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This week in history: The Battle of Tours

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Oct. 11 2012 5:21 p.m. MDT

One of the most significant battles in the history of Western civilization was fought on Oct. 11, 732 A.D., near Tours, France. The Battle of Tours (or Poitiers) pitted a largely horse-bound army of Islamic invaders against the infantry-dominated forces of the Franks, who fought to protect their Christian religion and homeland. The Frankish victory ultimately ensured the continuing development of Western civilization.

Unlike the Jewish and Christian traditions, which saw worshipers persecuted for centuries before their religions were tolerated or entered the mainstream, Islam proved a dynamic and powerful movement within the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. Within decades of his death, Islam had spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

In 711 A.D. the first Islamic Moorish armies crossed the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. Within a few years, virtually all of modern Spain and Portugal were subjugated by the Islamic forces. Just as the Persian army centuries before and the Mongol army centuries after, Moorish striking power derived from its horse troops. The surprise cavalry provided, as well as its ability to scatter undisciplined foot soldiers, made for a powerful and often decisive weapon.

When Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi crossed the Pyrenees, he commanded a cavalry force of perhaps as many as 50,000 horsemen, though the numbers are disputed and difficult to confirm with any great degree of accuracy. However many men he commanded, this was a huge force threatening the Frankish way of life.

France at this time was a region in transition. The ruling Franks were a community of Germanic tribes that held to their traditions even as they adopted those features of faded Roman society that appealed to them. This mixture of cultures — German and Roman — was key to the formulation of an entirely new civilization. Indeed, today we regard France as the cradle of Western civilization for precisely these reasons.

Charles Martel (also known as Charles the Hammer), whose title with the Frankish court was mayor of the palace, acted as essentially prime minister to the Frankish Merovingian kings. Given the largely ineffectual power of the Frankish kings by this point, Charles was the de facto ruler of the Franks, and after his death his family would create its own royal dynasty, the Carolingians. After fighting a series of wars against European enemies such as the Saxons and the Frisians, Charles realized that a great threat approached from the south and began to rally the disorganized and bickering Frankish tribes.

In his book “A History of Warfare,” the late historian Sir John Keegan notes the unique fighting style that had evolved among the Franks: “The cultivated lands of western Europe could support a horse population of no large size, and the feudal armies that answered the summons to arms resembled a horse people's horde in no way at all. The difference derived in a great measure from the distinctive military culture of the Teutonic tribes, which encouraged face-to-face fighting with edged weapons, a tradition reinforced by their encounters with the Roman armies before they had lost their legionary training.”

To meet the Moorish horse army, Charles Martel assembled a force believed to number around 30,000 troops comprised almost exclusively of heavy infantry. Here the Franks held several advantages. They knew the Moors were coming and had prepared to meet them, negating a horse-bound army's usual advantage of surprise. More importantly, the Franks were not an army of poorly trained conscripts who would break at the first sign of the enemy. Rather, it was an army of citizen volunteers who understood the necessity of absolute discipline on the battlefield.

Historian Victor Davis Hanson writes in his book, “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power”:

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