Tours de Farce
October 10, 732: Western Europe Is Stuck With Roman Numerals for Another 500 Years
The battle of Tours, fought this day in 732, is listed among the most important battles in history. It certainly is the only time that the French were underestimated. Having brushed aside the lumbering Visigoth clods in Spain, the Arabs assumed that the Franks would be just another trifle. And in theory, they were right. In the 8th century, Gallia was once again in three parts: two independent dukedoms and a weak kingdom fighting with each other. In planning their invasion of France, the Arabs discounted the possiblity of any real and organized resistance.
The Duchy of Aquitaine did not contradict the Arabs’ contempt. Southwestern France was quickly conquered. The most significant Arab losses were from hernias carrying the loot. Indeed, the sheer amount of plunder slowed down the Arabs’ invasion of central France. Their light cavalry had become quite heavy. That delay gave the desperate French two advantages. The first was weather. October in France would not seem a problem to most invaders; the Russians would be in bathing suits. But the Arabs were miserably cold; and their French loot evidently did not include long underwear. Thirty thousand sneezing Arabs are a less formidable foe, but the French still had to fight them.
The slow pace of the Arab invasion allowed the French time to gather an army, but this force was not the typical medieval ensemble of jealous nobles and undisciplined peasants. No, this was a real army with a capable leader. In fact, the French commander was not even a noble, at least a legitimate one. Being a bastard Charles Martel had worked his way up, surviving battles and court politics. He had the earned the rank of Mayor of the Palace. which was more important than it sounds. He was the military commander of the Franks and wielded far more power than the actual king, the incredibly trivial Theuderich IV.
To protect France–and himself–Charles had established a professional, full-time army. (Charles had financed this army by expropriating Church property. None too thrilled, the Church threatened to excommunicate him but decided that he was a lesser evil than an Arab invasion.)
The Arab army was sluggishly advancing on the city of Tours and was surprised to find Charles’ army, along with the reinforcements from the rest of France, standing in the way. As a further inconvenience to the Arabs, Charles used tactics, positioning his army on a wooded ridge. Arab cavalry, riding uphill through trees, was at a definite disadvantage. In fact, the disadvantage was so obvious that the Arab commander spent six days trying to come to a decision: should he attack or withdraw? It was not a pleasant choice. If he withdrew, the Caliph would probably kill him. If he attacked, the French would probably kill him. Of course, if he attacked and–with Allah working overtime–won….So, he did attack; unfortunately, a sizeable portion of his army did not. These Arabs were too intent on guarding their plunder from the possibility of French pillagers (pickpocketing mimes, etc.) that they abstained from the battle. They were willing to live with the shame…and the loot. And they did live with both. The commander was not so lucky, and much of the Arab army died with him.
Because the Arab strategists (Paleo-Cons?) back in Spain had never considered the possibility of defeat, the Arab invasion had not even organized a clear chain of command. There was no one to succeed the dead commander. With the officers feuding and the army battered, the Arab force averted complete disintegration only by retreating back to Spain. The Arab threat to Western Europe was over, at least until O.P.E.C.
France was saved–but so were the Dark Ages.