The Battle of Tours-Poitiers Revisited
By William Watson
Providence: Studies in Western Civilization, Vol.2:1 (1993)
The Battle of Tours-Poitiers has long occupied a prominent position in Western historiography. The eighth- or ninth-century Carolingian Continuator of Fredegar wrote that Charles Martel won his famous victory over the Muslim invaders of the Frankish Kingdom Christo auxiliante. Eight centuries later, other clerical authors, the Bollandists, emphasized the miraculous nature of Charles’ victory in their writings. Beginning in the eighteenth century, however, non-clerical authors began to exaggerate the significance of the battle. Edward Gibbon, for example, wrote in 1776,
A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the bank of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pupils might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Muhammad.
Similarly, M. Guizot and Mme. Guizot de Witt wrote in 1869 that
it was a struggle between East and West, South and North, Asia and Europe, the Gospel and the Koran; and we now say, on a general consideration of events, peoples, and ages, that the civilization of the world depended on it.
Ernest Mercier provided the first objective assessment of the battle in an article in 1878, and Leon Levillain and Charles Samaran first attempted (unsuccessfully) to scientifically locate the site of the battle in an article in 1938. Maurice Mercier and Andre Seguin produced the first monograph devoted entirely to the battle in 1944, entitled Charles Martel et la bataille de Poitiers in which Latin and Arabic sources were used comparatively. Having examined the first part of Ibn Idhari’s Al-Bayan al-Mughrib fi Akhbar al-Maghrib, but not the second, Michel Baudot provided an inaccurate chronology for the Muslim invasion in a 1955 article entitled “Localisation et datation de la premiere victoire remportee par Charles Martel contre les musulmans.” Baudot’s incorrect dating of the battle as 733 A.D. has been employed to this day by those unfamiliar with the sources. A revision of the previous generally-held views of the battle has occurred over the past several decades as well, resulting in the conscious minimizing of the significance of Tours-Poitiers in the textbooks of medieval European and Islamic history.
In this essay I intend to suggest answers to the four most crucial questions concerning the Battle of Tours-Poitiers which have not been answered sufficiently by Frankish experts or Islamicists. What motivated the Muslims to move north of the Pyrenees? What do the Latin and Arabic sources reveal about what transpired in the course of the battle? Precisely when and where did the encounter occur? Can we attach a macrohistorical significance to the battle?