eudo fled, leaving the southwest completely open.
An anonymous Arab chronicler wrote about the army’s passage, saying,
“The Moslems smote their enemies, and passed the river Garonne, and laid waste the country, and took captives without number. And that army went through all places like a desolating storm. Prosperity made those warriors insatiable. At the passage of the river, Abderrahman overthrew the count, and the count retired into his stronghold, but the Moslems fought against it, and entered it by force, and slew the count; for everything gave way to their scimitars, which were the robbers of lives. All the nations of the Franks trembled at that terrible army, and they betook them to their king Caldus [Charles], and told him of the havoc made by the Moslem horsemen, and bow they rode at their will through all the land of Narbonne, Toulouse, and Bordeaux, and they told the king of the death of their count. Then the king bade them be of good cheer, and offered to aid them. . . . He mounted his horse, and he took with him a host that could not be numbered, and went against the Moslems. And he came upon them at the great city of Tours. And Abderrahman and other prudent cavaliers saw the disorder of the Moslem troops, who were loaded with spoil; but they did not venture to displease the soldiers by ordering them to abandon everything except their arms and war-horses. And Abderrahman trusted in the valour of his soldiers, and in the good fortune which had ever attended him. But such defect of discipline always is fatal to armies. So Abderrabman and his host attacked Tours to gain still more spoil, and they fought against it so fiercely that they stormed the city almost before the eyes of the army that came to save it; and the fury and the cruelty of the Moslems towards the inhabitants of the city were like the fury and cruelty of raging tigers. It was manifest that God’s chastisement was sure to follow such excesses; and fortune thereupon turned her back upon the Moslems.”
Chapter 3: The Battle of Poitiers
The humbled and aging Duke Eudo knew he had only one option left: he asked Charles for help. Charles had no doubt been watching the situation unfold and quickly assembled a massive army. His forces connected with the remnants of Eudo’s and the two marched southwestward even as the Muslims marched northeast. The Islamic army ransacked numerous towns, including the church of Saint Hilary of Poitiers’, one of the wealthiest and holiest in Francia. From there they moved towards Tours, which boasted the Church of Saint Martin, the holiest place in Francia at the time, and filled with gold and silver fineries. 12 miles north of Poitiers, amidst rolling plains interspersed with sporadic stretches of forests, at a small village now called Moussais-la-Battaille, the two armies encountered each other. Charles and ar-Rahman ordered their men to establish fortified camps and each waited for the other side to make a move.
Such an incredible gathering of soldiers must have been awe-inspiring for such an out-of-the-way place. The Arab and Frankish sources claim the armies numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The Chronicle of St. Denis claims that the Arabs would lose 300,000 over the course of the battle. If you haven’t guessed, those numbers are way off. Modern estimates have each side with roughly 20,000 soldiers. Moreover, both armies were of roughly equal quality. The Muslims were wealthier than the Franks, but heavy taxes by the Umayyads kept them from investing large sums into their army, meaning many Muslims probably had to pay for their own arms and armor. Likewise, Charles tried to create an army with uniform accoutrements but such a massive army formed through levies across his vast kingdom, was bound to have differences. Many Muslim soldiers were veterans of campaigns in Septimania, Cerdanya and Asturias, while the Franks were veterans of the civil wars and crackdowns against breakaway regions like Thuringia, Bavaria and Saxony.
Armor varied by wealth of the soldier. Wealthy people had chain-mail, while commoners wore leather jerkins reinforced with metal scales. Muslims had similar armor as their Christian counterparts though they sported cloaks on top of everything. The richest nobles had armor for their horses. Both sides had iron helmets, some of which included an aventail, which is a flowing section of chainmail connected to the helmet that draped over the neck and shoulders for extra protections. Muslims often covered their helmets with turbans.
Most Franks probably had stout spears used for thrusting, while some had smaller javelins used for throwing. Their main weapon was probably a short sword modeled on the Roman gladius. The most common sword the Muslims used was the sayf, “a straight-hilted, double-edged, and pointed weapon, also effective for slashing or thrusting, and normally longer than the gladii of the Franks.” (David Balfour).
As David Balfour writes, “Most of the warriors in each army would have carried shields. Round Frankish shields were of stout hardwood, about one inch thick and three to four feet in diameter. These were usually covered in leather, augmented with iron fittings, and often featured a heavy, iron boss in the center of the obverse. Round Muslim shields known as turs (sun) were less than a meter in diameter and also commonly made of wood or leather.
“Among the Muslims, there would have been at least one contingent of infantry equipped with composite recurve bows, constructed of layers of wood, horn, and bone, with armour-piercing capacity and a range of up to 240 meters. Far inferior, and with a range of scarcely 180 meters, were the wooden [bows] carried by some Franks.”
By all accounts the two forces were roughly equal in size and strength. Both were led by accomplished generals and both believed they were fighting heathen enemies. The Muslims had better bows and horses, but the Franks had better-quality swords and shields, and the terrain kept horses from being effective. It’s no wonder that neither side wanted to start the engagement with the other. Moreover, the Muslim forces were more mobile than their Frankish counterparts, so if Charles attacked then his forces would be at a disadvantage. The Franks were in a fantastic defensive position; they arranged in a phalanx, held the high ground and were nestled between two forests. This made Ar-Rahman loath to attack his enemy, which one Frankish chronicler wrote, “[stood] like a glacier from the frozen north.”
For a week the two sides engaged in minor skirmishes and raids, with neither committing to a fight. Ar-Rahman probably would have preferred to retreat, taking with him the substantial booty his men had captured. But turning around and retreating would leave his men open to attack, and all that treasure meant moving would be slow. Ar-Rahman couldn’t retreat without giving up the plunder, but leaving empty-handed would have been a disaster of a different sort. Arab-Berber relations were already at their nadir; ethnic Arabs had special status within the empire, and ar-Rahman had just put down a revolt by a Berber general tired of crushing taxes and lack of plunder. To leave the battle empty-handed would make him look weak and invite rebellion by his disgruntled non-Arab subjects. Charles similarly had to make a show of force. Muslims had repeatedly encroached on Frankish lands by invading Aquitaine and raiding into Provence from Septimania. If he didn’t meet them he would be projecting that Islamic raiding would go largely unopposed north of the Pyrenees.
On the 25th of October 732, ar-Rahman decided his men could wait no longer. First, he ordered his archers to fire a volley at the Franks. He knew hardly any would die, but he hoped to weaken their resolve so that when his cavalry approached they would break the Frankish lines. Then the Muslim infantry would surge forward and cut down the disordered, terrified masses. But the Franks held firm against the hail of arrows. When the cavalry came into range the northern soldiers fired at them with bows and threw javelins. As the Muslim horsemen neared the Franks reassembled into a hard phalanx and braced for the sudden onslaught. The ferocious Arab cavalry crashed into their enemies but the Franks held. After this initial engagement the cavalry retreated, possibly hoping to lure the Franks into chasing them and breaking their lines. But the disciplined Franks maintained their formation while advancing slowly. As they moved they stopped to execute those Muslim soldiers who lay wounded on the field.
The Frankish resilience must have shocked Ar-Rahman. Arab cavalry were the envy of the world; defeat was as foreign to them as the pale men he faced. The southern general launched another charge. Again, the two sides bloodied each other, until the Muslims retreated. As they did the Franks slowly and methodically marched forward, killing those enemies who couldn’t retreat fast enough. The governor of Al-Andalus ordered still more cavalry charges, knowing he only had to break the Frankish lines once. Yet his enemies held every time. As Isidore of Beja recounts,
“in the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a North 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 carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts [of the foe].”
Ar-Rahman repeated this strategy until late into the night, when, finally, the Frankish lines began to crack. At that moment the main Muslim infantry force surged forward and smashed into the Franks. As so often occurs in battle, chaos became the order of the day. The lines blurred. There was a constant roar of clashing swords, pounding shields, the din of armor withstanding heavy blows. Men cried out in fury, screamed in agony. Blood-soaked mud and irregular mounds of corpses broke up the battlefield. Lieutenants and captains couldn’t call out commands above the noise; all they could do was fight and survive.
In the middle of the fighting a commotion erupted from the south. Frankish raiders had swung around and began sacking the Muslim camp, or at least that’s what a fair number of Muslims believed and a sizeable contingent retreated. Ar-Rahman saw disaster striking and he marched into the fray in a desperate attempt to rally his men, but he was stabbed with numerous spears. Ar-Rahman was at once their general and the political figure that held the disparate groups together. His death demoralized the Muslim fighters who retreated to their camp. Charles watched the enemy retreat and he ordered his men to hold. The Frankish mayor of the palace must have been a feared and respected general if his men, who were filled with blood-lust, heeded his command. Charles understood that his enemies were cunning and he feared that if the Franks followed them they could be surrounded by their swift cavalry.
But there was no plan from the dismembered southern army. They suffered more deaths than the Franks, especially among their horsemen who were the backbone of the army. Their leadership was in shambles. What men remained were demoralized while the northmen were emboldened. Under the cover of darkness the Muslim army retreated south, abandoning their hard-won treasure and their wounded.
When first light came Charles arrayed his forces into a phalanx and prepared for a second attack; yet the only thing that greeted the Franks were the groans of dying men across the field. Ever-cautious, Charles sent out scouts, who reported that the Muslims really had snuck away. The Franks seized the enemy camp, retook its treasures and executed the wounded enemies. That day Charles became Charles Martel, ‘Charles the Hammer.’ The bastard son of Pippin II had spent 17 years establishing his legitimacy, and now he was the undisputed master of Francia. He and Duke Eudo were reconciled; Charles allowed him to rule Aquitaine until his death, three years later, which was probably of natural causes; after all, Charles Martel preferred to defeat his rivals on the battlefield, unlike the Merovingians who used assassins. After Eudo’s death Charles seized Aquitaine, uniting all of Francia except the rump state of Septimania on the Mediterranean coast, and Brittany in the northwest, though the Bretons then didn’t think their land was part of Francia, just as some Bretons today think they’re not really French.
So why did Muslim forces lose this battle after a century of victories from Central Asia to Iberia? For the macro-historical explanation, let’s go back to the three main reasons I mentioned earlier: geography, religion and military organization. The Middle East and North Africa’s open landscape was perfect for Arab horsemen who could outmaneuver any foe they encountered. Religiously the Arabs were in luck: the people of Syria, the Levant, North Africa and even much of Iberia, rejected Christ’s divine nature and were just as opposed to Catholics as they were to Islam. Finally, the Arabs incorporated new peoples into their armies with promises of plunder. Open terrain, limited religious conflict, and conscription of new peoples fueled the Caliphate’s rise. All three of these factors ground to a halt by the time the jihadists reached Francia.
First, the terrain was entirely unfavorable to the Arab-dominated force. Francia had thick forests and marshes that prevented cavalry mobility, the Pyrenees mountains served as a shield to the southwest, while the Central Massif made troop movement difficult in the center-south. It was a far different world than the Arabs and their subjects were used to and the men, horses and camels were ill-suited and poorly prepared to conquer this alien landscape.
Just imagine it: you’re a Berber soldier living in northwest Africa. Temperatures regularly reach the mid-30s Celsius, so mid-90s Fahrenheit. Your Arab overlord musters your tribe to help him put down an unruly Berber general in the northeast, something which you already don’t want to do because you’ve about had enough with the Arabs and all their damn taxes anyway. After putting down the revolt, you’re told the only way to get paid is to head north and raid. Now it’s late October, temperatures hover around 14C or 50F; not that you know what either of those mean…you’re not a time-traveler in this scenario. You just know it is cold and its raining all the friggin’ time. You’re trudging through a forest thicker than any you’ve ever been in, and oh, there’s twenty-thousand pale-faced men with swords and chainmail who say they want to kill you.
Which brings us to the second point: the people of Francia were very different than those the Arabs had conquered. The Franks were overwhelmingly Catholic. They believed that any repudiation of Christ’s importance or divine nature was the highest form of blasphemy. The Franks had been possibly the premier proselytizing force for Christianity for a century, playing an influential role in converting the Irish, the Anglo-Saxons and the peoples of Western Germania. They also inspired Visigothic Spain to transition away from Arianism towards Catholicism. Ironically, civil wars led by Catholics opposing Arians weakened the country just before the Islamic invasions. The Franks were devout and regularly fought against those neighbors they considered heretical, namely the Arian Visigoths. When Islamic armies crossed the Pyrenees with a new book and interesting new takes on who God was, the Franks were having none of it. The first major battle between the Franks and the Muslims, the Battle of Toulouse, was heralded as a triumph for the Christian faith and its leader was acclaimed by the Pope as a servant of God. Thus, the Franks were neither ideal subjects, nor enthusiastic mercenaries for the southern power.
Those are the macrohistorical reasons. If we look at the battle itself, the Muslims were caught off-guard by the sudden appearance of a well-trained, well-armed forced. Charles Martel unified most of the Frankish realms, reorganized the military and was an accomplished general. Before, most Muslim forces overwhelmed smaller forces or fled from larger ones. At Poitiers Ar-Rahman’s army faced an equal force on unfavorable terrain and his camp was immobile due to the plunder. Then confusion struck at the worst possible moment and the governor’s attempts to stop the dissolution of his army ensured its defeat. For so long fortune favored the new religious-political order but their luck ran out in southern Francia.
Chapter 4: The Aftermath
The Battle of Poitiers has been mythologized as an all-important event that decided the fate of Christendom and Western Civilization. So you might be surprised to hear that just two years later a Muslim army from Septimania occupied part of Provence, and Charles Martel personally fought two more major pitched battles against Islamic forces. By 734 most of Francia was under the Frankish general’s control, though not everyone was pleased with this political reality, least of all Duke Maurontus of Provence. Maurontus invited the governor of Septimania, Yusuf ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Fihri, to Avignon. Al-Fihri learned from the Battle of Poitiers and decided that Islamic forces needed to return to their martial roots as raiders, weakening their enemies gradually before overwhelming them. From their stronghold in Avignon, Muslim horsemen raided the countryside. By this point, Muslims dominated much of the Mediterranean and al-Fihri used this to his full advantage. From his position on the coast he could rapidly call for assistance from Al-Andalus should a large invasion force threaten his position. Far from retreating after Poitiers, the Islamic forces from the south simply regrouped.
Charles wasn’t one to back down from a fight, especially against those the church condemned as heathen. The Frank probably wasn’t a pious man, given that he remade the church into a tool to assert his power. But he understood that as the Byzantine Empire crumbled, the Vatican increasingly turned to the Frankish leaders to defend their faith. For his entire adult life this bastard son of Pippin II fought to overcome his illegitimacy through military conquest and church support. Fortunately for the ambitious general, repulsing Muslim invaders accomplished both.
Two years after Islamic forces moved into Provence, Charles sent his brother Duke Childebrand south with an army. Childebrand forced the rebellious Franks and their Islamic allies to hold up inside Avignon until Charles arrived with the main force. While the Franks were normally terrible at sieges, Martel’s military reforms meant his men were prepared. They began with catapult barrages. Then Charles launched a brutal frontal assault using battering rams to smash through the gates while rope ladders ferried men over the walls. The Franks overwhelmed the city and razed it to the ground. When he learned of the Frankish approach al-Fihri summoned an army from al-Andalus but the Franks took Avignon before it could arrive. In 737 the Muslim army met Charles’ forces at the Battle of the River Berre where Martel won another stunning victory. From here the Franks raided the major cities of Septimania. Al-Fihri sent a second army, which Martel also defeated. Assuming that his foes were depleted, Charles then decided to besiege Narbonne, but word arrived that Eudo’s son Hunald led a revolt in Aquitaine and the cautious Martel retreated rather than stretch himself too thin. For fifteen years Francia and Septimania lived in relative peace. The Muslims couldn’t hope to meet the Franks in open combat, and the massive fortresses of Septimania made any siege costly. Only in 752 under Pepin the Short did fighting resume, and by 760 this breakaway province fell to Frankish dominion.
Around the same time that rapid Islamic expansion faltered in southern Francia, it slowed all across the Caliphate’s borders. Byzantium wisely abandoned its most vulnerable provinces and consolidated its defenses along the mountains and fortresses of Anatolia. The Umayyad invasion of India ended in disaster. Meanwhile the Himalayas, Caucus Mountains and the Sahara Desert limited expansion. By around 730 the Umayyad Caliphate struggled to expand…which proved its undoing.
The Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates expanded more rapidly than probably any previous empire in part because of their incredible recruitment. Basically, Arab armies approached a new territory and told the people there, “We’re giving you two options. One, your able-bodied men can join our army and plunder other people for riches. Two, you can all submit to us and pay absurdly high taxes. If you say no to both, we’ll have to kill you.” As you can imagine, most people chose option one, or like the Berbers, they fought the Arabs until they decided they’d rather join them than oppose them. If you know anything about history you should know the basic rule that no one has an army, they rent it and as soon as the money runs dry that army ransacks whoever is closest. By the 730s the Caliphate failed to capture much more wealth and their exorbitant taxes became too much for their subjects.
In 739 the Berbers were done with their Arab masters and revolted. After a bloody four-year war, they established their own independent state, the Emirate of Tlemcen. This was a devasting blow to Muslims in Spain, as the Berbers were among their most important soldiers. Their defection effectively crippled any hopes of further expansion. But the Berber Revolt was nothing compared to what was happening back in the Middle East. The descendants of Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, a relative of the Prophet Muhammad, rallied the enemies of the Umayyads. These people, known as the Abbasids, accused the Umayyads of corruption, and attacked the legal discrimination against non-Arabs. From 747-750 the Caliphate devolved into civil war until the Abbasids seized power and ended the privileged status for Arabs. But the reforms came too late. In 750 the Emirate of Nekor in northern Morocco, declared its independence as the Kingdom of Nekor. Then in 756 the Muslim government in Spain officially broke off from the Caliphate and became the independent Emirate of Córdoba.
The western fringes of the Islamic world fragmented. The Emirate of Córdoba was preoccupied with war against the Basques, the Kingdom of Asturias and rebellious Christians within its borders. This, combined with the fact that it was much less militarily powerful than Francia meant that the threat of a Muslim invasion north of the Pyrenees was over. The collapse of the Umayyads made Islamic rulers realized that a system based on perpetual conquest was naturally unstable and so the Muslim world transitioned from raiding and expansion to trading and consolidation. The world-breaking conquerors became world-travelling merchants. Rather than try to conquer the cold, poor north, which was filled with angry pale people, the Muslims of Spain decided they’d rather trade with northwest Africa and the Mediterranean.
Chapter 5: What happened?
Now we’ve come to the part of the show where we ask: how important was the Battle of Poitiers? Was Edward Gibbon correct that if Charles Martel had failed that jihadists would overwhelm Europe destroy Western civilization as we know it and turn Oxford into a still-prestigious but now Islamic school? As a historian I can say that near-anything is possible, and world-changing events often arise from the strange and insignificant. Having said that, there’s a difference between what is possible and what is probable. While it is theoretically possible that defeat at Poitiers could have led to the Islamization of Europe that scenario is extremely unlikely.
The Umayyad Caliphate was in poor shape by the time The Battle of Poitiers occurred. If anything, The Battle of Toulouse in 721 was the far more important battle. The sudden loss of a sizeable army at a time when the Muslims were still expanding was devastating. Al-Andalus didn’t send another sizeable force into Francia for another decade, by which point it was politically fragmenting. After the battle, different factions within Spain fought for supremacy and al-Andalus had seven governors in just nine years. Not that the Franks knew about this. They were ignorant of internal Islamic politics and so they assumed that military defeats discouraged their southern neighbors from waging war.
Charles Martel dealt a powerful blow to Al-Andalus at the Battle of Poitiers when he killed the governor ar-Rahman and destroyed a significant number of troops. Moreover, he recaptured much of their plundered wealth, at a time when the governate struggled to pay the Umayyad Caliphate’s high taxes. But ar-Rahman did not enter Francia as a conqueror but a raider. The early 9th century Egyptian historian Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam claimed that Ar-Rahman marched out as a ghazi, or raider, not as a jihadist. Granted, Islamic grand strategy was to start with raiding, then progress to outright conquest, but when ar-Rahman marched out in 731 it was to punish disloyal Berber subjects while securing payment for loyal Berber subjects; he had no intention of conquering any part of Francia at the time.
Importantly, the Battle of Poitiers didn’t seriously weaken Al-Andalus. After the battle the Christian Kingdom of Asturias didn’t act against their Muslim neighbors to the south, implying that they were still a powerful force. Moreover, within two years an Islamic army took Avignon and raided throughout Provence. When Charles besieged the city, Al-Andalus sent two more armies to contest him. While these were defeated, the fact that the government could raise the funds and manpower for two more significant forces shows that The Battle of Poitiers hadn’t crippled them.
So often complex historical periods are boiled down to single events. Isaac Newton thinking up gravity because an apple fell on his head, Christopher Columbus’ men wanting to turn around because they thought the Earth was flat and they would fall off the edge, Marie Antoinette saying, “Let them eat cake,” when she heard French peasants didn’t have bread to eat. Myths like these are a type of narrative shorthand, though history is rarely that clean-cut. The Battle of Poitiers was an important contest between rival powers, but it was one of roughly eight major battles between the Franks and their new Muslim neighbors over an 18 year period.
Even if the Islamic forces had been more successful it would not have stabilized their vast holdings because Francia was relatively poor compared to the Mediterranean world, and the Berbers would still not get enough plunder to satisfy them. And even if Islamic forces defeated the Franks in pitched combat, it’s possible the various nobility would rally more forces, or hold up in their fortresses, or engage in guerrilla warfare. And even if Islamic forces invaded southern Francia, its likely most people would resist Islamization, since Christians largely retained their identity within Al-Andalus and the Franks were even more fiercely anti-Muslim. There are those who just assume that if Charles Martel had lost his most famous battle that Europe and Christendom would fall to Islamic conquest, but winning that one battle was a single step on a long journey towards the conquest of Francia, which the governors of Al-Andalus might not even have been trying to do.
If the Battle of Poitiers didn’t have a massive impact on the Frankish-Islamic wars, it did have a major impact on Charles Martel by legitimizing his rule. His victory there and in Provence proved he was a brilliant general. Moreover, the mantle of “defender of Christianity” passed from Duke Eudo to Charles, who masterfully used religion to prop up his claims to power. In 741 when the Merovingian king Theuderic IV died he ruled as Duke and Prince of the Franks, without uplifting a new king. Charles and his supporters really played up the Islamic threat to further his propaganda aims. The Chronicle of Saint Denis claimed that he and his loyal followers slew 300,000 Muslim invaders, meaning that he held off an army that was at least half a million strong. Or, you know, 25 times the actual number.
And this is primarily why the battle is so well-remembered. Charles Martel needed to legitimize himself and the House of Pepin if he wanted to replace the Merovingian dynasty. The Pippinids had numerous enemies across Francia who feared their rising power and limitless ambition. Charles wasn’t even popular within his own house, since he was a bastard and had spent three years fighting his more legitimate family members for control of Francia. Charles and his successors turned the Muslims into an existential threat to Frankish Christians, one which only they could defeat. The mythologizing of this event became part of the foundation of the Carolingian dynasty. Charles’ son Pepin the Short claimed his father’s martial and religious legacy when he appealed to Pope Zachary in 751 and promised to defend Italian Catholicism against the largely Arian Lombards. Pope Zachary supported Pepin when he dismissed the last Merovingian king and made himself the first Carolingian monarch.
The Battle of Poitiers was one part of a greater struggle between the Franks and their new Muslim neighbors, a struggle which was seriously overstated then and continues to be overstated today as anti-Muslim people have erroneously cited this event as a clash of civilizations every time a majority Christian country comes into conflict with a majority Muslim country. While this battle wasn’t that important in Christian-Muslim relations it did have a huge impact on Francia and Europe because it midwifed the Carolingian dynasty. As Byzantium declined the Franks were the most powerful force in Europe. But these people had been divided for roughly a century as the Merovingian dynasty declined and rival noble households divided up the kingdom. Charles’ military success and subsequent propaganda led to his domination of a united Francia which he passed on to his son Pepin, and then his son Charlemagne who created the greatest European empire since Rome.
Bernard S. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire, 2001.
David Balfour, “‘The Court of the Martyrs’, October 732,” Medieval Warfare , 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3, 2011.
An anonymous Arab Chronicler, 732, as quoted in Edward Creasy, Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World Everyman’s Library, 1937.
William Stearns Davis, ed., Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 362-364. Scanned in and modernized by Dr. Jerome S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/732tours.asp
Isidore of Beja’s Chronicle
Chronicle of St. Denis
Kelly DeVries and Robert D. Smith, Weapons and Warfare: An Illustrated History of their Impact, 2007.
Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1789.
Greek, Eric E. 2019. “The Myth of Charles Martel: Why the Islamic Caliphate Ceased Military Operations in Western Europe After the Battle of Tours.” Master’s thesis, Harvard Extension School.
Yuval Noah Harari, “The Concept of “Decisive Battles” in World History,” Journal of World History , Sep., 2007, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Sep., 2007), pp. 251-266.