The day the world’s fate was played out
Or, how German are the French?
Sidonius Apollinaris was a Roman poet and diplomat born in Lugdunum, modern-day Lyon, who over the course of his life in the fifth century observed dramatic, sweeping change. Born into the empire, the son of the prefect of Gaul, by the time of his death in the 480s his home region was ruled by the Burgundians, a tribe from what is now Poland, ‘hairy giants’ who were supposedly seven-foot-tall and ‘gabble in an incomprehensible tongue’.
They were bad enough, but there was an even more terrifying group of barbarians now in Gaul, ‘monsters’ from the north who he described as sporting hideous hairstyles, so that ‘from the top of their red skulls descends their hair, knotted on the front and shaved in the nape of the neck. Their chins are shaven, and instead of a beard they have locks of hair arranged with the comb’.
The northern invaders looked different to the natives of Lugdunum; their king Sigismer sported hair the same golden colour as his dress and, Sidonius observed, ‘the fairness of his milk-white silk attire’ was ‘rivalled by his skin.’ These were the Franks, and they were to be the most important of all the Germanic tribes who followed the collapse of Roman rule after it was fatally weakened by plague.
Not only did the Franks come to give their name to France, but such was their importance that they became a generic name for Europeans. During the Vietnam War local people would refer to American soldiers as firangi; a century earlier the British in India were called firangi and the Portuguese in China the folangji, while Europe became Farangistan in Persian. It is testimony to the success of a once obscure German tribe.
That success was in large due to one of the most significant battles in European history, fought on this day in AD 732 between the Franks, along with their Latin allies, and Arab invaders from Al-Andalus. Called the Battle of Poitiers in France and the Battle of Tours in English, it definitively stopped the progression of Islam into western Europe, although the extent to which they could or would have got is much debated by historians. I wrote a short book on it, here, which is currently on special offer in the UK.
North of Poitiers lies the village of Moussais-la-Bataille, set on a slight hill and giving an overview of the surrounding area. It was somewhere here, between the Vienne and Clain rivers, where the fate of Europe was decided one October day, during the continent’s darkest period.
On a small hill a Frankish force, assembled at speed, steadied themselves to face an approaching army from Moorish Spain, heading for the holy city of Tours to make a winter base. The charismatic and courageous Arab leader Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi must have been confident. They hailed from the most powerful empire in the world and had in living memory achieved a series of victories that seemed relentless and unstoppable, conquering peoples far more advanced than these northern barbarians.
The Umayyad Caliphate now controlled the known world from central Asia to Spain’s Atlantic coast, their domains including some of the planet’s most populated and developed regions, and most of its largest cities. It was the most powerful military force on earth, and seemed destined to extend its control into the desolate ruins of western Europe. For beyond the mountain range separating Al-Andalus from the former Roman province of Gaul lived only the lingering remnants of the Gallo-Romans, speaking a dialect of Latin in their ruined, depopulated cities — and beyond them were illiterate barbarians, descendants of those German tribes who had settled here when Roman authority collapsed in the fifth century.
The Near East was entering what later became known as the Islamic Golden Age, its great cities home to countless philosophers and mathematicians, combining Greek, Persian and Syriac influences to produce a rich and enviable culture. The Arabs had quickly absorbed the eastern provinces of the old Roman Empire, lands vastly richer and more heavily populated than these dismal regions beyond the Pyrenees, and yet they had mostly collapsed against the onslaught — so how could these northern men trouble them?
Having subjugated North Africa, in 711 the forces of the Caliphate had crossed the straits of Gibraltar and overrun the Visigoth kingdom of Spain in months. Now, just two decades later, the conquerors of Hispania marched into the former Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis, today’s Provence, moving north and then west with virtual impunity and destroying a Latin-speaking army by the River Garonne.
The Arabs had come with a large number of fighting men and, ominously, some had brought their families with them. Progressing along the old Roman road north, the coming conquerors of Gaul made for the city of Tours on the banks of the Loire, rich in treasure and crucial for control of the region. Were they to capture the old town before the winter set in, then Francia would be theirs.
And so in October 732, some 12 miles beyond Poitiers, a force led by Al-Rahman arrived between the Vienne and Clain rivers where they saw for the first time the army of the Franks, led by their duke, Charles. Al-Rahman brought with him an elite cavalry force, at a time when no infantry had successfully withstood such a form of warfare.
As the invaders approached, Charles had his men lock their shields, forming into two tightly-packed rows, their aim to defend the incline that ran parallel with the old Roman road. They could not match the Arabs for speed and would need to be highly disciplined to combine their infantry and cavalry forces, something no northern army had managed before.
Many of the men facing the onslaught from beyond the Pyrenees would have been farmers recruited along the way as the Frankish leader desperately raised an army from the north, answering the call of their lord. No doubt they would have been paralysed with terror, for the Franks were most likely outnumbered, and facing far superior horsemen (although the numbers are obviously disputed).
This was the moment, in the words of historian Henri Martin, when ‘the world’s fate was played out between the Franks and the Arabs’.