Polemics and Poitiers

The last couple of years have seen an unsurprising resurgence in attacks on any ‘politically correct’ view of the early Middle Ages which affords Islam a positive role. Emmet Scott’s Mohammad and Charlemagne Revisited (2012) has proved rather popular in conservative circles, because it has restated the Pirenne Thesis in a way which makes Islam the cause of the ‘Dark Ages’. Now this week, in the Huffington Post, three writers were moved to attack actor Lorànt Deutsch’s Hexagone: Sur les routes de l’histoire de France (2013) for its polemical and distorted account of the Battle of Poitiers (732/3). Famously, this was the battle at which Charles Martel – mayor of the palace and grandfather of Charlemagne – defeated the Muslim army of ‘Abd ar-Rahman, which was attacking from Iberia possibly at the request of the alienated duke Eudo of Aquitaine. Deutsch was concerned with those ‘politically correct’ historians who had limited the battle’s importance, unwilling as they were to recognise the importance of a union of Christian and pagan forces lining up to resist the brutal invasion of the Muslims (forgetting Eudo of course). We have, of course, been here before: who can ever talk of Poitiers without noting Edward Gibbon’s opinion that, if Charles Martel had lost, maybe the Koran would now be taught in Oxford! (Decline and Fall, V.52.2). But Charles won.

It is clear that these ‘revisionist’ narratives do appeal to Islamophobia and related trends. There is a need to be careful, because few historians or archaeologists I know would actually deny that the Arab conquests seriously affected the West’s economy and culture – and they would not condemn Islam because of this. Arab conquests and the rise of Islam are two separate things for a start. Academic theorizing has not, as I read somewhere I won’t link to, led to a refusal to acknowledge the damage of the Arab conquests at the expense of facts. Depending on what you are analysing, the story could be both more and less than that ‘it was all good before the Arab conquests’. The complexity of long-term processes are relevant here, as we heard with Bryan Ward-Perkins‘ recent work.

The importance of Poitiers, meanwhile, is wonderfully difficult to gauge. Bede, the most detached source, merely mentions that Charles beat the unfaithful Saracens. The Continuation of the Chronicle of Fredegar, c. 13, is the source that tells us in a straightforward manner that it was a tactical alliance between Eudo and ‘Abd ar-Rahman, which Charles crushed simply enough. If this had been the case, then had Charles lost, Eudo might have been restored, with good Christian-Muslim relations established. For all we know. But the Mozarab Chronicle of 754 tells a more excitable story about war-like ‘Abd ar-Rahman invading precisely to take advantage of Eudo’s weakness, with Eudo having formed an earlier alliance with a Berber rebel and then tipping Charles off about the invasion. For a major turning point in world history even the sources cannot agree on agency and motivation, just Charles’s eventual success. The lesson learned here is that people tell the stories that suit them best. Or had little idea what was actually going on.

As horribly ‘politically correct’ as it might sound, one could also do well to look at the ‘fact’ of good diplomatic relations between the Franks and the Muslim leaders of the new polities alongside conflict. Hostility between Christians and Muslims is often contextual, not a given. Modern polemics are not more factual just because they exclude ‘facts’ in ways which makes them less politically correct and simplify matters in ways which actively distort the past to suit modern prejudice. We must be careful.

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  1. Pingback: A Brief Note on ‘Politically Correct’ History | merovingianworld·

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