732 AD Charles 'the Hammer'

6 February 2010

Well, I’m not exactly in chronological order here.  Charles Martel was born c. 688 and died in 741, so we’re going back a couple hundred years.  Charles Martel was the grandfather of Charlemagne, who was around about a hundred years before Alfred.  But I finally got my hands on a book about him.  There’s not much out there.  I’m sure he is included in many overall histories and books on military leaders, etc.  But as far as a biography focusing on Charles, well, they are hard to come by.  I finally found one called Charles the Hammer: The Story of Charles Martel by Shane Miller.  It is no longer in print, and the library didn’t have a copy (not even on ILL) so I went ahead and bought a used copy for seven dollars, having no idea what I would be getting.

The book is a mix between a novel and a biography.  There is a little bit of dialouge, as well as some information on how the different characters felt during different situations, which of course are conjecture, but it also reads somewhat like a biography, most of the detail being of historical significance, and, as far as I’ve read, all the information is accurate.  He even quotes several historical sources that were written later to help describe what was going on, including Arab writings as well as Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which actually covers much more than just that.  (I am excited to read this next year, since it was written in the late 1700’s…supposedly Gibbon has an ironic sense of humor.)  Charles the Hammerwill be a great book for the kids to read in the middle grades.  It includes several helpful maps and other drawings.

So on to Charles Martel.  Charles Martel was a Frankish military and political leader.  His official title was Mayor of the Palace, but this was the position of power.  The king was more of a puppet celebrity than anything else.  Charles spent most of his life fighting wars to unite and protect Frankland (early France).  The Germanic tribes were in the process of converting to Christianity, so they were becoming less-rowdy as neighbors, though he still had to deal with them from time to time.   Frankland itself was divided, and Charles had a lot to do on that front as well.  However, the most famous of his adversaries was the Islamic Army.  The Islamic Empire was growing fast.  They already had control of (modern-day) Saudi Arabia, Iran and further east, Turkey, all of northern Africa, and Spain.  If they could get hold of France, Italy, Greece and the countries in between, then they would complete the circle around the Mediterranian Sea, turning it into an ‘Islamic Lake’, instead of a Roman one, as Augustus, the first Emperor of the Roman Empire had bragged.  (He actually gave it the name Mare Nostrum, which literally means ‘Our Sea’, but it is often referred to as ‘Roman Lake’.)

The Islamic Army was renowned for its numbers.  I haven’t personally checked up on this, but everything else I have checked up on in the book was accurate, so I assume this is as well.  The Islamic Army was quite fearsome, riding up on horseback, all the soldiers dressed in white flowing clothes.  Shane Miller did an excellent job painting a picture of this with his words, and not saying straight-out, but creating a feeling for the reader what it must have felt like to stand in the Frankish line (only the higher-ups in the Frankish army were mounted) and see this huge, white, mounted army rushing at you.  The Franks employed a similar strategy to William Wallace’s in the movie Braveheart. They made long lances, put the end of the lance into the ground at an angle with the pointed end toward the on-coming army.

The Franks were fighting side-by-side with the Aquitanians, and the Duke of Aquitaine was named Odo.  Odo was older than Charles, and as Aquitaine is right on the Spanish boarder, he had been fighting the Muslims for some time before Charles ever got involved.  Odo resented Charles’ obvious natural leadership and greatly feared that Charles would try and take Aquitaine from him.  Charles did not forcefully take it while Odo was alive, but he had insisted on some friendly treaties.  After Odo’s death, Charles finished off taking what practically belonged to France anyway.

According to the book, the famous decision to route the Aquitaine part of the army around the Islamic forces and plunder the Islamic camp was actually Odo’s idea, but he had to make sure it was okay with Charles first.  Charles agreed, and sent Odo’s army.  Through all of their conquests, the Islamic army had been picking up treasure along the way.  The Islamic soldiers got wind that they were losing all their spoils and ran from the battlefield to protect them.  In the process, their leader was killed.  The Frankish army did not pursue, and Odo’s army left the Islamic camp quickly, without taking much, if anything.  All they wanted to do was make the Islamic army chose between their treasure and the land of France, knowing they would probably chose their treasure.  The book states that that evening, the Islamic army left with their heads hung low in humiliation from their defeat, and even left the spoils they had run to protect.  I could not find any further information to verify this.

Many (but not all, of course) historians claim that the Battle of Tours was one of the most important battles in history.  Dexter B. Wakefield wrote:

“A Muslim France? Historically, it nearly happened. But as a result of Martel’s fierce opposition, which ended Muslim advances and set the stage for centuries of war thereafter, Islam moved no farther into Europe. European schoolchildren learn about the Battle of Tours in much the same way that American students learn about Valley Forge and Gettysburg. ”

Charles earned the name ‘Martel’ for his opposition, which means ‘the Hammer’.  It seems that he was the right man for the job, and was in the right place at the right time to preserve most of Europe’s culture.  Though some historians disagree that Tours was all that important, nearly everyone agrees that had Charles failed, there was no one else in all of Europe with the strength to resist an advancing Islamic army.