Saturday, June 10, 2006

# Posted 11:15 AM by Patrick Porter  

WARS CAN CHANGE HISTORY: One of the natural tensions among historians lies between those who see historical change or continuity as a result of long-term impersonal forces that glaciate through centuries, and those who stress contingency, individuals or events.

Personally, I fall somewhere towards the latter, and have the unfashionable view that certain battles can indeed decide large chunks of history.

An example: Poitiers, in 732, where Charles Martel halted the surge of Islamic imperialism into Europe. According to the waspish enlightenment chronicler Edward Gibbon,
A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks 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 the Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames.

Perhaps the interpretation of the Qu'ran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pupils might demonstrate to a circumscribed people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed.
(Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Everyman, 1978) vol.5, pp.398-99)
Of course, despite this the interpretation of the Qu'ran is now taught in the schools of Oxford. But it might have been a much older course, the Oxford Christians might have had to become tributaries of the empire, and Charles Darwin's rottweiler, Thomas Huxley, might have had to find a different opponent than Bishop Wilberforce to debate theological views of creation.

Things went differently, thanks to Charles Martel's well-trained Frankish foot-soldiers, described by an Arab account:
And in the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice.
(13) opinions -- Add your opinion

Well, historiography has progressed quite a bit since Gibbon.
I generally tend to side with those modern historians who completely discount the significance of the skirmish at Tours.* The Muslims did, after all, control most of the south of France for twenty to thirty years after the Battle of Tours. That suggests other factors may have been more important.
I would suggest perhaps the Great Berber Revolt of 740 and the collapse of the Umawiyyun in 750 as the most important events leading to the halt and retreat of the early Muslim armies from France.

*AKA Battle of Poitiers. So feeble is this alleged great battle, we've never been able to figure out where it took place. Yes, we haven't figured out where the Battle of the Teutobergerwald took place either, but proponents of the existence of the Battle of Tours claim that the decisive Frankish-Muslim battle of all time had TEN times more combatants than the decisive German-Roman battle of all time. The logistics alone are preposterous.
hey anonymous,

I agree that the scale of the battle itself in terms of numbers has been exaggerated.

but the attempt to downplay the significance of this as a 'skirmish' is not a recent historiographical development. In fact, its a very old tradition.

Because of Charles Martel's confiscation of ecclesiastical property, later medieval, Christian chroniclers deliberately downplayed his achievement.

It was the first step of a counteroffensive, in which Martel began to clear southern France of the invaders.

Contemporary historians may dispute whether Tours on its own was THE decisive hinge or the beginning of a longer decisive campaign, but they agree that it was a macrohistorical event.
'a circumscribed people'? Well, Gibbon referenced something cut off, it's true...
Is the glaciation argument backdoor teleological determinism?
An unsupportable post. Read the Muslim historians of the time -- this so-called epic battle was, indeed, a mere skirmish on the fringes of hte empire that merited litte more than a footnote. Pace Gibbons, this was hardly a Muslim Waterloo, to say the least. The fanciful claim that it "halted the surge of Islamic imperialism" is hogwash. The Muslim empires were much more interested in their internecine battles than expansion into a European backwater. If they had truly gathered their forces for a "surge" into Europe, there is little doubt that they had the material/technological advantage to succeed.

I'm pleased they didn't, and agree with you that history is impacted by ideas, individuals, and events, but let's not get carried away. We still need to have good history.
I dont know
dear AC,

it may not have been considered hugely significant by the Moslem sources at the time, but it was nevertheless significant for the Franks/west europeans. It did halt and begin to turn their expansion in the region.

And if internecine battles did preoccupy the Moslem empire(s), then what does that tell us? That suggests it had internal weaknesses and a tendency towards internal division and power struggles, that prevented it from mobilising and concentrating its resources. So its failure to push further into the region was not just by choice.
An interesting thought, given the report in today's Oz re RADM Chris Parry's speech at RUSI (see http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,19441287-601,00.html -- forgive my failure to use tags): where would (could?) a Charles Martel make his stand today?
H Jones VC and his 2 Para won the battle at Darwin Hill and Goose Green after the British fleet had been savaged by a 3rd rate Argentinean air force during the Falklands War. He saved the war, Thatcher's job and Britain's place as a force for the good. David Kenney
Patrick: what's the counterfactual? I.e., what would have happened if the Franks had lost the battle? From what I've read, not that much would've turned out differently.

the counterfactual:
Abdul Rahman, the Moslem commander, is not defeated and not killed. He alone possesses the Fatwah from the Caliph. After his death, the generals cannot agree on a single commander. In other words, the invading forces retain their leadership, their unity and their cohesion. (This death is an emphatic point for Arab historians).

expansion north is not checked but continues, gathering momentum. Tours with its shrine will probably be sacked by the invaders, as was Bordeaux.

there is circumstantial evidence that they are generally expansionist in the Old Roman Empire, so its probably not true that they were not sufficiently interested in further expansion in this region.

if they are defeated, the Franks prestige will suffer. they are the peoples most referred to by Moslem chroniclers other than the Byzantines.

the battle begins a decisive counter-offensive, and halts the northern lunge of Islamic imperialism in Frankish territory.
In the pantheon of Islam-stopping battles, may I suggest three: Lepanto, 1571; Vienna, 1683; Iraq, 2003-2007.

"Islam-stopping battles ... Iraq, 2003-2007."

Some - including a US Govt report from 16 agencies - might strongly suggest the opposite!
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