It’s October 10, 732 and the Umayyad armies commanded by Abd al-Rahman are facing the Franks led by Charles Martel. The battle is bloody and chaotic. When the fog clears, the Umayyad Muslim invasion is halted, and the Frankish Kingdom under Charles Martel emerges as a powerful force in Christendom. Historian Edward Gibbon writes that Tours was one of “the events that rescued our ancestors of Britain, and our neighbors of Gaul, from the civil and religious yoke of the Koran.” He continues, saying that if it weren’t for the Battle of Tours, “Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomat.” This week we are finishing our series on the last of the five Cs, contingency, by exploring the Battle of Tours, also called the Battle of Poitiers, which has been remembered as the only event preventing the Islamization of Western civilization. But, as always, it’s so much more complicated than that.

Marissa: Imagine it’s mid-October and the year is 732 AD. The Umayyad Caliphate, a vast and powerful Islamic empire, has been steadily expanding its territory across the Iberian Peninsula. Their sights are now set on Christian Gaul, home to the Frankish Kingdom, ruled by the shrewd and ambitious Mayor of the Place, Charles Martel. Led by Abd al-Rahman ibn Abd Allah al-Ghafiqi, a seasoned military commander, the Umayyad army, a formidable force of cavalry and infantry, crosses the Pyrenees Mountains and enters Gaul. Their objective: to conquer the Frankish Kingdom and spread Islam across the continent.

Sarah: Charles, alerted to the Umayyad invasion, musters his forces, a combination of Frankish warriors and Aquitanian allies. Determined to defend his kingdom and protect the Christian faith, he rallies his troops and prepares to meet the Umayyad army in a decisive battle. On October 10, the two armies converge midway between the cities of Tours and Poitiers, in what is now France. The Umayyad forces, known for their swift and agile cavalry, initially gain the upper hand, pushing back the Frankish infantry.

Charles,  however, proves to be a master tactician. He orders his infantry to form a tight defensive shield, absorbing the Umayyad cavalry charges without breaking ranks. This strategy exhausts the Umayyad horsemen, leaving them vulnerable to Frankish counterattacks. As the battle rages on, Charles unleashes his secret weapon: a hidden reserve of cavalry. These fresh troops charge into the fray, turning the tide of the battle in favor of the Franks. At some point a panic ensues amongst the Muslim troops that the Franks are stealing their loot stashed away in their camp. Some turn back to the camp to protect their booty. Other troops mistake this for an official retreat. In the ensuing chaos, Abd al-Rahman ibn Abd Allah al-Ghafiqi (we’ll call him Abd al-Rahman for short), the Umayyad commander, is killed. His death demoralizes the Umayyad forces, who continue to retreat in disarray. The Franks pursue the retreating Umayyad army, inflicting heavy losses.

Marissa: When the fog clears, the Umayyad Muslim invasion is halted, and the Frankish Kingdom under Charles Martel emerges as a powerful force in Christendom. Historian Edward Gibbon writes that Tours was one of “the events that rescued our ancestors of Britain, and our neighbors of Gaul, from the civil and religious yoke of the Koran.” He continues, saying that if it weren’t for the Battle of Tours, “Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomat.”[1] This week we are finishing our series on the last of the five Cs, contingency, by exploring the Battle of Tours, also called the Battle of Poitiers, which has been remembered as the only event preventing the Islamization of Western civilization. But, as always, it’s so much more complicated than that.

I’m Marissa

And I’m Sarah

Marissa: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

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Marissa: What really happened that October day in 732 is just as much up for debate as are its consequences and long-term legacy. So let’s complicate the story a little bit starting with the Muslim background leading up to the battle. By 709, the Arab Umayyad Caliphate, its capital in Damascus (Syria), had subjugated the ancient and powerful kingdoms of North Africa. The Amazigh, the largest ethnic group in North Africa and historically referred to as Berbers, were rapidly absorbed into the majority-Arab Islamic world. Umayyad forces were generally led by Arab generals (an indicator that Arabs enjoyed ethnic supremacy in the Islamic world at this point) but the ranks of their infantry swelled with Amazigh after 709. The Islamic army that conquered Iberia was unusual in that it was commanded by an Algerian Amazigh, Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād, in English often just known as Tarik or Tarek. The ethnic pluralism of the medieval Islamic world is often missed in the narratives of Islamic expansion. This causes a few interpretive problems that we’ll discuss in a bit.

Sarah: There’s another aspect of the Umayyads’ entry into Spain that is often glossed over: they were invited! The Visigoths had consolidated power in Spain under King Rodrigo. But the Visigoths also had an outpost in North Africa, called Ceuta (fun fact- Ceuta is still an autonomous Spanish city in North Africa). The governor of Ceuta was an enigmatic figure named Count Julian who began his career as a Byzantine civil servant, we think as the last Byzantine Exarch of Africa. At some point, Count Julian submitted to the Visigoths and sent his daughter, Florinda, to Rodrigo’s court as a show of his loyalty.

At the same time, the Umayyads’ subjugation of the former Byzantine Exarchate of Africa was almost complete; Ceuta being one exception. Then, Count Julian received word that King Rodrigo had raped Florinda while she was under his care. Seeking revenge, Julian reached an agreement with the Muslim governor of Algeria, our old friend Tarik. Julian asked Tarik to invade the Visigoths and to bring their kingdom to its knees. Tarik agreed, and brought the power of the Umayyad army down on the Visigoths in Spain.[2] So it was that the Umayyads’ first entry into Iberia was by invitation.

The “Age of the Caliphs“, showing Umayyad dominance stretching from the Middle East to the Iberian Peninsula, including the port of Narbonne, c. 720 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: However, it’s likely that Tarik was using Julian’s invitation as an opportunity to continue the Umayyad expansion. Once Tarik fulfilled Julian’s contract, he and his army continued to raid and subjugate the peoples of Iberia. There is disagreement about the long-term goals of this Amazigh Umayyad force. Popular histories (based on dubious medieval chronicles) argue that Tarik and his army were intent on permanent conquest from the start. For example, Theophanes wrote that Tarik had the Umayyad boats burned after the soldiers disembarked, attributing to him the following statement: “We have not come here to return. Either we conquer and establish ourselves here or we will perish.”[3] Author and critic Raymond Ibrahim takes Theophanes’s word for it. This situates the Muslim incursions into Southern France as a coherent jihad, the logical next step in their conquest of the Mediterranean world. (Please note that Theophanes is a sainted Christian and Raymond Ibrahim is a hostile critic of Islam, writing works named things like Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes Who Stood Against Islam, so he also has an agenda.)

Most historians think this is a mistake. For example, historian Olivia Remie Constable argues that irrespective of the Umayyads’ designs on Iberia, conquering above the Pyrenees (the mountains that separate Spain and France) was not a Muslim objective. Rather, the Muslims used Iberia as a base for razzias or raids. Their activities in southern France were temporary and motivated by booty, not conquest or settlement. This suggests that even if the Battle of Tours had not been won by the Franks, Muslim conquest did not necessarily follow. In fact, Muslims resisted traveling to Northwestern Europe. This was partially for climatic (and racist) reasons. Tenth-century geographer al-Mas’udi wrote of the “West”:

The power of the sun is weak… cold and damp prevail in their regions, and snow and ice follow one another in endless succession. The warm humor is lacking from [Europeans]; their bodies are large, their natures gross, their manners harsh, their understanding dull, and their tongues heavy. Their color is so excessively white that it passes from white to blue… their hair is lank and reddish because of the prevalence of damp mists.[4]

Sarah: Muslim maps showed Northwestern Europe as a barbarian-filled land off near the edge of the world. Their lack of interest can also be traced to the lack of Muslim facilities above the Pyrenees. There were no mosques, halal butchers, or Muslim institutions; that they were used to in majority Muslim regions. Lastly, Christians (whom muslims had always lived amongst in the Near East) were given aman (safe conduct) in Muslim lands. But Muslims were not guaranteed safe conduct in Europe. So these circumstances made Northwestern Europe an unattractive and hostile place for Islamic armies to conquer and settle. So it’s possible that even if the Battle of Tours had gone the other way, that Europe would not have been Muslim.

Historian James T. Palmer agrees with Constable. Palmer’s study of Arabic sources suggests that “there was no sense that a full-scale invasion was planned for either political or religious reasons… for the Arabs, there were simply more interesting things going on elsewhere.”[5] Palmer even cites the work of 19c French historian Jules Michelet who wrote “There was more to fear from the Germanic invasion [ie. from Charles’s Franks] than from the Saracens.”[6] (I’ll explain what he means in a minute). One of the best pieces of evidence that the Muslim incursion into France was merely raiding activity is the fact that Muslim armies never ventured north of the Pyrenees again after 732. Most armies bent on conquest don’t allow one lost battle to foil their plans for world domination.

Marissa: Sir Edward Creasy claims that Muslim disinclination to spread above the Pyrenees after Tours was simply evidence of how violent and humiliating the defeat was for them. This is, of course, possible. But scholars of the Umayyads point out that this could also be explained by the disintegration of the Umayyad caliphate and rise of the Abbasids 18 years after the defeat in Tours. The Abbasids defeated the Umayyads in 750 and moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdad. Most of the Umayyads were killed except for one Umayyad prince, named Abd al-Rahman I (not the same Rahman as from the Battle of Tours obviously since he’s dead). This Umayyad prince fled to al-Andalus and set up rule there. Some territories in Muslim Iberia pledged fealty to the new Abbasids while others remained faithful to the Spanish Umayyads. This complicated political fragmentation probably has something to do with the diversion of Muslim priorities in Southern Gaul.

Sarah: Back to the narrative leading up to the battle. After subduing the Visigoths, Tarik was ordered back to Damascus in 714. Muslim Spain, called al-Andalus, was ruled by Arab governors dispatched from Damascus for the next few decades. During that time, Muslim armies crossed the Pyrenees periodically. It’s unclear exactly what these raids looked like. But raiding was consistent with Amazigh custom; they had always been fierce raiders as acknowledged by all of the colonial powers who had ruled the Mediterranean: Byzantines, Romans, Greeks, and Phoenicians/Carthaginians. Olivia Remie Constable argued in 2009 that there was no permanent Muslim settlement north of Narbonne. When she wrote that, it was true to the best of our knowledge.

Marissa: But in 2016, archaeologists uncovered Muslim graves in Nimes, which is 90 miles Northeast of Narbonne. These individuals were buried in the 700s according to Muslim custom- on their right sides oriented toward Mecca. Their DNA was tested and the results showed they were of Amazigh (Berber) descent. The graves do not appear to be part of a battle site and the dead were not injured as you would expect them to be in battle. The gravesite was connected to the former Roman urban site of Nimes. So the archaeologists concluded that there were indeed Muslims living in southern France during the 700s and they were numerous enough to retain their culture and successfully perform Muslim funerary customs.[7]

So the very unsatisfying answer is that it’s unclear what the border of Spain and France looked like in terms of ethnic and religious diversity in the decades between Tarik’s conquest of Spain and the Battle of Tours. It’s possible that southern France was being used as a hinterland for Muslim Amazigh raids. It’s also possible that Muslim Amazigh people had integrated to some degree into southern French society after the Umayyads took Spain. Some Muslim populations in southern France may have even enjoyed a special, protected status among the Celtic and Germanic peoples living in the area. Either way, it suggests that southern Gaul was more diverse than we previously thought. They weren’t all white, devout Christians quaking in their boots in the face of a Muslim jihad.

Sarah: We’ve discussed the Muslim historical background to the Battle of Tours. Now, let’s explore the European, Christian historical background. One thing that may come as a surprise to you is that southern Gaul (France) was quite ethnically diverse. There were significant minorities of Jews, as well as Romano-Hispanic peoples, the Basques, Amazigh Muslims, and smaller numbers of Persians, Arabs, and Slavs of both Muslim and Christian faiths. The south of Gaul was home to Romano-Celts, concentrated heavily in the westernmost area of Aquitaine. These people’s ancestors were Celtic Gauls who were conquered by Julius Caesar and Romanized to varying degrees. They had been converted to Christianity quite early and tended to be more devout than the Germanic tribes in the area who were new to the religion.

Southern Gaul was also home to the Romano-Celts’ regional rivals, the Germanic Franks, at this point organized under the Merovingian dynasty. The Merovingians were initially an impressive, centralized power in Gaul but by the early 700s, their power had been gutted. They remained rulers in name only. The real power in Gaul lay with the Mayor of the Palace, Karl, usually anglicized as Charles. Prior to the Battle of Tours, Charles had not yet taken on the surname Martel (which means “the hammer”) but this is the same Charles we named at the top of the show. Charles was the son of a Frankish noblewoman named Alpaida and Pepin of Herstal, who also served as the Frankish Mayor of the Palace.

Marissa: A civil war ensued among Pepin’s heirs when he died. Most of the conflict occurred in Austrasia the Northeastern territory of the Kingdom of the Franks which was firmly under Pepin’s control during his lifetime. To make matters worse, a smaller territory, called Neustria, used this chaos to seek sovereignty from Austrasia. They allied themselves with another Germanic ethno-linguistic group, the Frisians, to challenge Pepin’s heirs. Charles emerged from this melee in 718 mostly victorious (only having suffered one defeat during his entire military career). As a result of this military success, Charles earned the loyalty of an important Christian missionary, Willibrord, and his Abbey of Echternach.

Statue of Charles Martel at Versailles | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Charles was a Christian but he and the Franks were newly converted. By most metrics, they were not particularly devout. In fact, the historical record shows that Charles and his armies targeted Christian communities during the two decades between his ascendancy and the Battle of Tours. These decades were characterized by Charles’s expansion and consolidation of Frankish power. Charles was particularly brutal to Aquitainian Christians who had been converted much earlier and were, by all accounts, more Christian than the Franks. Charles’s men looted gold and silver from Aquitanian churches. In the decades preceding Tours, he also attacked the Saxons and Frisians.

Sarah: The dominant narrative, however, depicts a united, Christian Europe hanging their last hopes of a Christian West on their international hero, Charles Martel. We know for a fact that this is a fantasy. The political and military alliances forged leading up to the Battle of Tours tells us a lot about how Charles and the Austrasians were viewed by other Europeans. Loyalties did not always split along religious lines.

Remember that the Aquitaninans (present day southwest France) were Celtic people who had been converted to Christianity much earlier than the Franks. They were ruled by Count Eudo (also sometimes Anglicized as Odo the Great). In 714, three years after the Umayyads invaded Spain, and the same year that Tarik was sent back to Damascus, Count Eudo was busy completing the unification of Aquitaine. By 718, the Umayyads had assumed control of the Basque country (in the western Pyrenees), and a territory between the Basque country and Aquitaine. They called this territory Septimania. Count Eudo had to first protect his newly sovereign Aquitain from the Umayyads in 721. Eudo asked Charles Martel and the Franks for aid in facing the Umayyads and Charles declined. At that point, Charles’s command over Gaul was comparatively tenuous and he didn’t have a standing army.

Marissa: So Eudo faced the Umayyads alone in 721 to defend Aquitaine. And he won a resounding victory at what is now called the Battle of Toulouse. Note that it was Eudo, then, who was the first “Frenchman” to defeat the Umayyads, not Charles Martel. Eudo’s victory was celebrated by Pope Gregory II who labeled him a champion of Roman Catholic christianity and acknowledged Aquitaine’s sovereignty. So there was some sense that religion mattered to the Pope at least (no surprise there) but it’s unclear how passionate Eudo was about his new accolade. Eudo did not defend his territory as a Christian facing Muslims, he defended it as a sovereign territory resisting invasion.

The proof is in the pudding. After his victory at Toulouse, Eudo knew that Martel would aim to incorporate Aquitaine into his growing empire in Gaul (despite the fact that Eudo and Martel had a peace treaty in place). So, Eudo forged an alliance with the Muslims. He did not quite ally himself with the Umayyad Caliphate proper. At this point in Umayyad history, some Amazigh commanders, angered at the Arabs’ mistreatment of the Amazigh in North Africa, had rebelled against the caliphate, setting up their own sovereign states in Europe.

Sarah: Eudo married his daughter, Lampegia, to one of these rebels, the Muslim Amazigh governor of Septimania, Uthman ibn Naissa. We’re going to call him Uthman because that’s what he called himself but the Franks referred to him as “Munuza” and we felt like it was worth mentioning that Uthman and Munuza are one and the same. To make matters even more confusing, part of Septimania eventually became Catalonia so Uthman is often referred to as the governor of Catalonia. All the same guy! After Eudo and Uthman struck their treaty, Muslim raids of Aquitaine ended and Eudo enjoyed a small interlude of peace.

Marissa: But Eudo was right to be worried because Charles Martel did indeed invade Aquitaine in 731 after subduing the Saxons. Charles ransacked Aquitaine several times and seized Aquitanian territory, obviously breaking his and Eudo’s peace treaty. This was bad luck for Eudo and Uthman because at the exact moment that Charles attacked Aquitaine, the Umayyads attacked Uthman, seeking revenge for his rebellion. Neither ally could help the other. The Umayyad army killed Uthman and took Eudo’s daughter Lampegia as a prisoner. She was shipped off to serve as a concubine in a harem in Damascus.

Sarah: With Eudo’s armies defeated, Charles retreated back to Austrasia to regroup. But Eudo’s bad luck didn’t stop there. After being defeated by Charles and hearing of the death of his ally and imprisonment of his daughter, it became clear that Abd al-Rahman and his Umayyad army were intent on punishing Eudo for his alliance with a traitor to the caliphate. Eudo’s forces faced the Umayyads again at Bordeaux. This time, he lost. With his forces decimated and his dreams of a sovereign Aquitaine disintegrating in real time, Eudo made the hard decision to retreat to Francia and appeal to Charles Martel for help. Charles agreed to help Eudo engage the Umayyads but only under one condition: Eudo must give up his dream of a sovereign Aquitaine and accept Charles as his overlord.

Marissa: Eudo and Charles spent the summer of 732 building up their armies and choosing an advantageous battlefield outside of Poitiers while Abd al-Rahman advanced toward them. There’s some disagreement about the ethnic make-up of Rahman’s forces. They were believed to be primarily Amazigh (Berber) warriors but some sources indicate that Rahman received reinforcements of highly trained Arab cavalry from Yemen and the Levant before facing Odo in Bordeaux earlier that year. It’s probably safe to say that the Umayyad army was ethnically mixed and some were lifelong Muslims while others were new converts. Charles’s and Eudo’s armies were similar in that they were ethnically mixed, containing Celtic Gauls, Romano-Gauls (Romanized Celts), Franks, and various other subjugated Germanic peoples. They too ranged from devout, life-long Christians to new converts.

Sarah: This is all to say that it’s unlikely that either side viewed the engagement at Tours as a chapter in a much larger, more important Muslim jihad or a Christian crusade. Critics of Islam, like Raymond Ibrahim (again, not a trained historian), point to the fact that Rahman and his forces laid waste to the French countryside, “despoiling ‘every church and monastery in their path.’”[8] But that’s because that’s where the wealth was. Charles Martel himself (a Christian) did the same in Aquitaine, Saxony, and Friesland. So, as Ibrahim should know, using the pillaging of churches to argue that this was a jihad is sloppy at best and disingenuous at worst. 

Raymond Ibrahim | Fair Use

Marissa: Popular histories of the Battle of Tours also tend to emphasize certain aspects of the battle that serve orientalist purposes. We’ve discussed orientalism extensively in other episodes, such as our Order of Assassins episode so we won’t go too far down that rabbit hole here. But orientalism essentially refers to an anti-Muslim, anti-Near East prejudice that can be found in Western culture. This prejudice often portrays Islam and the Near East as exotic, despotic, fanatical, and sinister. The scholar who coined the term, Edward Said, describes the 19th-century, colonial context wherein orientalism first developed. But part of this context was also a revival in the historical memory of the Crusades.

Victorian historians and antiquarians loved to romanticize the Crusades using teleological arguments about the East/West divide. Our Rise and Fall in the Queen City episode describes teleological histories very well. Teleology is essentially crafting your historical interpretations according to the outcome you already know. The Victorians were masters of teleological histories and the Battle of Tours is perhaps the best example of this practice. From their Victorian context, scholars like Edward Gibbon and Sir Edward Creasy looked back at the Battle of Tours and projected their orientalist mindset on the medieval battle. They situated the battle as both a jihad and a crusade, where east met west and was repulsed by devout Christians seeking to protect their religion and their love of “the West” from fanatical, democracy-hating Muslims.

Sarah: As Creasy put it: “[The Battle of Tours] is regarded as one of the decisive battles of the world. It decided that Christians, not Moslems, should be the ruling power of Europe.”[9] The implication, for Creasy, is that this was a lucky, near-miss. Nineteenth-century German poet and literary, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel called the Battle of Tours a “mighty victory” and claims that “the arms of Charles Martel saved and delivered the Christian nations of the West from the deadly grasp of all-destroying Islam.”[10] German historian Leopold von Ranke interpreted the Battle of Tours as a Christian Crusade against both Islam (to the South) and germanic pagans (to the North): “On the one side, Mahommedanism threatened to overspread Italy and Gaul, and on the other, the ancient idolatry of Saxony and Friesland once more forced its way across the Rhine. In this peril of Christian institutions, a youthful prince of Germanic race, Karl Martell, arose as their champion; maintaining them with all the energy which the necessity for self-defense calls forth, and finally extended into new regions.”

Marissa: This interpretation is contradicted by the relationship that Charles Martel’s descendents had with Muslim Spain. Martel’s son, Pepin the Short, reconquered southern Gaul from Muslim forces in 759. This act is over portrayed as part of a Christian crusade against Islam. But it’s also possible that it was just an attempt to unite Gaul under one government. Moreover, Martel’s grandson, Charlemagne (ever heard of him!?!), maintained peaceful diplomatic relationships with the Abbasids in Spain. Charlemagne exchanged ambassadors with the Abbasids in Baghdad in a political alliance against the Umayyad “usurpers” who were still ruling much of Muslim Spain. Charlemagne even mobilized Carolingian forces alongside the Abbasids against the Umayyad “usuper” Abd al-Rahman I in 778. Charlemagne also valued his alliance with the Abbasids because it increased his power compared to his Christian rivals the Byzantines. We see no evidence that Charlemagne valued allying with his co-religionists against Muslims for religious reasons.

The Battle of Tours depicted in the Grandes Chroniques de France | Fouquet, Jean

Sarah: The Battle of Tours became the first chapter to the story of the Crusades, which did not begin until 350 years after the battle. Victorian scholars drew a straight line from the Battle of Tours, through the Crusades, into European colonization of the Near East. Much of this history (but not all) was in service of Empire itself. The story of jihad and crusade gave a new meaning and justification to European imperial activities. It was easy to glorify Tours as a Western, Christian victory, the Crusades losses as a blow to Christian sovereignty in the holy land, and then 19c colonization of Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, etc. as a Christian, Western redemption. Authors like Raymond Ibrahim continue this throughline into the 21st century, making Tours the big bang of Islamic extremism in a post-9/11 world.

This is not to say that this throughline isn’t important. It’s incredibly important because it made Tours meaningful to Crusaders, and then Tours/the Crusades meaningful to Victorian colonialists, and so on and so forth. For example, there is the 11th-century French chanson de geste titled The Song of Roland which illustrates this quite well. Roland was a real, historical Frankish military officer in Charlemagne’s army. He was killed by Basques in 778 during Charlemagne’s mobilization against the Umayyads (remember Charlemagne was allied with the Muslim Abbasids when he fought the Umayyad “usurper”.) But Roland’s story was reconfigured and embellished by Crusade-era epic poets. This 11th-century retelling casted Roland as a Christian proto-crusader who was martyred by Muslims. In short, the Song of Roland used revised and misinterpreted Carolingian history in order to vilify Muslims and justify Crusader activities: exactly how the Victorian historians rewrote the Battle of Tours in order to justify their colonization of Muslim nations.

Marissa: So if the jihad-crusade interpretation of the Battle of Tours is not a very accurate one, how CAN we interpret the battle? And was it a contingent moment as all of the Crusader- and Victorian-era historians suggest? Or was it possibly unimportant as suggested by Constable and Palmer? Honestly, this is still up for debate. One interesting interpretation we found was that described by historian Marsha Robinson in her Disobedient Histories in Ancient and Modern Times. Robinson describes the Battle of Tours as another chapter in a longue-duree history of competing world systems. These world systems are not Christian Europe vs. Muslim Near East as you might expect. Robinson refers to the North Sea world system and the Mediterranean World System. The North Sea world system was populated by Norsemen and Germanics and it centered on, as you guessed it, the North Sea.

A page of a manuscript of The Song of Roland, held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford

The Mediterranean world system, however, had a much longer and complex history. Robinson points out that, based on genetic analysis, North African Amazighs had been migrating to Iberia and southern Gaul for millennia. First, they did so as part of Phoenician imperialism, with his headquarters in Carthage. Later, they did so as part of Greek and Roman colonization of the Mediterranean coasts. Using this world system approach, Robinson sees the Muslim Amazigh invasion of Iberia and southern Gaul as the reestablishment of the North-African/Mediterranean European trade systems which had deteriorated after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Sarah: Robinson sees Aquitaine as a frontier for BOTH the North Sea and Mediterranean Sea systems, which explains why Count Eudo was so crucial to the conflict at Tours. She makes the point that perhaps, the contingent moment to focus on here was the collapse of Count Eudo’s alliance with Uthman. If the alliance between Eudo (who had just declared independence from the Franks) and Uthman (who had just declared independence from the Umayyads) had ended more happily, Aquitaine would have been integrated into the Mediterranean Sea system. Acquitanian silver and gold would have not been subject to Umayyad taxation (since his access to the Mediterranean had rebelled against them) and this would have catapulted Acquitain into incredible wealth and power.

Perhaps more interestingly, the capital that Charles Martel used to gather his army would have drained southward instead, perhaps resulting in the dissolution of the Carolingian dynasty before it even began. We are used to assuming that this kind of multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state was unfeasible simply because it didn’t happen. But subtracting the Crusades, European colonialism, and post-9/11 Islamic extremism from the interpretation (since none of those things had happened yet) paints a totally different picture. If Uthman’s rebellion had been successful (as Umayyad Abd al-Rahman I’s was less than a century later), and/or Eudo had not been subjugated by Charles Martel, Aquitaine may have been the seat of a powerful, wealthy, multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan state led by a cross-confessional alliance.

Marissa: In recent decades, the story of the Battle of Tours has been highjacked by alt-right activists in Europe and America.[11] This highjacking began with Adolf Hitler but we’re going to bet that Hitler’s view on Islam is not what you’re expecting. Drawing on the jihad-crusade model of interpretation, Hitler regarded the Battle of Tours as a contingent moment of supreme importance. But, rather than seeing it as a victory for the West, Hitler perceived Tours as a grave tragedy. He wrote “It’s been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?”[12] Hitler’s appreciation for Islam went beyond flowery language. The Third Reich treated Muslims in occupied areas relatively well. They made an alliance with Palestinian ruler Haj Amin al-Husseini, promising Husseini that they would extend the Final Solution to Jews in North Africa and the Near East.

Sarah: Despite Hitler’s little-known reverence for Islam, or perhaps because of it, contemporary alt-right groups in Europe and America have mobilized the jihad-crusade interpretation of the Battle of Tours to argue for a common Western culture. Scholar Daniel Wollenberg argues that in a post-Holocaust world, biological racism has fallen out of fashion. As an attempt to rehabilitate alt-right ideology, activists like Anders Behring Breivik have appealed to historical conflicts like the Battle of Tours, the Crusades, and the Battle of Vienna (between the Ottomans and the Holy Roman Empire) to argue for an “eternal and unresolvable struggle between Judeo-Christian Western heritage and Islam.”[13] This “reformed” alt-right draws heavily on the “clash of civilizations” thesis developed by Bernard Lewis and Samuel P. Huntington. (This thesis is highly flawed but that’s a story for another time.) But this is a great example of how the Battle of Tours often means what we want it to mean based on our current agendas.

Marissa: Historical memory is meaningful and valid. It tells us a lot about historical people’ loyalties, motivations, and the organization of their worlds. But projecting OUR historical memory onto people of the past is NOT acceptable because it inaccurately determines motivations, identities, and meanings that did not exist. Marsha Robinson puts this so well, writing that “looking at history as the surprise that it was to the people who lived it requires that one put down the lens of contemporary politics.”[14] The best histories balance the lived experience of past people with meanings that WE take from the events they lived through. This balance looks different for every historian and for every history (that’s why we go through rigorous peer reviews) but there is one thing that trained historians can agree on and these are the words of historian William A. Green: “period frontiers can become intellectual straitjackets that profoundly affect our habits of mind– the way we retain images, make associations, and perceive the beginning, middle, and ending of things.”[15] So remove the straitjackets, listeners! Set yourself free!


Aberbach David. 2012. “European National Poetry Islam and the Defeat of the Medieval Church.” Nations and Nationalism 603–23.

Constable, Olivia Remie. “Muslims in Medieval Europe,” in Lansing Carol and Edward D English. 2009. A Companion to the Medieval World. Chichester U.K: Wiley-Blackwell.

Creasy Edward Shepherd. 2003. The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo. Project Gutenberg.

Gibbon, Edward. 1791. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (Chapter 52)

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[1] Quoted in

[2] Robinson, 144-145

[3] Quoted in Ibrahim, p .70

[4] Quote in Constable, p. 320.

[5] Palmer, 209-210

[6] Michelet , 1833, quoted in Palmer, 210.

[7] Gleize et al.

[8] Quoted in Ibrahim, p. 80

[9] Quote in Palmer, 214

[10] Quoted in Sir Edward Creasy, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World

[11] Palmer, Wollenberg, Miller, and Herf

[12] Quoted in Herf, p. 261.

[13] Wallenberg, 310

[14] Robinson, p. 137.

[15] Quotes in Robinson, 151.


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