Growing in leaps and bounds, the Caliphate, as the Islamic realm is known, has thus far subdued much of Christendom, conquering the old Christian lands of the Mideast and North Africa in short order. Syria and Iraq fell in 636; Palestine in 638; and Egypt, which was not even an Arab land, fell in 642. North Africa, also not Arab, was under Muslim control by 709. Then came the year 711 and the Moors’ invasion of Europe, as they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and entered Visigothic Iberia (now Spain and Portugal). And the new continent brought new successes to Islam. Conquering the Iberian Peninsula by 718, the Muslims crossed the Pyrenees Mountains into Gaul (now France) and worked their way northward. And now, in 732, they are approaching Tours, a mere 126 miles from Paris.
The Moorish leader, Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, is supremely confident of success. He is in the vanguard of the first Muslim crusade, and his civilization has enjoyed rapidity and scope of conquest heretofore unseen in world history. He is at the head of an enormous army, replete with heavy cavalry, and views the Europeans as mere barbarians. In contrast, the barbarians facing him are all on foot, a tremendous disadvantage. The only thing the Frankish and Burgundian European forces have going for them is their leader, Charles of Herstal, grandfather of Charlemagne. He is a brilliant military tactician who, after losing his very first battle, is enjoying an unbroken 16-year streak of victories.
And this record will remain unblemished. Outnumbered by perhaps as much as 2 to 1 on a battlefield between the cities of Tours and Poitier, Charles routs the Moorish forces, stopping the Muslim advance into Europe cold. It becomes known as the Battle of Tours (or Poitier), and many historians consider it one of the great turning points in world history. By their lights, Charles is a man who saved Western Civilization, a hero who well deserves the moniker the battle earned him: Martellus. We thus now know him as Charles Martel, which translates into Charles the Hammer.
The Gathering Threat in the East
While the Hammer saved Gaul, the Muslims would not stop hammering Christendom — and it would be the better part of four centuries before Europe would again hammer back. This brings us to the late 11th century and perhaps the best-known events of medieval history: the Crusades.
Ah, the Crusades. Along with the Galileo affair and the Spanish Inquisition (both partially to largely misunderstood), they have become a metaphor for Christian “intolerance.” And this characterization figures prominently in the hate-the-West-first crowd’s repertoire and imbues everything, from movies such as 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven to school curricula to politicians’ pronouncements. In fact, it’s sometimes peddled so reflexively that the criticism descends into the ridiculous, such as when Bill Clinton gave a speech at Georgetown University and, writes Chair of the History Department at Saint Louis University Thomas Madden, “recounted (and embellished) a massacre of Jews after the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 and informed his audience that the episode was still bitterly remembered in the Middle East. (Why Islamist terrorists should be upset about the killing of Jews was not explained.)” Why, indeed. Yet, it is the not-so-ridiculous, the fable accepted as fact, that does the most damage. Madden addresses this in his piece, “The Real History of the Crusades,” writing:
Misconceptions about the Crusades are all too common. The Crusades are generally portrayed as a series of holy wars against Islam led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics. They are supposed to have been the epitome of self-righteousness and intolerance, a black stain on the history of the Catholic Church in particular and Western civilization in general. A breed of proto-imperialists, the Crusaders introduced Western aggression to the peaceful Middle East and then deformed the enlightened Muslim culture, leaving it in ruins. For variations on this theme, one need not look far. See, for example, Steven Runciman’s famous three-volume epic, History of the Crusades, or the BBC/A&E documentary, The Crusades, hosted by Terry Jones. Both are terrible history yet wonderfully entertaining.
But what does good history tell us? Madden continues:
Christians in the eleventh century were not paranoid fanatics. Muslims really were gunning for them. While Muslims can be peaceful, Islam was born in war and grew the same way. From the time of Mohammed, the means of Muslim expansion was always the sword. Muslim thought divides the world into two spheres, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War.... In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which had been Christian since the time of St. Paul. The old Roman Empire, known to modern historians as the Byzantine Empire, was reduced to little more than Greece. In desperation, the emperor in Constantinople sent word to the Christians of western [sic] Europe asking them to aid their brothers and sisters in the East.
[The Crusades] were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope or rapacious knights but a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point, Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam. The Crusades were that defense.
Hat Tip: Dr D