Poitiers 732, great handling

Ask French people, in their fifties, who were on school benches when dates were still learned by heart. There is a good chance that « Poitiers, 732 » appears on the list, in the lead group, with “Charlemagne, 800” or “Marignan, 1515”.

However, historians have established for a long time that this mythical battle looked more like a skirmish than a grandiose confrontation with decisive stakes. The Saracen armies were more in search of looting (the abbey of Saint-Martin in Tours, nearby, was full of wealth) than lasting conquest, even less planned colonization. Winners, they would obviously have pillaged and massacred the surrounding area, perhaps pushed further north for a few months… That would most likely have been all.

Why, the devil, this disproportion between the raw fact, rather banal, and the legend, flamboyant, heroic? The answer is all found. The first mention of this battle appears, it seems, under the pen of Childebrand, bastard son of Pepin the Younger, therefore half-brother of Charles Martel, editor of the Chronicle of Fredegaire. From this moment, the mention « the perfidious nation of the Saracens » appears. But it was, in the tradition of the chronicles of the time, a simple factual account, without any particular epic dimension. It was only four centuries later, when the first crusades were being preached, that the reactivation of the figure of the deceitful enemy imposed itself.

But it is especially the conquest of Algeria, from 1830, which will reactivate the old demons. In 1837, a certain Charles de Steuben painted a picture representing the battle (our illustration). We see a valiant knight, Charles Martel, at the head of the Frankish warriors, in the shadow of a cross, repelling hordes of grimacing Saracens. This fight against Islam, considered a threat, needed a founding moment, it needed a great ancestor . Historian Suzanne Citron insisted on the symbolic value of this battle « in the unconscious of racist anti-Arab impulses and in the illusion of a superiority of Catholic and white civilization » (1989) . Then, the progressive installation of the colonial Empire was done partly against Moslems (Algeria initially, then Tunisia and Morocco). Politicians, intellectuals, teachers, and then of course the « little people » gradually integrated the image of the « fanatic » Muslim, hostile to the progress brought by civilizing France.

exactly the opposite thesis

It will be understood, it is more of the imagination that is in question here than of history. With a certainty riveted to minds: the fate of France (a notion which was very vague in 732!), therefore inevitably of the world, was played out there.

References to the battle and the great man are found throughout the story. During the Algerian war, this theme will reappear with force. The most determined supporters of French Algeria claimed: now that they are driving us out of Africa, they will pursue us “to Poitiers”. In December 1973, a mysterious organization, which signed Charles-Martel, detonated a bomb at the Algerian consulate in Marseilles. Five dead. Finally, let’s recall this incredible occupation of a building site of the mosque in Poitiers in 2012 by a handful of activists from Génération Identitaire, as hateful as they are ignorant.

Rather than respond to these individuals, let us point out that certain anticonformist minds in France put forward the exact opposite thesis: Poitiers was a decline in (Arab) civilization in the face of (Frankish) barbarism. Tel Anatole France: « The day of the battle of Poitiers, when, in 732, science, art and Arab civilization retreated before Frankish barbarism » ( life in bloom, 1922).

In fact, one excess, even spiritual, should not be substituted for another. The Muslim world obviously knew its horrors, its barbarities, its injustices. Like the frank world. But it remains indisputable that the arts and sciences, until the end of the Middle Ages, were more flourishing in the Muslim East than in the Christian West… A few hours spent in the gardens of the Alhambra in Granada would convince the most wayward.


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