Battle of Poitiers and the invention of Europeans

By Alessandro Barbero, March 8, 2015

Charles de Steuben's Bataille de Poitiers in Octobr 732 depicts a triumphant Charles Martel (mounted) facing 'Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi (right) at the Battle of Tours.

Charles de Steuben’s Bataille de Poitiers in October 732 depicts a triumphant Charles Martel (mounted) facing ‘Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi (right) at the Battle of Tours.

Professor of Medieval History Alessandro Barbero examines a defining moment in European history, the Battle of Poitiers in 732 AC when Charles Martel defeated the "wali" of al-Andalus.

One of the most celebrated battles in Europe’s history was fought in October 732, or possibly 733, on the ancient Roman road linking Tours to Poitiers in the area the ancients called Gaul, then beginning to be known as France. Led by the Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne, the Franks defeated the Arab army headed by Abd al-Rahman, the wali of al-Andalus, Arab Spain’s governor-general, who would meet his death on the battlefield. In 1902 the distinguished German military historian Hans Delbrück wrote of the action that many call the battle of Poitiers – but which others, especially in the English-speaking world, prefer to call the battle of Tours – “there was no more important battle in the history of the world”.

And in truth two of the most powerful and belligerent peoples of the High Middle Ages clashed in that place, the founders of two empires who were carving up the European world and the Mediterranean. As they marched along the Roman road the men of al-Andalus, after setting fire to the Basilica of Saint Hilary in Poitiers, found themselves face to face with the most powerful of the barbarians who had taken possession of the Western Roman Empire, the same Franks who shortly afterwards, with the coronation of Charlemagne, would pose as the heirs and successors of Rome. Their language and customs could not have been more different yet in some respects the Arabs and Franks resembled each other: both were accustomed to war, both admired good swordsmanship, and both were convinced that the one God, in whom they all believed, would protect them against all enemies. “Long live Christ who loves the Franks”, we read in the prologue to the Salic Law, written only about ten years later; as for the Arabs, God himself had assured their prophet that if they believed in him they would triumph over their enemies, and he had given this assurance in Arabic.

These two peoples devoted to God and the sword knew very little about each other, but were sworn enemies nonetheless. In the Latin sources the Arabs were the “perfidious Saracens”, the “heinous Agarens”, bastard descendants of the slave Hagar. In the Arab sources the Christians of Europe were backward and cruel barbarians, “peoples”, an Andalusian scholar would later write, “whom Allah the strong and powerful has marked with violence and ignorance and, as a whole, hostility and injustice”. They were also stupid, as was inevitable for those living in such a hostile climate, where the pallor of the sun, the damp, the snow and the ice fashioned monstrous bodies, rough manners and a cold and lethargic nature.

Precisely this trope, but turned on its head, inspires the most celebrated contemporary account of the battle of Poitiers composed by a chronicler writing in Latin in Arab Spain. It is worth remembering that at the time of its writing, the population of al-Andalus had remained largely Christian and churches and monasteries continued to operate relatively undisturbed. Known as the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754, the text recites how the immense army of Abd al-Rahman swept across the Pyrenees “crushing the mountains as though they were plains”, but when it found itself confronted with the Franks it hesitated for a week before joining battle. Then it attacked; but its enemies – gentes septentrionales – transforming their slow, cold nature into a strength, remained motionless as a wall, impenetrable as polar ice. Ever since the text was rediscovered in the sixteenth century the image of the Franks standing like a “wall of ice”, which for the Andalusian chronicler must have evoked the Nordic otherness of that remote people, has been used by historians in desperate pursuit of details, of which there are so few, to embellish the story of that famous battle.

The Arab sources called it “Balât ash-Shuhada” or “pavement of Martyrs”, because so many warriors perished on the stones of the old Roman road. They add that Abd al-Rahman himself “died a martyr in a hostile country in the month of Ramadan 114”, a date that reminds us of just how young that people was, whose religion had been in existence for barely over one hundred years. But the most interesting episode is also in the Mozarabic Chronicle, when it describes what happened the day after the victory. In the morning, it narrates, the “Europeans” (Europenses) left their encampment braced for further battle and saw that the enemy had vanished. For a while they feared a trap but when they realized that the Saracens had truly gone, they divided the spoils left behind on the battlefield and returned home victorious. These “Europeans”, added the chronicler, were not sharp enough to worry about pursuing the enemy after they had won. The account, as we can see, is steeped in the prejudices that the inhabitants of al-Andalus nurtured towards their Northern neighbours, and it is not at all evident that the author considers himself to be a European; but he is a Christian, and for him the victory of the Europeans is an event to be celebrated.

Not surprisingly this text has received a lot of attention, not least because in it the adjective Europenses makes its first recorded appearance. The ancient Romans, of course, knew that the world was divided into three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa – but they did not attribute much importance to this geographical division since their empire extended to the three corners of the world. Only after the Barbarian invasions did the Christians in the West, who spoke Latin and found themselves cut off from their brothers in the East, consider Europe’s identity to be a value: in a letter to Pope Gregory the Great, the Irish missionary St Columba called him “most august flower of the whole of withering Europe”; in turn, Pope Gregory, writing to the Basileus Maurice, complained of Europe’s “enslavement to the law of the barbarians”.

The appearance of these Europenses in the Mozarabic Chronicle is therefore certainly not inexplicable. On the contrary, it is the logical outcome of a secular process that witnessed the gradual withdrawal of the Latin civilization to the West and North under the protection of the “barbarians”. The process was sanctioned in AD 800 with the imperial coronation of Charlemagne, transforming the Frankish King into a Roman Emperor; but even before that momentous day, many associated the name of Charlemagne with the notion of Europe. As early as 775 the priest Cathwulf – another Irishman – expressed the hope that he would reign “in honorem glorie regni Europe”. The learned Alcuin praised him for having spread Christianity, with his victories “in partibus Europae”. And on the eve of his coronation in St Peter’s an anonymous poet hailed the “rex pater Europae”. The turning point is clear to see: if at the time of Pope Gregory the Great the clergy saw Europe as a continent adrift, a raft that the barbarian invasions had sundered from the body of the Christian empire, now this view was turned on its head. Europe was God’s most beloved part of the Christian world, and the proof is that God allowed the infidels to conquer almost all the rest, but at the shores of Europe he stopped them, precisely at Poitiers, thanks to the might of Charles Martel.

The Middle Ages would preserve this memory of the battle without, however, attributing it any value as a turning point. The Medieval culture believed, yes, in the decisive battles, but not because they changed the course of history: only God could decide that, and the battles won or lost only served to reveal his will to men. It was necessary to wait for the Renaissance before historians, such as the Bollandist creators of the Acta Sanctorum, began to speak of a miracle; and it was necessary to wait for French nationalism, from the seventeenth century onwards, for Charles and his followers to become the protagonists in a decisive turning point in the world’s history, the “liberators of the human race”, as François Mézeray called them in his Histoire de France, published in Paris in 1643.

In the France of the Sun King some sceptical souls continued to take a more relaxed view of events. The Cardinal of Retz, Jean-François de Gondi, commented in his Mémoires that it would not have been such a bad thing if the Saracens had conquered France: had Charles Martel not moved to exterminate them “they could have introduced a taste for science and the arts”. But very few were so light-hearted. Those thinkers who no longer believed in Providence believed in facts, and concluded that if the Franks had lost the battle of Poitiers the history of the world would have been altered forever. As Voltaire observed in his Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations, without Charles Martel, “France would have been a Muslim province”. On the other side of the English Channel, Gibbon went even further. For him, Poitiers was the event “that rescued our ancestors of Britain and our neighbours of Gaul from the civil and religious yoke of the Koran”. In a celebrated example of counterfactual history he imagines what would have happened if the battle had been won by Abd al-Rahman: “Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford”.

In the nineteenth century illustrious thinkers vied to reiterate that the event was an epochal one: “Europe at this day owes its existence, its religion, and its liberty, to the victory gained over the Saracens before Poitiers, by Charles the Hammer” (Sismondi); “the arm of Charles Martel saved and delivered the Christian nations of the West from the deadly grasp of all-destroying Islam” (Schlegel); “one of the major events of History: had the saracens won, the world would have been Mahometan” (Chateaubriand). In 1851 Sir Edward Creasy invented a historical genre whose popularity endures to this day, publishing the The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo, and naturally including Poitiers, which according to him “rescued Christendom from Islam [and] preserved the relics of ancient and the germs of modern civilization”.

In the twentieth century the legend of Poitiers became part of the American political culture and was used to justify some of its most muscular initiatives. In 1916 the former President Theodore Roosevelt, in his book eloquently titled Fear God And Take Your Own Part, declared that civilization survived only wherever Christians succeeded in rebutting Islam blow by blow, as the Westerners did at Poitiers, while the lily-livered Christians in the East were overcome. More recently, Republican Congressman Allen West was of the same opinion; an Afro-American and former career military officer, he resigned from the army following allegations of maltreatment of prisoners in Iraq. In 2011 he explained in a press conference that the good battle is still always the same one: “You want to dig up Charles Martel and ask him why he was fighting the Muslim army at the Battle of Tours in 732?”

But this, of course, is America. I don’t know how many Europeans feel the need today to continue to hail Charles Martel as the saviour of Europe. The legend of Poitiers is destined to become increasingly embarrassing as a growing share of European citizens can hardly recognize the Franks as their ancestors. A writer of Maghreb origin, Salah Guemriche, has already sparked controversy in France by publishing the historical novel, Abd er-Rahman contre Charles Martel. La véritable histoire de la bataille de Poitiers, in which the two sides are inverted and the French are the baddies. The author has declared he wrote it because he could no longer stand Charles Martel – ever since as a boy in the 1950s, in an Algeria still under French rule, his teachers used to drill it into the students that “Charles Martel crushed the Arabs in Poitiers”. Perhaps inverting the parts is not the right answer, but the Cardinal of Retz, for one, would not have taken particular exception to Guemriche’s account; and the Cardinal, after all, was nothing if not European.

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Alessandro Barbero teaches Medieval History at the University of Piedmont Orientale, in Vercelli. Among his books are: The Battle. History of Waterloo (Laterza, 2011) Schibsted Forlag (Norway) – Mets & Schilts (Netherlands) – Grove Atlantic (UK) – Flammarion (France) – Destino (Spain) – BIC ALL (Romania); 9 August 378: The Day of the Barbarians (Laterza, 2012) Agerings Bokforlag (Sweden) – Flammarion (France) – Ariel (Spain) – Mets & Schilt (Netherlands) – Grove Atlantic (UK); and Lepanto. The battle of the three empires (Laterza, 2012).

Translation by Alice Chambers

Article courtesy of Eutopia

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