Battle of Moussais (Poitiers
II): October 732
(Also referred to as the Battle of Tours)
Charles Martel and Eudes of Aquitaine
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Historians recognize three great battles fought around Poitiers, all commonly referred to as the battle of Poitiers, but all occurring in different locations in the vicinity of Poitiers, spread out over 600 years. Poitiers I was fought between Clovis and the Huns in 507 at Vouillé (west of Poitiers), Poitiers II was fought in 732 between Charles Martel and Eudes of Aquitaine against Abd. er-Rahman at Moussais (north of Poitiers) and Poitiers III was fought between Jean le Bon and Edward the Black Prince in 1356 at Nouaillé (south of Poitiers). Many historians agree that Poitiers II was the most significant of the three. It has been described in epic terms. Guizot (I:154) observes "It is quite certain that neither Franks nor Arabs, neither Charles nor Abd. er-Rahman themselves, took any account ... of the importance of the struggle in which they were on the point of engaging; it was a struggle between East and West, South and North, Asia and Europe, the Gospel and the Koran; and we now say, on the general consideration off events, people and ages, that the civilization of the world depended upon it." Kitchen (106) observes that here "the young civilizations of Europe and Asia stood face to face, there the horsemen of the East met the footmen of the West." Even those who saw the battle in less grandiose terms recognized its importance. Fouracre (in McKitterick CMH 88) notes; "Though not quite of the importance often still accorded to it, this Frankish victory did force the Arabs to retreat southwards ..." On the other hand. Lewis downplays the significance of this battle. In a footnote (p22) he observes "The advance north to Poitiers was a raid or razzia, not a Moslem attempt to conquer this part of France. Thus some historians have tended to overestimate the importance of Charles Martel's victory."
This second battle of Poitiers is also referred to as the battle of Tours, although it was not fought at a locale at all close to Tours.
Nemfidius, c. 710
(for a larger version click here)
AR, 10mm, 1.08gr. Obv: Head. Rev: EF. Mint is Marseilles. Nemfidius, c. 710. R068v (similar obv., different rev.); MEC 558v (same as Roberts). Charles Martel did not have his own coinage. This is an approximately contemporary Merovingian coin.
Hisham bin 'Abd al-Malik (105-125AH, 724-743AD)
(for a larger version click here)
Dirham. Issued by Hisham bin 'Abd al-Malik (105-125AH, 724-743), Umayyad dynasty. Mint is Andulus in Spain. This image is from the Maskukat Collection of Islamic Mediterranean Coins. I appreciate the help Dave Tranbarger gave in locating this coin image and sharing its background. This coin is listed 'rare' in Steve Album's checklist. At the battle of Moussais, the Saracens were led by Abd. er-Rahman, a military commander who did not have his own coinage.
By about 711 Muslim Arabs had spread across North Africa and invaded and conquered Spain. By about 719-20 they had crossed the Pyrenees and entered southern Gaul. They took and sacked Narbonne. They extended their reach to the banks of the Garonne (near Bordeaux) and laid siege to Toulouse. At the time Aquitaine was ruled by Eudes. The duke gathered his forces and went to confront the invaders at Toulouse. Both sides sought to rally their troops by calling on their God. From Guizot (I:149): "'Have ye no fear of this multitude' said El-Sameh (leader of the Arab forces) to his warriors, 'If God be with us who shall stand against us?'" and "Eudes had taken equally great pains to kindle the pious courage of the Aquitanians; he spread among his troops a rumor that he had but lately received as a present from Pope Gregory II three sponges that had served to wipe down the table at which the sovereign pontiffs were accustomed to celebrate the communion; he had them cut into little strips which he distributed to all those combatants who wished for them and thereupon gave the word to sound the charge."
Eudes prevailed and destroyed the Arab army. The Aquitanians claimed they killed over 375,000 invaders but more realistic estimates are probably 40,000 - 45,000 Arab casualties. This was a serious defeat and later Arab chroniclers continued to make reference to it and agree that there were no Arab survivors. This was just the opening round of a series of incursions into southern Europe that continued into the 10th C. There was another invasion in 725 which seized Carcassone, crossed to the east side of the Rhone and generally conquered Septimania. Eudes again confronted the Muslim army and defeated it in Provence. While he was victorious on the field, he was unable to dislodge the Arabs from Septimania. At the same time, Eudes had to contend with Charles, duke of the Franks, who cast covetous eyes on Aquitanian possessions south of the Loire.
Moslem raids extended significantly into France after the capture of Carcassone. The reached as far north as Autun in Burgundy. This map, from Lewis, circles Autun and Poitiers, which gives a visiual impression as to the depth of Moslem raids. To the west, they reached Tours, even further north on the Loire but did not attack
Lewis observes that some time before 731 Eudes of Aquitaine allied himself with the Moslem ruler of Cerdanya by marrying off his daughter to him. Unfortunately, another local ruler, not part of this agreement, invaded and mitigated Eudes' efforts to secure his southern borders.
In 731-32 Abd. er-Rahman organized an army and again crossed from Spain into Gaul. Guizot suggests that the Muslim force was 65,000 - 70,000 troops. Eudes once again took to the field but was not successful this time around. He was forced to withdraw across the Garonne and Abd. er-Rahman was able to cross the river and challenge Eudes. Eudes was defeated and Bordeaux fell to the invaders and was sacked.
Eudes turned to Charles, duke of the Franks, and enlisted his aid. His argument was that once Aquitaine was conquered, the Arab army would move into Frankish territory. Charles accepted Eudes' pledge of loyalty and they joined forces. By this time the Arabs were attacking throughout Gaul. They had even crossed the Loire and gone into Burgundy where they got as far as Autun and Sens. Charles ordered a general mobilization of all his forces, including troops from north and east of the Rhine. Meanwhile, Abd er-Rahman also started regathering his now dispersed forces with the idea of moving to Tours, which he understood the be a very rich prize.
He came to Poitiers but found the city closed to him and bypassed it, proceeding to the walls of Tours. Before the attack was clearly launched, he learned that Charles was marching towards him with a substantial force. He withdrew to the north of Poitiers. By this time his army was moving more slowly, since it was weighted down with the plunder of all their campaigning in Gaul. Rather than abandon the baggage train, the Arabs sought to protect it. The following map shows the local geography. He established his base between the Vienne and the Chain (two rivers marked in blue). This is south of Chatellerault and north of Poitiers (just off the bottom of the map). The Franks arrived in October 732 and established themselves north of the Arabs, but still bounded by the Vienne and the Chain. This was a precarious position, in that were they not successful on the battlefield they would not have clear lines of retreat. The actual battle site, Moussais, is circled in red.
Gore places the Frankish army at 15,000 - 20,000, although other estimes range from 30,000 to 80,000. In spite of wildly varying estimates of the Saracen force, he places that army as around 20,000 - 25,000. Other estimates also range up to 80,000, with 50,000 not an uncommon estimate.
Battle of Moussais (Poitiers II) October 17 (or 25th), 732
The two armies skirmished for about a week but did not directly engage. Finally, on the first day of Ramadan (according to the battlefield open museum) Abd. er-Rahman ordered a general attack. He had positioned himself on a rise above the plain at Moussais. This first picture is from the position the Arabs held, looking down on the Frankish force on the plain below. While they had the advantage of the high ground, they attacked downhill and then across the level plain rather than the Franks attacking the high ground. Today there is an open air museum on the site, just to the left of the view from the first picture. This offers details of the battle, historical information on the major participants and the aims of each of the parties. The museum site is seen in the second picture and once again, overlooks the plain of Moussais.
The Frankish mobilization, in response to a universal 'banus,' was complete and included Franks from Neustria, Germans from Austrasia, Alamans, Burgundians, Saxons, Frisians, Bavarians and Gallo Romans from Aquitaine. Most of these were foot soldiers. Eudes of Aquitaine, called 'The Roman,' was 72 at this time. Charles was 43. The Franks aligned themselves in triangular phalanxes. The next image is an artist's rendition, taken from material at the battlefield, of a Frankish phalanx. The attack of the Arab mounted bowmen was unable to break the Frankish lines. While this picture shows the Franks with spears, other sources indicate they relied on long handled battle axes. Details of the battle are sketchy but two instances stand out. One is that a Frankish force penetrated to the Arab camp, either to plunder the baggage train or attack from the rear, and this caused confusion in the Arab ranks. The other is that when he saw that the battle was not going well, Abd. er-Rahman himself entered the fray and was killed. The second picture shows an artist's rendition of a more general melee.
At Versailles, in the Gallery of Battles, there are a series of paintings reflecting great French militarty victories. One of them recounts the success at Moussais.
From the plain, the Franks would look up to the Arab position on their left (first picture). Once they descended from the ridge, the Arab force would have been looking north, towards the Franks and Chatellerault (second picture). The Franks would have had this view to their back. (In a point of variance with the on-site museum, Gore suggests the Franks had the high ground. Having visited the site, the low plain would have allowed a cleaner arrangement of the Frankish forces than the rougher terrain on the height, where the Moslems were.)
The fighting went on most of the day. Casualty estimates are unreliable (but Gore suggests about 1500 Franks killed in the conflict). Kitchen cites chronicler's as saying that 300,000 Arabs died, clearly an exaggeration since more reliable estimates place the army's total sizeas being much smaller. That evening the two armies withdrew to their respective camps. At dawn the next day, the Franks arranged themselves for battle but discovered that the Arabs had decamped in the night, abandoning all their plunder from previous raids. This Frankish victory occurred 100 years after the death of Mohammed and essentially ended, for a time, the serious threat of a broad Arab invasion into Europe through Spain. The Arabs withdrew to Narbonne and Septimania, which they continued to hold. This victory earned Charles the title Charles Martel ( The Hammer).
Eudes returned to Aquitaine and ruled as a vassal of Charles. Campaigns against the Arabs continued in the following years (733 - Burgundy; 735 - Aquitaine, 739 - Provence), as they would in the ensuing centuries.
Today Moussais la Battaille is very much agricultural and it is possible to get a sense of the terrain and alignment of forces. It is a quiet place to visit (we had it to ourselves) and after harvest is is possible to walk the field where these armies clashed almost 1300 years ago.
Funch-Bretano, The National History of France: The Earliest Times, W. Heinemann, London, 1927
Gore, T., Neglected Heroes: Leadership and War in the Early Medieval Period, Praeger, London, 1995
Guizot. M. and M Guizot de Witt; translator M. Haazeltine, France, vol. 1, Peter Fenelon Collier, NY, 1898
Kitchin, G.W., A History of France, vol. 1, 4th ed., Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, 1899
Lewis, A., THe Development of Southern French and catalan Society: 718 - 1050, University of Texas Press, Austin ,1965
McKitterick, R., editor, Cambridge Medeival History II (c.700-900), Cambridge University Press, Ma., 1995