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67: Jihad in Provence
From the 830s into the 880s Islamic pirates and raiders routinely ravaged Francia’s southern coast and sailed up the Rhône River in their search for plunder. In 887 twenty soldiers set sail from the eastern coast of Al-Andalus or the Balearic Islands towards Provence. Unlike many of their brethren these twenty were not mudahim, raiders, but mujahadeen, soldiers. These men landed near modern-day St. Tropez, roughly halfway between Marseille and Nice along the coast. There they took a mountain castrum known in Latin as Fraxinetum and turned it into a nigh-impregnable fortress. From their base they invited more mujahadeen to join them and conquered most of Provence, parts of northwest Italy and even stretched into modern-day Switzerland. After the crushing defeat at the Battle of Poitiers a century and a half before, Muslims from Al-Andalus revived the jihad in Francia and warred for 86 years before their eventual defeat.
This podcast has briefly touched on concepts of ‘holy war’ and clashes between devout religious peoples when covering the Frankish-Al-Andalusian conflict of the early 8th century, and the centuries-long wars between the Catholic Franks and Germanic pagans. As we approach the Crusades, conflicts justified on religious grounds will become increasingly frequent, so it’s important that we understand what these mean and why they occur. Fundamentally, we must be able to look into the mindset of those people 1,000 years ago or more and recognize what drove them to engage in jihad or crusade; whether they were political leaders, foot soldiers, accompanying merchants or camp followers.
Unfortunately, in our current era there is a lot of Orientalism, a term coined by academic Edward Said to refer to Western exoticizing and misunderstanding of non-Western cultures, particularly Islamic culture. Especially since 2001 there has been a purposeful misunderstanding of Middle Eastern culture by political actors. Perhaps the worst form of Orientalism is the concept that European cultures progress while non-European cultures trudge forward slowly or not at all. You’ve probably heard political commentators use words like, ‘jihad,’ ‘mujahadeen,’ or ‘Caliphate,’ and make comparisons between Islamic societies from a millennia ago to modern-day terror groups. This is a gross misinterpretation, that fails to take into account the specificities of time, place and individuals.
Let’s examine some terms and get into the mindset of those warriors who invaded southern Francia. Medieval Islamic scholars viewed their religion as a system which incorporated politics and culture. In the words of the famous academic Majid Khadduri, “‘According to tenth-century Islamic jurisprudence the world was split into two divisions: the territory of Islam (dar al-Islam), comprising Muslim communities and non-Muslim communities that had accepted Islamic sovereignty, and the rest of the world, called the dar al-harb. The dar al-Islam, in theory, was in a constant state of war with the dar al-harb. The instrument that would transform the dar al-harb into the Dar al-Islam was jihad. Jihad, in the broadest sense, was therefore meant to achieve Islam’s ultimate aim: the universalization of the faith and the establishment of God’s sovereignty over the entire world. In Islamic legal theory, jihad was a permanent obligation upon the believers to be carried out by a continuous process of warfare, psychological or political, even if not strictly military. No other form of warfare (other than jihad) was permissible, whether within Islamic territory or outside it.’” There are noticeable parallels to 10th century Christian theology which divided the world between Christendom and everything outside it, called for war against non-believers and condemned war between believers. Despite prohibitions on interfaith conflict both in Christendom and in the dar al-Islam, believers most often fought other believers over political, economic, regional or ethnic differences, or even differences over what represented ‘true belief’ versus heresy.
Now let’s talk about the word ‘jihad,’ which has become quite a scare-word in modern times; so much so that Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 movie ‘Dune’ strayed from the books and never used the word ‘jihad,’ instead using the generic term ‘holy war’ in the film, and even ‘crusade’ in trailers to avoid seeming racist or Islamophobic. Jihad’s original meaning was simply ‘struggle,’ which could be both internal and external. However, in the 10th century ‘jihad’ was often used by Muslims to refer to military conflict against non-Muslims and jihadists are those that engage in that conflict. For this episode on Fraxinetum we’re going to use a definition provided by medieval historian Mohamad Ballan, who employed the term ‘jihad,’ “specifically [in] its tenth-century Islamic jurisprudential definition, characterizing violence against non-Muslims who did not acknowledge Islamic rule as a religiously-sanctioned duty, and describing an act intended to weaken and overthrow the land of unbelief (dar al-harb) and bring about the ultimate victory of Islam.” Connected to jihad are the terms ‘ghazi,’ plural ‘ghazoun’ meaning ‘warrior in a foreign land,’ and ‘mujahid,’ plural ‘mujahadeen’ meaning ‘those who wage jihad.’
Now we’re aware of the problems of Orientalism, and we defined terms using those by accredited historians and Islamic scholars. There’s one last thing we need to do before diving into the narrative and that is strip away our modern worldview and comprehend the 10th century worldview. The original twenty Andalusi ghazoun who seized Fraxinetum justified their actions as furthering jihad, but one of their primary motivations was certainly to acquire wealth. Much like how the Vikings were then establishing bases in the north to raid down the rivers of Francia, the sailors from Al-Andalus intended to use their mountainous castrum as a base for raiding the countryside. After establishing themselves many more, similarly minded soldiers of fortune joined them. As Fraxinetum grew perhaps even some minor nobility, or the lesser sons of noble houses went to Provence to establish themselves as lords. Merchants travelled to the area to gain profit. Craftworkers developed industries. Tax collectors and administrators reorganized society. Imams arrived to spread Islam to non-believers and attend to the spiritual needs of believers. While mujahadeen justified their actions to their Islamic brethren as ‘jihad,’ many soldiers and immigrants to the area aimed to increase their political power and economic standing.
This complexity has been a major stumbling-block for modern people trying to understand the past. On the far-right of the political spectrum there are those who equate historical jihadists with the most extreme terror groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, claiming that historical Muslims were only interested in killing or converting non-believers, while ignoring their other activities or dismissing them as ‘corruption.’ In contrast, those on the far-left who are more sympathetic to Muslims claim that so-called religious conflicts were never really about religion. They claim that the jihads and the crusades were all about upstart lords seeking power and poor men looking for wealth. Both of these views fundamentally misunderstand what medieval religious conflict was about, and the truth is not somewhere in between the two. The truth can only be comprehended when we understand and reject the inherent flaws in the logic of both arguments. That flaw is the modern assumption of a segmented society, which is a product of the European Enlightenment.
The European Enlightenment championed a scientific, rationalist approach to society which divided it into its constituent parts. Political products of the Enlightenment, such as the American Revolution and the French Revolution, established divisions between church and state. Adam Smith’s On the Wealth of Nations, the book credited with founding the concept of capitalism, advocated for a lessening of government interference in the economy in the form of guilds and privileges, effectively dividing much, if not all, of government from the economy. In the 1880s the French Third Republic passed laws guaranteeing universal secular schooling, in effect dividing religion from education. From the 18th century-onward Europeans divided religion, government, the economy and culture from each other as part of the rational reorganization of their nations and as a means to protect each part of society from endue influence by the other. This rationalist division of society is a radically new phenomenon which did not exist in prior ages.
Before the 18th century going back to the earliest-known civilizations there were no hard divisions between religion and politics. Pharaoh was both god and king of Egypt. Caesars were both imperators and pontifex maximus. Christian kings and Islamic Caliphs oversaw the political and religious administration of their lands. In this time there were also no divisions between religion and education; far from it, they were one and the same. Priests and monks oversaw church schools while imams and clerics led madrasas. The great natural philosophers and scientists were all clergy or at least educated by them. There was also less division between the government, religion and the economy. The government was heavily involved in administering trades. Meanwhile churches and monasteries owned land which they leased to peasants for profit and engaged in craft work. There’s a reason why some of the best beer, wine, cheese, honey and jam have cartoons of monks on their labels. And the famous French liqueur Chartreuse was invented by monks in the Chartreuse Mountains.
Modern far-right opponents of Islam tend to ignore the political, economic, scientific or cultural aspects involved in medieval Islamic conquests, chalking them up to corruption. Simultaneously, leftists defending Muslims point to these as evidence that their conquests were for economic and social reasons and religion was just an excuse. But this is a modern perspective that is absolutely wrong because pre-modern societies did not divide up into segments. In the medieval period there was not ‘religion or politics’ it was ‘religion and politics.’ There was no ‘religion or science’ there was ‘religion and science.’ There was no ‘religion or the economy’ there was ‘religion and the economy.’ The Andalusi who took Fraxinetum were looking to make money, but that doesn’t mean they were hypocrites or corrupt, as they claimed that they would use that money to further jihad. Lesser nobles invaded foreign lands to acquire new titles and power, which they viewed as furthering dar al-Islam because they were replacing non-believing aristocrats with believers…who just happened to be themselves. Likewise, the Islamic merchants who profited from conquered territories made money which supported the dar al-Islam. Moreover, economic success and infrastructural development were both an incentive to join Islam and a demonstration of how great it was. Medieval peoples didn’t view merchants as parasites profiting off of holy war…unless they were really stingy; they were an integral part of the process of Islamization as they facilitated the creation of a better society. The same can be said of industry. Finally, monumental architecture was both a testament to the glory and power of their creators but also a means of inspiring the faithful and impressing non-believers.
If you look at the medieval period through a modern lens you’re going to get it wrong. Jihad was all about religion. But it was also all about power. And it was all about economics. We can say the same thing about the holy wars the Franks fought against the Germanic pagans, and soon the Crusades. Holy wars were about everything. Even if an individual was furthering their religion and political state for selfish or ignoble reasons that didn’t change the fact that most people operated with the worldview that religious, political and economic expansion were one and the same. Pre-modern society at large combined all of its constituent parts and it is only recently that modern peoples separated them.
Alright, well that was quite a precursor. Sorry, I just knew that if I did an episode on ‘jihad in France’ I’d get some far-rightists erroneously relating it to modern times and some leftists calling me ‘racist’ and ‘Islamophobic.’ I’m doing my best folks; now on to the history.
Our story begins in 759 when the first Carolingian king Pepin the Short conquered Narbonne, the last Islamic holdout in Francia. From the Battle of Toulouse 721 to the fall of Narbonne the Christian Franks won a 38 year on-and-off conflict with Arab-Berber Muslims from Iberia and northern Africa. Their victory contained the Islamic polity of Al-Andalus south of the Pyrenees Mountains. Far more devastating for Al-Andalus was the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty by the Abbasids in 750. The Abbasids rapidly claimed dominion over most of the Islamic world, leaving the Umayyads in Iberia utterly alone. Also, the Berbers of North Africa revolted, meaning that the Andalusian Umayyads faced Spanish Christian enemies in the north, the Franks in the northeast, rival kingdoms to the south, and the Caliphate in the Mediterranean. It was not a good time for Al-Andalus. But if history teaches us anything it’s that things can always get worse.
In 774 Charlemagne conquered the northern half of Italy. The Lombards crowned him with their crown of iron in Pavia, while the Pope bestowed on him the Roman title of patrician. Throughout their history the Franks had been subpar sailors even as they were among the best soldiers on land…a stereotype which will prove fairly accurate for the next thousand years or so. Meanwhile the Italians were by that time excellent sailors. They brought naval expertise to Charlemagne’s kingdom, while he installed internal peace and generous economic sponsorship. These three things put together meant that the Franks had a strong, Italian-based navy in the Western Mediterranean. Charlemagne’s navy defeated Muslims in the Balearic Islands, while reinstalling Christian rulers who were dependent on the Carolingian Empire. Later on, Frankish sailors repulsed Islamic raiders in Corsica, Sardinia and across the Italian and Frankish coasts. The Andalusi navy was overmatched and largely confined to the eastern coast, even as the Franks dominated the Western Mediterranean and the Byzantines dominated the east.
In the meantime the leaders of Al-Andalus put down rebellions, fought against Christian holdouts in the north and tried to maintain stability even as the world turned against them. Then in 826-827, exiled Andalusi sailors conquered the island of Crete, south of Greece. There they established a ribat, a frontier state. Their primary military base became the capital of a prosperous state whose sailors simultaneously engaged in trading, raiding and conquest, each feeding the other and bringing in wealth for the island. In relatively short time Crete attracted scholars and merchants from across the Islamic world. The ribat became the Emirate of Crete and developed an adaptive political structure. It recognized the Abbasids as their suzerain and could call on their aid when attacked by the Byzantines. Simultaneously, Crete was autonomous and free to act as it wished. The Emirate of Crete would serve as a useful blueprint for future Islamic conquests and was an important evolution in overall Islamic grand strategy. During Islam’s first century it spread rapidly and directly warred with large-scale powers. After these initial victories, Islamic expansion stalled. Unable to conquer India, Byzantium and Francia, Muslims adapted and learned how to conquer economic and military hotspots, such as Crete, then Sicily.
In 814 Louis the Pious became Emperor of the Franks. As energetic and intelligent as he was, he could not fill Charlemagne’s massive shoes. Three of his four sons regularly rebelled against him, with only the young Charles the Bald remaining perpetually loyal to his father. Chaos in Francia presented opportunity for Andalusi pirates who jealously watched the Abbasids conquer Sicily and use it as a base for raids of Italy. In 838 Andalusi pirates raided Marseille, inaugurating a whole new era of Islamic attacks against southern Francia. These pirates even established a base on the island of Camargue which they used to raid up the Rhône River, although ironically they were soon attacked by Vikings who forced them to flee. That pretty much sums up how bad things were getting in Francia: southern Franks were saved from Islamic Andalusi raiders by pagan Viking raiders. And I use the term ‘saved’ loosely.
At the 843 Treaty of Verdun Louis the Pious’ three sons divided up the empire. While Charles the Bald got West Francia, Lothar got the middle which included Italy, depriving the Western Franks of their best sailors at a time when Andalusi pirates ramped up their attacks against Provence. Over the next four decades, Andalusi mudahim attacked Arles, Marseille and Fréjus and other smaller cities. In 877 Charles the Bald died and left West Francia to his sickly son Louis the Stammerer, inspiring a number of local magnates to declare their independence, among them Boso of Provence. In 887 the self-styled King of Provence died, leaving a fractured country to his seven-year-old son. Recognizing that political paralysis and even chaos occurred whenever a monarch died, twenty Andalusi mujaheddin sailed to a relatively unpopulated area along the coast of Provence and seized the old Roman fort of Fraxinetum which overlooked a small village of the same name. This became the center of an entirely new Islamic polity in southern Francia, known to history by its most famous fort.
The fort at Fraxinetum was nigh-impenetrable. It was on top of a small mountain, surrounded almost entirely by thorny trees, except for one steep, narrow path. Ten kilometers to the southeast was the port where the mujahedeen could call upon aid from Al-Andalus and Sicily. Islamic scholars called the mountain fortification ‘Jabal al-Qilal,’ in English: Timber Mountain, though we know it by the Latin Fraxinetum meaning ‘ash forest.’
After securing the fort, the initial twenty sent out calls for aid and another one hundred men from Iberia and the Balearics joined them. In just two decades the Andalusis conquered most of southeastern Provence and stretched east to the Alps where they controlled the mountain passes. While the mujahedeen conquered their immediate surroundings they raided much farther abroad, sailing along the coast, up the Rhône River and marching into northwestern Italy. In 906 they famously forced the monks of Novalesa abbey to flee after making a stunning march through the mountains.
These were not random acts of plunder but coordinated attacks whose spoils funded the central government of the ribat. The central government of Fraxinetum used these funds to build a series of fortifications along the Alps and across the coast. One Christian chronicle even claims that the mujahedeen, “lived in a labyrinthine network of subterranean galleries in a mountainous area that was surrounded by enormous forests.” Which is certainly an exaggeration; these forts were no Great Wall of China or Maginot Line. All the same, in just a few decades Andalusi invaders conquered a sizeable amount of territory and either seized, reconstructed or outright built significant military bases all across Provence and the western Alps. These forts allowed the mujahadeen to continually threaten northwestern Italy and southeastern Francia, though they managed to raid far beyond that territory. In 921 a raiding party destroyed the church of Saint Nicolas near Mont-Joux and the monastery of Saint-Pierre at Bourg-Saint-Pierre, both of which are in modern-day western Switzerland roughly 400 kilometers from Fraxinetum. Over the course of its existence, Andalusi raiders from Fraxinetum even went north into Alemannia, though the majority of their raids focused on Provence and western Italy. When they weren’t raiding, the mujahadeen captured pilgrims travelling from Francia to holy sites in Italy and held them for ransom. Most were allowed to pass while paying a small fee, though according to one Christian chronicle in the early 920s Andalusi soldiers caused an avalanche to kill a group of Anglo-Saxon pilgrims so that they could loot their corpses.
Now we have to ask, what impact did the mujahadeen have on Provence? Well wouldn’t you know it, but the Christian and Muslim sources disagree on this issue. Christian sources claimed that the Muslims devastated and depopulated the area, while Islamic sources claimed the Andalusis settled a largely unpopulated area and developed it. There’s some truth in both accounts. Obviously, the mujahadeen caused a fair amount of disruption when they conquered the region. They sacked a number of important monasteries and churches, killed resistors and forced some locals to flee. But after the initial conquest they brought in large amounts of wealth which they acquired through raiding.
Wealth from raids attracted Muslim merchants from across the Mediterranean, bringing in even more wealth. Craftworkers emigrated from the dar al-Islam to Fraxinetum, bringing their expertise with them and founding new industries. Muslim farmers brought crops from their native lands and possibly introduced buckwheat into the region. This is just a guess, though the word ‘buckwheat’ in the Provençal dialect of the French language is ‘blé sarrasin,’ ‘The Saracen’s wheat,’ ‘Saracen’ being a medieval era catch-all term for Muslims. Some scholars argue that Muslims introduced the cultivation of cork and the method of turning pine-resin into pine-tar which was used to caulk wooden ships. Historian Mohamad Ballan notes that, “This is supported by the fact that the French and Provençal word for tar, “goudron/quitran,” is derived from a similar Arabic word, ‘qaträn.’” He further argues “the existence of distinctly Arab and Berber agricultural and pastoral practices can also be inferred from the fact that certain species of goats native to North Africa are herded in Provence, while the raising of pigs is rare, a detail that can be attributed to the period of the Andalusi Muslim presence. The archaeological remains of pottery, metallurgy, the manufacture of weapons and forestry have also been cited as indicative that non-military activities were relatively widespread at Fraxinetum, and that there were possibly artisans and other skilled Muslims among the warriors there.”
Perhaps their most important industry was logging timber. Timber was hardy and made for great ships. Since most Islamic territories in the Western Mediterranean didn’t have a steady supply of timber the lumberjacks of Fraxinetum made a significant profit selling it, especially to the home country of Al-Andalus. Beginning in 909 a new empire known as the Fatimid Caliphate conquered Northern Africa and threatened to invade Iberia. Foreign threats can be great for business and the government in Cordoba bought up as much timber and resin as they could get their hands on.
The ribat of Fraxinetum was not just a military base; its leaders clearly intended to turn it into a self-supporting country with a complex political structure. Like many territories with Muslims rulers but a majority non-Muslim population, the mujahedeen granted their subject peoples a degree of political autonomy and religious tolerance so long as they paid the jizya, a tax for non-believers. Between raids, normal taxes, the jizya and the thriving local industry Fraxinetum developed a prosperous economy. Eventually, the qu’id, the military leader, minted their own currency, which highly suggests that he aimed to make Fraxinetum an independent state. Yet, during its existence the qu’id never claimed the title emir, or governor, meaning that its leaders never felt strong enough to declare independence. As successful as they were, they remained surrounded by enemies on three sides and depended on aid from Al-Andalus.
The rising power of the mujahedeen alarmed locals, though repulsing them was not necessarily their priority. Again, I want to remind listeners that the ‘Christians vs Muslims,’ ‘West vs. East’ mindset is a modern invention. In the early 10th century Francia, Germania and Italy were being attacked by Odin-worshippers from Scandinavia and shamanistic Hungarians. Christians in these territories did not view Muslims as uniquely threatening or evil, but just one of many calamities they had to endure. The 9th-10th century was an era when the heart of continental Europe and the British Isles were consistently attacked by foreign, non-Christian raiders and invaders. Add to this that Christian leaders often warred with themselves and it’s understandable that Christian resistance to the Andalusis were slow.
Yet, the mujahadeen did face some resistance. First from the locals they conquered, then the peoples they attacked. Their most consistent early rival was Hugh of Arles, a powerful southern noble who ruled as Louis the Blind’s regent in the Kingdom of Provence, before taking the kingdom for himself. Through a series of political events he became King of Italy, though his hold on the northern half of the peninsula was always in danger due to local opposition and constant raiding from Andalusi mudahim, Fatimid pirates and Hungarian horsemen. In 931 Hugh allied with the Byzantines who sent a fleet to attack Fraxinetum. This joint invasion seriously weakened but did not dislodge the ribat. When a cabal of Italian nobles tried to overthrow him, Hugh left Provence and abandoned the war.
In 935 Fatimids, who were probably joined by raiders from Fraxinetum, sacked the city of Genoa. The Fatimids burned the city to the ground, abducted the citizens for sale to slavers and left the area completely depopulated for years. In 939 they attacked the renowned monastery at St. Gall and destroyed the abbey of Aguane in the Valais. In 940 the Fraxinetum mujahedeen sacked the important port city of Fréjus. These attacks were too much for Hugh of Arles. First, he put down a revolt of nobles led by his nephew Berengar II, who had a much stronger claim to the throne than he did, albeit he didn’t have the army to enforce that claim. Hugh defeated the uprising then exiled his nephew. Afterwards he sent emissaries to the Byzantine Empire who sent a fleet westward. These eastern ships were armed with their famous Greek fire, a secret compound which the Byzantines fired like a flamethrower against enemy ships and which burned on water. With the Byzantine navy fighting the mujahedeen on the seas and the northern Italians invading through the Alps the two forces threatened to obliterate Fraxinetum. In 941 the Byzantines utterly destroyed their navy and razed Fraxinetum’s primary port. Meanwhile, Hugh retook the coast. The situation was dire for the mujahedeen who fell back on their inland fortresses. After just a few short months it looked as if Hugh might actually retake Provence.
Now, if you’ve listened to my podcast long enough you should have a sixth sense for when there’s a twist coming. Rather than finish his war of reconquest, Hugh made peace with the qu’id. The mujahadeen ceded all Italian territory to Hugh while they retained Provence and the passes into the Alps. Why did Hugh agree to this? Because he had a much bigger problem than occasional raids. To the north, Otto I united the German lands and led the most powerful kingdom west of Byzantium. He was so powerful that his neighbors either officially acknowledged him as their suzerain or at least treated him with deference, even the kings of West Francia. Well, it turns out that when Hugh exiled his nephew Berengar II, the young man went to Otto I’s court where he appealed to the German king to support his claim to the Italian throne. Faced with the immediate threat of invasion, Hugh left the mujahedeen in control of the Alps as protection. Moreover, Hugh appealed to the leaders of Al-Andalus directly as he sought to develop an entente with the Umayyads. Finally, Hugh figured that if the mujahedeen of Fraxinetum could be brought to an understanding not to invade Italy, then they were only going to hurt his enemies. Before Hugh had abandoned Provence altogether, he had fought against the expansionist King of Burgundy. Hugh would not mind at all if the mujahedeen kept travelling up the Rhône ravaging his old enemy while threatening the southernmost lands of Otto I.
The qu’id, who probably couldn’t believe his luck, accepted the offer and immediately resumed raiding. The mujahedeen also continued their practice of taking tolls from Christian pilgrims entering Italy, and even killed some who refused to pay. As you can probably imagine, Hugh’s popularity throughout Christendom took a massive nosedive. One priest compared him to King Ahab, who was seduced by Jezebel and led his people to worship the false god Baal. Another priest compared him to King Herod, who, according to the Bible, slaughtered the infants of Israel to prevent the coming of the Messiah. In 945 Berengar II marched south from Germany and overthrew Hugh, who left for Arles, where he died two years later. While Hugh had lost his throne in the deal, Fraxinetum flourished, reaching the height of its wealth and power.
The Provençal mujahadeen grew too powerful and acquired too many enemies to last. In 939 Ramiro II, King of León won a major battle at Simancas, expanding the Christian kingdom at Al-Andalus’ expense. Then in the early 950s Otto I gave aid to Christians in Provence to fight against the mujahedeen. The German king was expanding his influence south and he both wanted to excise an enemy, cast himself as a defender of Christendom and ensure secure passage through the Alps into Italy, which he would soon conquer. Otto I simultaneously sent embassies to Al-Andalus, demanding that they stop giving aid to Fraxinetum. This pressure, combined with a serious attempt at invasion by the Fatimids, became too much and Al-Andalus significantly reduced its support for the ribat.
With their enemies coordinating and their mother country abandoning them, Fraxinetum went into decline. In 954 a Hungarian war party sailed down the Rhône where they met a Muslim force. The Magyars and mujahadeen butchered each other until Conrad of Burgundy arrived and killed whoever was left. Around 965 the bishop of Grenoble organized the successful expulsion of the local mujahedeen.
The downfall came in the summer of 972 when soldiers guarding the passes seized Bishop Maiolus, abbot of Cluny. During this period and for centuries to come Cluny Abbey was one of, if not the most important monastery in all of France. Moreover, many Christians considered Maiolus to be a living saint who had miraculously healed one of his fellow monks. Maiolus was leading a group of Christians returning home from a pilgrimage in Italy when on the night of 21 July mujahedeen captured him. The bishop sent a letter to Cluny, writing, “Maiolus, a captive, wretched and in chains, sends greetings to his lords and brothers, the monks of Cluny. The hordes of Belial have surrounded me; the snares of death have seized me. Please send a ransom payment for me and those held captive with me.” In response, the monks absolutely ransacked one of France’s greatest monasteries and raised one thousand pounds of silver for his ransom. The mujahedeen released Maiolus, who returned to Cluny, but his capture sparked outrage across Christendom.
In late summer 972, Guillaume I of Provence led a coalition which included soldiers from Provence, Septimania and northern Italy. The coalition overwhelmed the mujahedeen, defeating them in five battles in a row before finally smashing them at the fields of Tourtour. What remained of the mujahedeen retreated to the fortress at Fraxinetum, where the jihad had begun. Recognizing the hopelessness of the situation, a Muslim deserter named Aimon betrayed his fellows to the Christian soldiers who broke into the fort and slaughtered its defenders. Mohamad Ballan writes, “After the destruction of Fraxinetum, the Muslim inhabitants of Provence—combatants and non-combatants alike—were either killed, enslaved, or exiled, and the lands they had controlled were partitioned among the many lords who had taken part in the expedition to expel them from Provence.”
Despite widespread atrocities, Islam did not wholly die out in the region. The village of Jarsy in the Alps maintained Islamic adherence, even opposing Templars who later tried to convert them. Furthermore, many Arabs, North Africans and other peoples who had settled in the area remained and assimilated with the local population. Culturally, Fraxinetum had left a significant impact on the area. The Andalusi introduced new crops and agricultural practices, new animals and industries. If you visit Provence you can still find areas with names like Montmaur, ‘Mountain of the Moors,’ or references to Saracens, in memory of this period.
Between the initial conquest and the Frankish reconquest many areas were depopulated. The Frankish lords who relocated to or at least claimed territory within Provence resettled villagers in the south while simultaneously building up its infrastructure to draw in more people and convince Muslim holdouts to accept the superiority of Christian civilization. After all, if the Muslims could improve the land to show the superiority of Islam, then Christians would do the same when they were in control. The process of resettlement entrenched northern-style bipartite manorialism and feudalism in the region. For a millennia, since the Roman conquest of Provence in the 2nd century BCE, the region was culturally tied to Italy, and maintained many of its customs. Even as the villa system died out in the early medieval north, Provence maintained a semi-Italian style social organization. The wars in Provence disrupted this system and when the Frankish lords retook the area they imposed feudal society on the south, making Provence more like the rest of France rather than an Italian offshoot.
Perhaps the most important impact that this conflict had on France and Europe was that it provided a successful example of a holy war by Christians against Muslims. Christian theologians had debated the concept of fighting a war for religion’s sake since Saint Augustine of Hippo, who wrote in the early 5th century: “They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.’” Since then Christians regularly justified fighting wars for religious reasons. The Franks, more than any other people, save perhaps the Byzantines, justified wars on religious grounds. When Clovis founded the kingdom of Francia he led his people to convert to Catholicism and regularly warred with Arians. Under expansionary Merovingian and Carolingian kings the Franks warred with Germanic peoples and forcibly converted them while burning their sacred groves. When the Vikings settled the coasts of Frisia and Normandy, Frankish lords demanded that they be baptized, thinking that conversion might estrange them from their fellow Odin-worshippers and make the Northmen more like the Franks. These wars had mixed success politically as the Franks conquered then ceded land to other ethnic groups. Religiously, the Christians were victorious. By the 11th century the Germans, Vikings and Hungarians converted to Christianity, ending the pagan threat.
With paganism disappearing Christianity and Islam became the only major religions in the Mediterranean. As Christians warred with Muslims Popes promoted the idea of holy war as a means of defending Rome from Islamic invasion. The very heart of Christendom regularly came under attack during the 9th century, and in 846 Arab raiders sacked St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Beyond the Walls. Pirates from Sicily attacked Ostia in 849 and pillaged Roman suburbs in 876, leading Pope John VIII to call for a defensio totius christianitatis. As Mohamad Ballan writes, “Although this goal never materialized during his lifetime, the ideal had a long-term influence, and was arguably first applied when Pope John X assembled a coalition of knights, which he personally led, and eliminated the Muslims from Monte Garigliano in 915.” The expulsion of Muslims from Monte Garigliano was perhaps the first organized and explicit Christian reconquest against Islamic forces. This reconquest of a village was soon dwarfed by the war for Provence, as Franks reconquered an entire region, fighting numerous large-scale pitched battles and besieging fortified locations. The capture of Mailous served as a rallying cry for faithful across Francia and Italy, and its effects rippled through west European theology.
In the mid-11th century Odo of Châtillon became grand prior of Cluny Abbey, where he regularly heard and repeated the story of Maiolus capture and how it inspired the war in Provence. On 12 March 1088, Odo became Pope Urban II. Seven years since his elevation Urban II returned to France. On 27 November 1095 at the cathedral of Clermont Urban II delivered a speech imploring faithful Christians to retake the Holy Land. This speech directly led to the First Crusade.
For a long time a dearth of sources led historians to dismiss the events at Fraxinetum as a strange anomaly. Historiography from the early 1900s claimed that Fraxinetum was a mere pirate bay. Starting in the 1970s historians reexamining the region overturned these false assumptions. The ribat of Fraxinetum and its fall fundamentally changed the demography, politics, culture and industry of Provence. Even more importantly the reconquest, Christianization and resettlement of the region served as a blueprint for the Crusades.
Mohamad Ballan, “Fraxinetum: An Islamic Frontier State in Tenth Century Provence,” 2010, Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Scott Bruce, “An abbot between two cultures: Maiolus of Cluny considers the Muslims of La Garde-Freinet,” 2007.
Kees Versteegh, “The Arab Presence in France and Switzerland in the 10th Century,” Arabica Nov 1990.