I’ve been doing these “today in history” posts for a while now, more than two years on a sporadic basis, and you’d think the Battle of Tours (or the Battle of Poitiers if you prefer), as large as it looms in the history/mythology of The West, would have gotten one of these by now. Here’s the problem, though: while October 10, 732, is the most commonly cited date upon which this battle, between the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate and a European coalition under the command of Frankish majordomo Charles Martel (d. 741), took place, there are a lot of reasons to think that it isn’t the correct date. And I have a hard time writing “this day in history” pieces about events whose days in history aren’t really known. As I explained the last time I wrote about Tours:
Nobody’s really sure if the battle actually took place on October 10. Christian accounts have the battle taking place on a Saturday, but October 10 was a Friday in 732. Islamic accounts, when they bother to mention the battle at all, say it took place during the month of Ramadan, and in 732 October 10 did not fall within Ramadan. October 25 is possible, but other historians actually argue that the battle took place on October 17, 733, even though that was a Tuesday, or at least “late October 733,” because the Arab commander who died at Tours, the Andalusian governor Abd al-Rahman al-Ghafiqi, may not even have been appointed to his post as of October 10, 732.
The problem is, as you might expect when talking about something that happened in the 730s, with the sources. Specifically, with the relatively sparse 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. First, it was a Muslim defeat, and chroniclers have a funny way of glossing over those when they’re chronicling events. Second, and more controversially (well, “controversial” within an academic historian context) is the argument that it wasn’t much of a Muslim defeat. While Christian sources have tended to make Tours out to be a legendary victory that saved Christian Europe from the ravages of the onrushing Muslim hordes or whatever, 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 designs on conquering territory. Since the defeat meant little to the Muslims, their historians had little reason to make a big deal out of it.
While the argument that the Muslims were only attempting a raid at Tours is compelling, I take issue with its corollary, 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 would likely have been mobilized. 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 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. Here, though, I’ve already done that. Bottom line: Muslim advances into Frankish territory were simply an extension of their Iberian conquests. 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 European army actually came together at the urging of Odo, the Duke of Aquitaine (d. 730s), who had his own run-ins with the Franks from time to time and who had already defeated some kind of Umayyad army at Toulouse in 721 but had been defeated decisively by the Umayyads earlier in 732 at the Battle of Bordeaux. Toulouse, by the by, is also pretty important if you’re in the “Tours saved western civilization” camp, because Charles Martel began preparing for a Muslim attack shortly after he’d gotten wind of that engagement. If Odo hadn’t won at Toulouse, the Franks might have had to deal with Umayyads on their doorstep without the benefit of 11 or so years worth of preparation. Anyhoo, in addition to the Franks and the Aquitanians, Charles’s 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.
The second thing we should talk about is Charles himself, because he’s in kind of a unique situation. Though he commanded armies, ran the Frankish kingdom, and founded 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 nominally on behalf of a king of the Merovingian Dynasty. For most of Charles’s career as Mayor this was Theuderic IV, but by this point the Merovingian kings were so superfluous to their own kingdom that, after Theuderic died in 1737, Charles spent the last four years of his life not 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 took the throne from him outright in 751, and the Carolingian Dynasty was officially born. But obviously we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
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 the command of the governor of Cordoba, Abdul Rahman al-Ghafiqi, and numbered…wait, I don’t even know when this battle was fought, let alone how many people fought in it. The Franks were likely outnumbered, with most realistic estimates coming in around 20,000 on the high end, compared to 50,000 on the Umayyad side. But the Umayyads were on the march and therefore scattered, while Charles was able to assemble his entire force and wait for his enemy to come to him. Which they did, in large part because, well, they simply had no idea that Charles was waiting for them. The Umayyads appear to have had no clue that there were large Germanic kingdoms in this area that were capable of mustering sizable armies, so they didn’t even bother sending scouts ahead of the main body of the army and they never stopped to assemble before strolling right into Charles’s position. Oops. And while the infantry-based Frankish army was at a 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 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 the army holding together. Charles then used what cavalry he did have on a very creative operation behind enemy lines. He sent them around the Umayyad army to strike their camp. When word began to reach the Umayyad soldiers that their 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 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 ultimate failure was the last time a large Muslim army campaigned on the territory of modern France, though Muslim raiders crossed the mountains from time to time. It can also be argued that the failure at Tours, or rather the broader failure to advance north from Iberia, was part of the reason the Umayyads fell. Their caliphate was so dependent on booty that, when the conquests began to reach their geographic limits and the booty began to peter out, it’s no surprise that political power slipped from their grasp.