Charles the Hammer and the Battle of Tours

The greatest failure of the past two-thousand years.

From the History Atlas of Europe (Macmillan).

Before the recent turn of the century, the popular media was focused on highlighting the successes of not only the past year, but the past hundred years. While everyone else was pontificating about the “hundred greatest” this or the “hundred greatest” that, we at Failure magazine decided to present something a little different for your consideration—our choice for the most monumental failure of the past two millenniums. Ironically, our pick—Charles Martel’s victory at the Battle of Tours in the year 732 A.D.—is considered by most Westerners to be a great success, and the so-called victory made Martel (a.k.a. Charles the Hammer), one of the heroes of European history.

At first glance, the results of the battle seem clear cut, as the Arab defeat marked the turning point in their unsuccessful attempt to conquer the world. But what would have happened had Charles been defeated at the Battle of Tours and the Arabs went on to overrun the rest of Europe? It is not only possible, but probable, that the development of modern science and technology would have been accelerated by several hundred years, making our lives that much better than they are today. 

Central to the argument are the differences that existed between Arab and European cultures in the ninth century and beyond. Go with us back in time, as Failure History writer Jack Stesney recounts the circumstances leading up to the Battle of Tours and theorizes about what might have been if the Arabs were victorious.

Europe vs. the Arabs:  A Contrast in Cultures

There was a time when very few Europeans were literate. This period of history is known as the Dark Ages, and because so few records were kept scholars know very little about what happened. There were no real cities, no large scale manufacturing and long distance trade was limited. Government was rudimentary and based on personal relations and/or force so the power of a ruler, king, or noble generally extended only to the points of his soldier’s weapons. Most importantly, there was little learning, and most of that was directed towards the study of law and theology. It would take another 700 years, until the 15th century, before learning and innovation would become common and allow the development of the modern world to begin. 

In the Arab world the situation was quite different. Government was well organized and there was an effective bureaucracy that allowed a central authority to extend its control over a wide area. Long distance trade was common and Arab merchants imported foreign ideas along with foreign goods. Literacy, though by no means universal, was common enough that many ordinary people could claim the skill.
While it’s true that before embracing Islam the Arabs did not have an intellectual tradition, after their conversion an emphasis on the Qur’an [or Koran] and its interpretation produced a high regard for learning. As they came into contact with Indian, Persian, and especially Greek cultures they behaved like sponges, soaking up every bit of knowledge they encountered—most of which was eventually passed on to the Europeans.

From the Greeks the Arabs became familiar with the philosophy of Aristotle, the medical treatises of Galen, and the mathematics of Euclid. From the Persians they gained an appreciation for literature. But it was from the Indians that they became familiar with two mathematical ideas that have proven to be of incalculable value to science (to say nothing of allowing us to balance our checkbooks). These are what we call Arabic numbers and decimal notation, both of which we use every day. (Europe was still using Roman numerals, that collection of M’s, D’s , C’s and the like, that only appear in movie credits, thus ensuring that no one can tell when the picture was made.) Arabic numbers and decimal notation are two key mathematical ideas and part of the most basic principles that have allowed modern science and technology to develop.

This isn’t to say that the Arabs were mere copiers and translators of the ideas of others. They made significant contributions to all areas of learning, with their most important work in the fields of astronomy, alchemy [the precursor of chemistry], geography and mathematics.

They built observatories to improve the database for the tracking of the sun, moon, and the planets and were able to measure the diameter of the earth with fair accuracy. In alchemy they introduced the idea of observation by means of experiments. Their activities as traders allowed them to accumulate information on foreign countries so they were able to produce maps that were more accurate than those of their contemporaries. They made significant advances in algebra [the word itself is Arabic] and arithmetic. They could easily handle both long division and the calculation of square roots by processes that are still taught today in modern schools around the world.

All of these concepts eventually found their way to Europe but moved very slowly. Not only was there no e-mail, but there was no printing press, so books had to be laboriously copied by hand. Even if books were available, they would be written in Arabic, a language not very well known in Europe. Finally, the few European scholars that lived at that time were not especially interested in science or anything else that originated with ‘those heathens.’ As a result, this transfer of knowledge was probably delayed by 200 years. When it finally arrived, it provided the spark and formed the basis for that great leap forward in the 1300s called the Renaissance. How could the Europeans have known that their despised enemies, the Arabs, would have been both conqueror and savior, preventing their plunge into the Dark Ages?

Europe vs. the Arabs: The Great Contest

Despite their sophistication, the Arabs regarded the Europeans not just as an enemy but also as a great evil on the face of the earth, and the Europeans felt likewise. But to understand why the Arabs, a small group of desert nomads, set out on a path towards world conquest, you have to examine their motivation.

Sometime around 610, in what is now western Arabia, the man we know as the prophet Muhammad was divinely inspired to record a series of messages that were transmitted to him from God. The resultant book is the familiar Qur’an. To greatly oversimplify, the essence of Muhammad’s teachings was that the world was created by an all-powerful God and that someday the world would end. God would judge human beings individually and those who had submitted to His Will would attain heaven and those who had not would be damned to hell. Submission to God’s Will would be demonstrated by observing a number of moral/ethical strictures and by the performance of specific religious rituals, the details of which were spelled out in the Qur’an. In the field of religion, none of this sounds very radical. We should point out however that the injunctions of the Qur’an cover a wide range of activities and to many, if not all orthodox Muslims [adherents of Islam], they are considered to control all aspects of an individual’s life. Since the rules come directly from God, they are to be followed without question.

One of these rules is given in a statement attributed to Muhammad the year before his death in 632. It goes something like this: “Every Muslim is a Muslim’s brother. The Muslim’s are thus brethren and fighting between them should be avoided. Muslims should fight all other men until they say, ‘There is no god but God.’” This can be (and has been) interpreted as a command to spread the Islamic religion by any and all means—including force.

This message resonated with the Arab people, who began to expand in all directions, spreading their religion and culture. Within a brief span of 125 years their conquests extended to what is now Pakistan in the east, to Spain in the west, and as far north as Central Asia, where they defeated Chinese armies advancing westward. As they entered non-Arab territories, the indigenous populations were converted to Islam (in many cases, quite willingly) and provided new recruits for the Arab armies. It resembled a real-life game of Risk™, where victory breeds victory and a daring player can, with a little bit of luck—or as a Muslim would say, ‘God willing,’—conquer everything.

By the early 700s, the Arab conquest of North Africa was complete and they could look across the Straits of Gibraltar and see Spain, or as it was then called, Iberia. Spain was ruled by the Visigoths, a Germanic people that had invaded the peninsula some 200 years previously, but had never solidified their political power. This Spanish political weakness combined with their own religious fervor proved to be an irresistible temptation to the Arabs.

On to Spain

The Arab viceroy in North Africa, Musa ben Nosair, had already raised an army from the native population of Berbers, a semi-nomadic people whose descendants still inhabit the area. In July, 711, he sent a force comprised of 7,000 horsemen, armed with swords and bows and arrows, across the Straits under the command of a general known only as Tarik. These troops were unopposed and soon followed by 5,000 more.

The Visigoth king, Roderic, gathered what forces he could and moved south from his capital at Toledo to meet the Arabs. In late July, the two armies met, south of Seville on the banks of the Rio Guadalete. The rain of arrows and repeated charges of the sword wielding horsemen were too much for the Visigoth foot soldiers, who fled the battlefield in panic. The fate of Roderic is unknown. The only traces of him after the battle were his horse and one of his boots.

Roderic’s defeat left Spain defenseless. Within a few months, Tarik’s army—which had been joined by the viceroy Musa (who knew a victory parade when he saw one)—had captured Cordoba, Seville and Toledo, and Spain was annexed into the Islamic Empire. A leisurely mopping up followed and by 718 all of the peninsula, except for the far northwest—inhabited by the Basques—was firmly in Arab hands. (Incidentally, no one has ever really succeeded in conquering the Basques, who today still insist on speaking their own language and occasionally detonate bombs in Madrid to emphasize their desire for independence). But even before 718, the conquerors were greedily eyeing the lands north of the Pyrenees mountains—the place we now call France.

On to France (Here Comes the Hammer)

The Frankish kingdom would not be as easily conquered as Spain, even though it shared many of the same problems. Raids into France began as soon as the Arabs reached the border and in 719 a large, permanent, fortified base was established at Narbonne, on the Frankish side of the mountains. From this citadel, the Arabs mounted numerous expeditions into central France, looting churches and monasteries and generally raising hell, but not attempting to occupy the territory.

Finally, in 732, the governor of Cordoba, with the rather unwieldy name of Abd-al-Rahman ibn-Abdullah-al-Ghafiqi, led a large army into southern France, and defeated forces commanded by Eudes, Duke of Aquitane. While the Arabs busied themselves with enjoying the fruits of their victory, the duke hurried north to beg what help he could. Enter Charles, an able and ambitious man and longtime foe of Eudes, who as Mayor of the Palace, enjoyed more power than the king. Charles moved south at the head of his soldiers and came into contact with the Arabs somewhere near Tours in October, 732. The details of the encounter are hazy. The Arabs, as the eventual losers, weren’t particularly inclined to record the event, and there were few, if any, Franks present who knew how to write. As best we can tell, the battle went something like this. . . .

The Battle of Tours (Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em)

For several days, the horse-mounted soldiers of both armies engaged in a series of skirmishes. Finally, on what was probably a Saturday afternoon, the Arabs attacked the main body of Frankish foot soldiers. These infantrymen must have presented a fearsome sight. Their main weapon was a single-edged, straight, pointed sword called a scramasax that was carried in a scabbard hung from the waist. Some may have also carried a short-handled, double-bladed throwing ax, a weapon that was falling out of favor by that time. Many of them had shields and a few may have even worn a helmet. They didn’t bother to cut their hair, which hung down past their shoulders in a matted mass, and wore clothing that ofttimes featured animal skins.

The Arab horseman was typically armed with a scimitar, a curved single-edged sword used for slashing. They wore robes and generally looked like what we are used to seeing in movies like Lawrence of Arabia. These horsemen repeatedly charged the Franks, but as a means of defense the Franks adopted the formation of a hollow square so that they faced out on all sides. Swinging their scramasaxes, they cut down Arabs left and right, including Abd-al-Rahman himself. The melee lasted until the sun went down, whereby the survivors of both armies returned to their respective camps for the night. When dawn broke on Sunday, the Franks were in arms, awaiting the expected Arab attack, but there were no horsemen to be found. Charles suspected a trap but it soon became apparent that, under cover of darkness, the Arabs had retreated to the south.

The Battle of Tours was the high water mark of the Arab invasion of Europe. Although the Arabs would continue their raids into Frankish territory, they would never again assemble as large an attacking force nor would they again penetrate as far north. More importantly, at no time would they again attempt to increase the boundaries of the areas under their permanent control and it would not be long before the Franks would begin to push them back. Although it took hundreds of years, they were finally driven out of France and Spain and back into Africa. Charles added ‘Martel’ [the Hammer] to his name and is known today as one of the saviors of Europe. Unfortunately for the Europeans and the rest of us, Charles may have saved the world from something better.

Too Bad We’re Not Speaking Arabic

Now, suppose the Arabs had been successful and continued to advance into Europe, bringing knowledge and culture with them? For one thing, today’s world would probably contain more mosques and fewer churches and this article would probably be written in Arab script rather than Latin letters. Maybe that’s not terribly significant, but if Arab knowledge were transferred to Europe beginning in the ’700s it might have proved momentous. Would the Renaissance have begun 200 years earlier? Since gifted people seem to inhabit all time periods, it is reasonable to assume that science and its attendant technology would have proceeded to develop at the same pace regardless of when it started, making modern society significantly more advanced.

Today, Western culture and technology are the dominant force in the world, while the Arabs—except those who happen to be sitting on a lot of oil—are people with a relatively small influence. So it’s fair to ask why the Arab’s did not continue their scientific advances. After all, they had this technology before the Europeans but still managed to lose the race to the future. Why? One answer is that the rigid doctrines of the Qur’an led them into an intellectual cul-de-sac. They became more interested in analyzing and interpreting the past rather than striking out in new directions in order to change the future. Further, since they had a well-organized scheme of government, once they decided on a course of action, they could impose that decision from one end of the empire to the other.

Suppose then that the Arabs had been successful in their conquest plans. How likely is it that this anti-innovation tendency would have taken root in Europe and instead of a great leap forward we had a great stagnation? This sort of result is possible but not very probable. History shows that even though the Arabs occupied Spain for hundreds of years, they were never able to suppress the underlying Spanish culture and to some degree even supported it. It seems reasonable to conclude that if the Arab conquest extended to Northern Europe, the same situation would have prevailed, especially since this culture emphasized individualism. After all, it was these same Northern Europeans who, after shaking off the effects of their homegrown Christian religious conformity and being exposed to Arab learning, were able to develop that combination of individuality and curiosity that fostered the rise of modern science.

The Final Analysis

Assessing personal or historic events is hardly a simple matter, as the answer often depends on who is asking the question and where they are standing in time when they ask it. Back in 732 both the Arabs and the Franks agreed who won the Battle of Tours—the Franks. They won because their gold cups were not carried off and their wives and daughters did not end up in Arab bedrooms or kitchens. But as we see the twists and turns history has taken as a result of this event our perspective changes. It is also true that the issues that were so important to the Frankish warriors—presumably, their cups and their women—have no impact on us today.
As a result, when the modern Westerner looks back at the battle he or she might view its outcome quite differently. Since the Western world places such a high value on science and technology for its beneficial effect on all mankind, we can further conclude that we would be a lot better off if technology had a two hundred year head start. If this were true, the Internet, if we still had one, would now be over 200 years old and mankind might have started to colonize the planets 100 years ago. Millions of deaths that occurred because of a lack of medical knowledge might have been avoided. We don’t know specifically what the world would look like because we have no idea as to the direction that technology will take us. After all, if someone had asked George Washington to predict something about 2000, it’s a safe bet he wouldn’t have mentioned the Internet. But we would have already arrived at wherever it is technology is going.

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