the Battle of Tours

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The rise of Islam as a religion and empire in the 600s and 700s C.E. had a major impact on the development of European civilization, history, and identity. As the authors of your textbook observe, after Islamic expansion, “the Mediterranean world was split into two separate cultures” (200).

The “West” would now be more exclusively European and its Christian identity would in part be shaped by its contrast with a rival faith and the lands under Islamic control. Indeed, people of Europe did not yet think of themselves as “Europeans”—a geographical identification—but rather, encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church, increasingly as people of “Christendom” (the “realm of Christ”), a religious identification.

Of course, during the rapid initial spread of Islamic forces, no one knew just how far their conquests would carry them. By the early 700s undefeated Islamic armies had overcome not only northern Africa but also the Iberian peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal) and seemed poised to continue the campaign northward into present-day France and perhaps beyond. Was an impoverished, divided western Europe soon to be absorbed into another “empire” and perhaps undergo another religious and cultural revolution?

We will never know, of course. (Unlike scientific experiments, the past cannot be rerun with new variables.) As it happened, in 732 a Frankish military chieftain named Charles Martel (“Martel” means “the Hammer”) recruited and organized a motley but effective enough force among the Franks to resist and ultimately defeat an Islamic scouting army in what came to be known as the Battle of Tours (or Poitiers). This Frankish victory was enough to discourage Islamic rulers from continuing the campaign into western Europe.

Spain would mark the limit of Islamic rule in western Europe. After that, over the course of many centuries following, Christian warriors slowly retook what would become Portugal and Spain, until the last Islamic authority was removed in 1492, just before an Italian navigator named Christopher Columbus got sponsorship from the Spanish crown for his famous overseas venture.

Many historians have regarded the Battle of Tours as a critical moment in European history, one in which the trajectory of Western civilization was at stake. (To be fair, other historians, for various reasons, have disputed this level of significance.) The event, therefore, provides an opportunity for a different type of essay task—that is, to exercise historical thinking and reasoning by considering connections between events of the past and their possible consequences. What if the Islamic forces had defeated the Franks at Tours?

“Counterfactual” history or “what if” history, as it is sometimes called, is of course not history at all because the findings are not based on actual evidence. Nevertheless, it is a natural and interesting intellectual exercise to consider what might have been had a previous outcome been different. In any case, to consider well what might have been, one must know what was.

In preparation for this assignment, re-read the textbook discussion of the Battle of Tours on page 193 (attached below as a file with the question) You may also do some additional background reading on the subject. You should also watch this brief video:

Then write a brief essay addressing the following:

(1) Analyze/reflect: What were the consequences (both short and long term) of the Battle of Tours? What if the Islamic armies had won the battle and gone on to conquer Europe (as many think may have happened)? (Consider both short-term and long-term consequences.)

(2) Connect: What is an event in recent history that you regard as critical turning point? What have been its consequences? What if the event had turned out differently or had been avoided? How might things be different?

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