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Let’s get the big problem out in the open right up front: while October 10, 732, is the most widely accepted date for the Battle of Tours (Poitiers)—fought between an army of the Umayyad Caliphate and a coalition under the command of Frankish majordomo Charles Martel (d. 741)—there are a lot of reasons to think that it isn’t the correct date. Christian sources, for example, tend to have the battle taking place on a Saturday, but in 732 October 10 fell on a Friday. Islamic sources have the battle taking place during Ramadan, but in 732 October 10 fell, as far as I can tell, in the month of Shaʿban on the Islamic calendar. So there’s reason to think the battle took place on another day, or maybe even in another year. Apart from calendar inconsistencies, the commander of the caliphal army at Tours (who was killed in the battle, in fact) is identified as having been the governor of al-Andalus, Abdul Rahman al-Ghafiqi. But sources indicate that Ghafiqi was appointed to that job after October 732, which has led some historians to argue that the battle actually took place in 733.
Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732 (Charles Martel is the mounted guy in the center-left), by 19th century French painter Charles de Steuben (Wikimedia Commons)
If you haven’t already figured this out, we have a serious problem with sources for the Battle of Tours. Specifically we have a problem with the relatively few mentions of Tours in Arabic sources, which means they’re not much help in terms of checking European accounts of the battle. There are a couple of reasons why this might be so. The most obvious is that it was a Muslim defeat, and chroniclers have a funny way of glossing over their side’s losses when they’re doing their chronicling.
A more controversial (well, “controversial” in an academic context) theory argues that it may not have been much of a Muslim defeat. While Christian sources have tended to make Tours out to be a legendary victory between massive armies that saved Christian Europe from the ravages of the onrushing Muslim hordes (you get the idea), there’s a very good chance that the Umayyad “army” that was defeated at Tours was little more than a raiding party that never had any intentions of conquering territory. Since the defeat meant little to the Muslims, their historians had little reason to pay it much mind in their accounts. Indeed, they tend to make a much bigger deal out of Ghafiqi’s death than about the rest of the battle, and the terminology they use Tours suggests that for the Muslim side it was more a plundering mission gone wrong than a thwarted campaign of conquest.
Western Muslim expansion (you’ll see Tours there in central France)
While the argument that the Muslims were only attempting a raid at Tours is compelling, I kind of take issue with the conclusion some folks draw from that, which is that Tours therefore gets too much attention lavished upon it in Western history and we should really treat it as the minor engagement it was. Even if Tours wasn’t a major battle, I would argue that its effects were still considerable.
The caliphate at this point was an ever-expanding behemoth whose economy depended on conquest booty. Even if Tours was only a raid, if it had been successful, more raids would have followed, and eventually an army of conquest. There are lots of reasons to think that it would have failed—geographically, the caliphate probably couldn’t have expanded much further, and the Umayyads were only 18 years away from collapsing back east (though they hung on in Europe for a couple of centuries longer). But what we think might have happened had things unfolded differently has to be less compelling than what we know happened, which is that Tours was the high-water mark for Muslim armies in Western Europe. Couple it with the Siege of Narbonne, which ended in 759 with the elimination of the last Muslim garrison north of the Pyrenees Mountains, and, in my humble opinion, Tours is still a pretty big deal.
Normally when we cover these battles I spend a lot more time on the run-up to the battle than on the actual battle itself. In this case, there’s not really much to say—the “cause” was that the Arabs had just conquered most of Iberia and were still rolling along, the way expanding empires do. As I already noted, there’s a dearth of information on the battle from the Muslim perspective, so I’m afraid that’s about all there is to say on that side. We should say a little something about the Christian forces, though.
First, we should note that this was not just a Frankish army facing off against the Muslims, even though the Franks get most of the historic credit for the victory. The Christian army actually came together at the urging of Odo, the Duke of Aquitaine (d. 730s). Not very much is known about Odo, but we we can be pretty sure he wasn’t a Frank from all the times he fought against the Franks. He’d also already defeated some kind of Umayyad army at Toulouse in 721. Odo lost the rematch, with the Umayyads winning decisively at the Battle of Bordeaux in 732 on their way to Tours, and his remaining forces fell back to meet up with the Franks. In addition to the Franks and the Aquitanians, Charles’ forces included Lombards from Italy, Swabians, Burgundians, and even some as yet un-Christianized Germans from the Rhine region. But let’s go with “the Franks” for short.
By the way, if you are of the view that Tours saved “Western Civilization,” then the Battle of Toulouse should also be of interest to you. Charles Martel only began preparing for a Muslim attack after he’d gotten wind of Odo’s victory. Without that victory, the Franks might have had to deal with an Arab army on their doorstep without the benefit of an 11 year heads-up. But I digress.
The second thing we should talk about is Charles himself, because he was in kind of a unique situation. Though he commanded armies, ran the Frankish kingdom, and is considered the founder of the Carolingian dynasty, he was not, himself, a king. Instead, he was Duke of the Franks and Mayor of the Palace, which meant that he ruled Francia in the name of a king of the Merovingian Dynasty. For most of Charles’s career as mayor this was Theuderic IV, but the Merovingian kings became so superfluous to their own kingdom that, after Theuderic died in 737, Charles spent the last four years of his life without even bothering to enthrone a replacement. Charles’s son (and Charlemagne’s father), Pepin the Short (d. 768), enthroned Childeric III in 743 but then decided to take power in his own right in 751, and the Carolingian Dynasty was officially born. But obviously none of that matters for this story.
The Umayyad army, whether drawn by the prospect of conquest, of the vast riches that were said to be there for the taking at the Abbey of St. Martin of Tours, or both, were under Ghafiqi’s command and numbered…look, we don’t even know when this battle was fought, let alone how many people fought in it. The Franks were likely outnumbered, with high end estimates coming in around 20,000 men compared to around 50,000 on the Umayyad side. That seems bigger than a simple raiding party to me, but again those are the high-side estimates so the Umayyad force may have been smaller. Whatever its size, the caliphal army was on the march and therefore scattered, while Charles was able to assemble his entire army in one place and wait for his enemy to come to him.
Which they did, in large part because, well, it seems they simply had no idea that Charles was waiting for them. In fact, from what we can tell the Umayyads appear to have had no clue that there were large Germanic kingdoms in this area that were capable of mustering sizable armies at all. So they didn’t even bother sending scouts ahead of the army and they never stopped to assemble into a military formation before strolling right into Charles’s position. Oops. And while the infantry-based Frankish army was at a significant mobility disadvantage compared to the cavalry-based Umayyad army, because Charles was able to pick the battlefield he selected one where the Umayyads would be forced to charge uphill at the Franks, who were tightly massed into a phalanx.
Even with that advantage, it’s fairly remarkable that the Franks were able to withstand multiple Umayyad cavalry charges without breaking, and Frankish sources naturally give Charles a lot of credit for holding the army together. Charles then used what cavalry he did have by sending them around the Umayyad army to strike their camp. When word began to reach the Umayyad soldiers that their accumulated booty and slaves were being carried off by the Franks, several of them began to turn and head back to defend their wealth. It didn’t take much for that to snowball into a full retreat. With thousands of Umayyad soldiers dead, including Ghafiqi, the Muslim army decided against pressing its luck, and instead of assembling for another round of fighting the next day, they high-tailed it back to Iberia.
The Umayyads did invade north of the Pyrenees again, in the late 730s, but that incursion never got as far into Frankish territory as this one, and its failure represents the last time a large Muslim army campaigned on the territory of modern France—though Muslim raiders still crossed the mountains from time to time. So I do think Tours deserves at least some credit for ending the Muslim threat to Latin Christendom, even if its scope and impact may have been exaggerated over the ensuing centuries. The battle also had a fairly profound impact on the caliphate. In defining, to some degree, the limits of the caliphate’s western expansion, Tours was part of an overall slowdown in the empire’s expansion, which brought with it a consequent decline in booty. For any young empire, when the expansion slows down and the booty stops rolling in that usually means a political shift is on the horizon, and so it was here—the Abbasid Revolution overthrew the Umayyads in 750, less than two decades after whatever happened at Tours.