The battle of Tours: Foreshadowing the Crusades

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Crusades. If you’re interested, I recommend starting with the first one which you can find here. Otherwise enjoy.

The battle of tours was one of the key battles of the medieval era. Some historians suggest that it was one of, if not the key battle that essentially saved Christianity from extinction.


Back in high school, at some point, I was being hassled by this other kid. Not the only time, but one I remember well.

It went on for a couple weeks I can’t remember exactly how long. He was just some local trouble maker, not at all uncommon in my home town. My brother and sister and I would walk to a pick up point after school a ways from the school grounds and every day for at least a week or two he was giving me a real hard time.

I can’t remember for the life of me what he ever said, just the usual nonsense you expect from a bully. Walking along an old decommissioned railway line he would hurl insults which I would consistently ignore. Every afternoon after school this would repeat itself, and after a few days (or weeks I can’t even remember) I would just try to avoid him, which didn’t work very well. This of course just added to his arsenal of badgering ammunition.

This was a demoralizing experience, from memory. I didn’t stand up to the guy at all, my brother and sister are both younger than me, so they couldn’t do anything, except hang around as their big brother took insults, every afternoon.

I don’t remember how the rest of a given day went during this episode, I think as a boy I mostly compartmentalized my days, so I didn’t really think too much about it at school during the day, or when I got home, but every afternoon the end of the day would come. Instead of being overjoyed and elated because school was over for another day, I became anxious, nervous and depressed.

Then one afternoon we were waiting at the pick up point, a bend in a road where the road met the railway line and there was a large kinda shady tree where we could wait for the pick up. There we were, and he was into his usual tirade of empty words. I believe I tried to hide that day, which of course made it worse (and added a layer of shame to my already bruised ego). As usual I stood there and ignored him, and took everything he had to say with my head down, but over the weeks, the tension had been building; it had been building into a cocktail of frustration, fear, powerlessness and anger. Of course I had to endure it while my younger siblings watched on. These feelings would stew, like a cauldron over a fire.

Have you ever been bullied like this before? You know what I’m talking about. You don’t tell anyone. Who would take you seriously anyway? You think I wanted to include more people in it, and dob him in, are you kidding me? As if I didn’t feel like enough of a coward already. My sister, she’s a good sister, never told anyone either. I think she was secretly hoping I would stand up to him.


I guess he was starting to get bored after a week or two and he did something he hadn’t done before. After a minute or two of insulting me, he shoved me. Hard… I wasn’t expecting it, and I wasn’t ready for it. It sent me hurtling back a couple meters into a tree behind me. I landed against the stump of a broken tree branch, right at about the height of my shoulder blades (oh yeah, I remember that part quite well). It sent a shudder of pain right to the tips of my fingers and toes. It was too much. After a few weeks of insults, occasional shoulder barges, badgering and belittling, I felt that broken stick jab into my spine, and I felt it shudder through every nerve cell in my body.

I lunged at him, and shoved him hard up against a signpost, he was pinned. I looked him right in the eyes. I didn’t say a word, but I’m sure the look on my face said it all; “don’t ever touch me again”. The last couple weeks of humiliating taunts reached a critical mass that burst with the sharp jab of a tree branch into my spine. I’m not going to lie… it felt good. I felt like a rogue lion.

He attempted to save face with some snide comment as he walked away, but I’d called his bluff. I never saw him again.

I know it’s not exactly the stuff of Hollywood.

But I’ll always remember that day; a day of sweet redemption. Victory.

Just war

Today violence is intolerable in any form. Anti bullying rhetoric says don’t get into fights kids. No, you need to do literally anything else instead, like:

  • Ignore them (good luck with that)
  • Make a joke out of it (seriously?)


  • Pretend you don’t care? (wow…)

and finally, if none of that stuff works, tell someone. Violence is never the answer. This has been the mantra for as long as I can remember. Standing up for yourself is a barbaric notion of a bygone era. A primitive social construction that our enlightened culture no longer has a place for.

Yet boys and men are still almost invariably fascinated by violence. Not violence for its own sake, but the virtue ethics of justice and courage under fire, the hero’s tale… I mean, it’s almost as if it’s in our nature. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, it’s a part of us. And whether anyone wants to admit it or not, bullies respond to strength.

Pretending bullies don’t exist, won’t make them go away.

Medieval Christianity knew this.

It’s very easy for Christianity to be a peaceful faith, when it doesn’t have a gun to its head… or a violent ideology on its doorstep. Like a bunch of grown ups telling kids to ignore the bully. It all sounds good in theory. However, we cannot let times of peace cloud our judgement about periods of history (or parts of the world today) that didn’t (or don’t) have that luxury.

Violence and warfare was to Mediaeval Christendom, what hedonism and sexual freedom is to us today.

It was the way the world was. Of course Christianity as a mainstream religion was in its infancy. It was a child born in the fire of combat. Emperor Constantine, a man instrumental in the early stages of the spread of Christianity, was a Roman warlord. Modern Western Christianity has issues like, the increasing secularization of Western society, denominational conflicts, increased pressure on homeschoolers and abortion. Medieval Christianity had issues like, viking invasions into Spain and France, the ever encroaching threat of the infidels, and the black plague.

I made the point in a previous post that Christianity has not traditionally viewed violence as intrinsically evil in its own right. Christians today have to come to terms with passages of scripture where it is clear that violence is not only accepted, but commanded by God himself – “The God of the armies of Israel” (1 Samuel 17:45). The conquest of canaan, David and Goliath, David’s rise to the crown and his career as an Israelite commander (future post anyone?) are only two of the more famous examples. Scripture is teeming with examples of God’s blessing for the Israelites to go to war and even in some cases of miraculous divine intervention of the war effort and judgement by God himself. Not to mention severe repercussions for not precisely following the Lord’s rules of engagement.

Among the first Christians to deal with the complexities of war and Christianity was St Augustine. He formulated one of the first legitimate conceptions of a just war theory. St Augustine himself was no warmonger, but he recognized the reality of world full of sin. He understood that war, whilst abhorrent in itself, could be considered just under some circumstances. One necessary feature of a just war was as a punitive measure to extinguish a greater injustice (Madden, 2009, Langan, 1984). Augustine even argued that in times of dire need, it would be a greater sin to do nothing (Langan, 1984). In the words of Christopher Tyerman (2009, p38):


“The ninth century saw the disintegration of the Carolingian imperium Christiana in the face of civil wars exploited by external attacks of Muslims, Vikings and Magyars, whose success seemed to threaten Christendom itself, thrusting the practice as well as theory of holy war into urgent prominence.”

As I mentioned in the previous post, Islam was snapping at the Latin West, and the Byzantines heels.

Even before the Crusades, Byzantium was being stretched to the breaking point. It may well have broken too, were it not for a couple of key victories which, so far as historians are concerned, saved Christianity from extinction.

Foreshadowing the Crusades

The siege of Constantinople

Islam had conquered all of Byzantine territory in Africa, Asia Minor, Spain and elsewhere. But Christianity wasn’t done. Alexandria (in Egypt), among the largest Byzantine city fortifications should have been easily defended, but was inexplicably handed over to the Muslims. A short time later it was taken back, and would possibly have remained in the hands of Christianity were it not for one guards treachery (Stark, 2009). Constantinople on the other hand, did not suffer the same fate. A massive stronghold, heavily defended on both the seaside, and the land.

Constantinople also had a secret weapon, an extremely deadly cocktail known as ‘Greek fire’. A secret so well kept that it went with Byzantium to the grave and even today chemists have been apparently unable to fully replicate its effects (Stark, 2009). Greek fire was almost impossible to extinguish, spread rapidly, and burned hot. It could be catapulted via large canisters which could explode on impact and cause massive destruction to a siege army, or it could be expended like a flamethrower out of an ingenious device against particularly susceptible wooden ships. On numerous occasions Byzantine navies trapped and utterly decimated huge Muslim navies attempting to take over Constantinople (Stark, 2009).

When you used to play Age of Empires, Constantinople was that bottleneck on the map where you just built a huge block of walls with towers in between and the only way through was with fully upgraded catapults that could shoot out of range of the towers… yeah, that was Constantinople. Except that the Muslims didn’t have fully upgraded catapults. Despite this, Caliph Muawiyah in 672AD stubbornly persisted with a hopeless siege against Constantinople that lasted for a few years. After sickness, cold and a demoralized, isolated army finally got the better of the Muslim army, they were sent packing and forced to pay Byzantium an annual tribute.

Constantinople saved Christianity, and Europe from an East-centric Muslim conquest. However, Islam had conquered most of Spain and southern Gaul also. It was moving in from the West and had its eyes set on France.

The battle of Tours (Poitiers)

At about the height of the Muslim empire, 732AD (after having tried and failed once already), the Muslims, led by ‘Abd-al-Rahman’, with an army numbered (most likely) at about a minimum of around 60,000 horseman, pushed into Southern France. Hell bent on conquest and pillaging, after amassing an impressive array of plunder, the Muslims were routed by the Franks who were fewer in number. Led by the famous Charles Martel (Grandfather of Charlemagne), the battle of Tours is almost universally regarded as a key moment in the course of world history (Stark, 2009).

A devout Christian, Martel’s army made up almost entirely of infantry, stood firm while the Muslim cavalry repeatedly attempted to break the line. Despite some small line breaks, the Muslims were no match for the highly experienced Frankish infantry. Martel, despite fewer numbers had a massive tactical advantage. The Muslim cavalry incurred devastating losses on every advance. As the muslims began to dismantle, what few cavalry the Franks had swept through the Muslim ranks further reducing their number. Martel had scouts make their way through the Muslim camps, causing a ruckus which spread fear throughout the Muslim cavalry that they were being plundered. They fled back to their booty, which looked like a retreat, which in turn became an actual retreat. Abd-al-Rahman died in battle. This was the beginning of the purge of Islam out of the majority of Spain.

Following the battle of Tours, Martel continued to push south, into Spain, carving out a legendary legacy and a reputation for Military genius. He was hailed for his ability to repeatedly take down Muslim forces despite consistently being outnumbered.

Years later at the turn of the 9th Century, Martel’s grandson Charlemagne continued the conquest of Spain, and after him, Christian states right into the 11th Century continued to gradually push Muslims further South. The same in Italy and Sicily. Despite antagonism between the Byzantines and the Normans in Southern Italy, Muslims continued to be driven out, leaving the Normans the sole rulers of Southern Italy. From here the Normans, under the leadership of Robert Guiscard, whose son Bohemond was a major figure in the first Crusade, eventually took hold of Sicily. The Muslims never got it back.

Despite this however, Islam was still a major force to be reckoned with. Islam was becoming increasingly violent towards non-Muslims. Yet even before the 11th Century the persecution of Christians and Jews in Muslim territory was commonplace. There are many examples in the 8th and 9th Centuries of Christians and Jews being slaughtered and churches being burned to the ground. As the timeline gets closer the first Crusade, the phrase ‘thousands’ comes up a lot in discussions (Stark, 2009).

As it was, Islam was terrorizing pilgrims, and in a more general way posed a constant threat to Christianity in the East. Centuries of fear, persecution and regular, large scale massacres ultimately became what Augustine described in his works centuries earlier as adequate justification for holy war.

And by God, a holy war was coming.

“Europe was loosened from its foundations and hurled against Asia” – Anna Comnena, eyewitness to the First Crusade (Ludlow, 2011).

Next post: The First Crusade.

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All Bible references are taken from, from the ESV version, unless otherwise stated.

Barker, E. 1923. The Crusades. Oxford University Press, London, pp 23.

Jenkins, R. 1987. Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries, A.D. 610-1071. University of Toronto Press.

Langan, J. 1984. The Elements of St Augustine’s Just War Theory. The Journal of Religious Ethics. 12:1. 19-38.

Ludlow, J. 2011. The Crusades. Kindle edition.

Madden, T. F. 2009. Inventing the Crusades.

Ostrogorsky, G. 1969. History of the Byzantine state. Rutgers University Press.

Stark, R. 2009. God’s battalions: The case for the Crusades, HarperCollins Publishers.

Tyerman, C. 2006. God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. Penguin Books. London

N.A. The Battle of Tours (732 A.D.). Date viewed: 25/02/2017.

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