This day in history: ‘The Hammer’

The importance of assessing and re-assessing history is seen in The Battle of Tours.

A notable battle, a minor skirmish, a “defense of Western culture,” or something else–today’s event in history is the Battle of Tours, which was fought on Oct. 10, 732. 

Frankish forces, led by Charles Martel (“The Hammer”), battled an army belonging to the Umayyad Caliphate, earning a decisive victory. Charles Martel was the grandfather of Charlemagne, one of the most important figures in medieval history. As the founder of the Carolingian dynasty, Charles Martel is a figure who has often been used as a symbol.

There are many who remember Tours as a key moment in the history of Christendom, and Charles as an important anti-Muslim figure.  In the 1970’s, a French far-right terrorist group that targeted French Arabs named themselves the Charles Martel Group. Today, a similarly-named group called the Charles Martel Society styles themselves the “Saviors of Western Civilization,” and publish a pseudo-scholarly journal called the Occidental Quarterly to espouse white nationalist viewpoints.

But was the Battle of Tours seen in this light during the 8th century? According to Dr. Charlotte Cartwright, a CNU professor specializing in the medieval era, the narrative of Tours as a battle between Christians and Muslims has its origins in romances written during the Crusades, when anti-Islamic rhetoric became prominent. 

“The modern interpretation of [The Battle of Tours] is based on 12th century literary adaptations that are designed to prove Christian knightly supremacy over Muslims, but in an atmosphere of the time of the crusades, that don’t actually map onto the geopolitical realities of the 8th century.”

During the 8th and 9th centuries, the Battle of Tours was not regarded as a landmark battle. “It’s a little minor skirmish, as far as we can tell. Arab sources don’t even mention it for the most part,” Cartwright says. “And our Christian sources don’t make a big deal about it.” The fact that Carolingian sources say little about the battle is telling, as they were very concerned with the great deeds of Charles as their dynasty’s founder. “This is clearly not a defining moment for Charles Martel,” Cartwright says.

According to Cartwright, the Battle of Tours was mostly significant as one of many battles during the rise of Charles Martel to power during the decline of the Merovingian dynasty, which had ruled the Franks for some three centuries beforehand.

“This is part of Charles Martel establishing himself as the pre-eminent war leader in the Frankish world, and thus the guy whose descendants are eventually going to be able to become kings,” said Cartwright. “But it’s part of an internal Frankish political power struggle that has very little to do with who they’re fighting at any given time.” Meaning, contrary to many’s beliefs, that the context of Christians fighting Muslims was probably not notable.

Writing in the late 18th century, the historian Edward Gibbon did not assess the battle in the same way and drew from later literary narratives when he described the Battle of Tours in Volume Five of his “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” 

Gibbon characterizes the Battle of Tours as a great clash between the Christian and Muslim worlds, and goes so far as to speculate that, had they not been defeated at Tours, the Umayyads may have continued to expand all the way into Scotland. Gibbon’s publication was an influential work of historical writing, but shows its age in many ways, and his characterization of the Battle of Tours as a clash of civilizations is a firmly antiquated one. However, Gibbon’s influence with this work can be seen today.

History is frequently mined for symbols, and medieval history provides no shortage of figures and events to look to, mythologize, and exaggerate in the name of modern agendas. Charles Martel and the Battle of Tours are examples of this. 

Historical memory of Charles Martel has shifted over the centuries. During the crusades, he and Charlemagne were used as examples of good, knightly, Christian kings. As the Crusading movement waned, chroniclers turned against Charles, and at least one claimed his tomb was frequented by demons. In the 19th century he was again used as an example of an ideal Christian ruler.

“The way that Charles Martel is presented very much shifts depending on bigger cultural movements going on at the time,” Cartwright says.

History is frequently distorted, and that is part of the value in studying it. Assessing and re-assessing people and battles that have become symbols and questioning the traditional narrative are important elements of what historians do.

Everything is complicated. It’s never as simple as anyone, even professional historians, make it out to be, so it’s always worth questioning our predominant narratives

Dr. Charlotte Cartwright

“Everything is complicated. It’s never as simple as anyone, even professional historians, make it out to be, so it’s always worth questioning our predominant narratives and thinking about why they are predominant narratives,” Cartwright says. “Because I think a lot of times this tells you more about the people doing the writing than the people and/or the events from the actual past.”

To groups like the Charles Martel Society, the name of Charles Martel is a symbol of the supremacy of white Europeans. Would Charles have really seen himself as a “defender of the west?” Would the people of the 8th century have the same conception of “Western Civilization” as 18th century enlightenment authors or 21st century white supremacists? Historical writing is shaped by the world it is written in, and that is why  these are important questions to ask about how we see our past. 


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