On Now : Woman's Hour
George Clooney, Rachel Treweek, First female diocesan bishop
BBC Radio 4
The Radio 4 Blog

Editors note. In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and guests discussed The Battle of Tours. As always the programme is available to listen to online or download to keep.

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Battle of Tours of 732.


I still think (though what does an amateur know?) that not enough weight was given to the Venerable Bede. He was also a saint. He also wrote the foundational history of the English-speaking peoples and one of the great history books of the Western world. He reported on the Battle of Tours about a year after it had happened. He didn’t report it in the sense of dashing off an article in the local newspaper. He put it in his book and recognised its significance. I think that lends weight to the larger claims made for the Battle of Tours. But it has to be said that the three brilliant scholars who sat facing me were unmoved by the implication I was clearly (in the space of about seven seconds) trying to get over to them.

Bede was up in Jarrow and we claim him for the North. Up there over the New Year I had a unique experience in my life. I was walking on a fell path, ill-advisedly, and the wind came up at about twelve o’clock with such force that I simply could not move forward and did not dare turn round in case I was blown back down the mountain. It was an extraordinary feeling of exhilarated helplessness.

After the programme this morning Tom Morris and I went to talk about the series that we’re going to do in addition to In Our Time in 2015. No real prizes for guessing. Then along to the office and down to pick up a suit that I picked up in a sale and needed a bit of alteration. And off to have lunch with Joseph Connolly at the Garrick. Joseph Connolly, apart from being a novelist and a gourmet, made it his business two or three decades ago to collect first editions of contemporary novels in mint condition. It was a bold and good move. He is one of nature’s amassers of information. Lunch is a treat. All you do is eat. He talks the very good talk.

Out into what proved to be a depressing drizzle, though not of Cumbrian proportions, and so jumped in a cab to go down to the House of Lords. I have never in my life been in a London cab and submitted to so much breezy propaganda. Everything good about Cuba was rehearsed between the National Portrait Gallery and Westminster Palace. The crimelessness, the equality of women, the way in which children were nourished, etc, etc. He had been advised to go to Cuba by some Canadian passengers he’d carried several years ago. He now goes every year. He is not a communist, he says, but he is a socialist and he believes in justice and Cuba is heaven. It was like sharing the cab with a compressed, all-speaking Wikipedia. His former taxi (now rather clapped-out) has been painted with the Cuban flag and is to be donated to a museum in Havana, to which everyone should go immediately for a vision of the world as it should be.

In the Lords they were debating the implications of the World Wide Web on its 25th anniversary. Before that, Peter Hennessy had introduced a motion about the future of the Civil Service. This one was introduced by a most energetic and positive Martha Lane Fox, who magnetised a large attendance. It’s worth saying again (I’m sure I’ve said it before) that the quality of speakers, their depth of information on the topics put forward, is quite extraordinary. Let’s take this one: David Puttnam, John Birt, Beeban Kidron, Anthony Giddens, Martin Rees, Onora O’Neill … on and on it goes. Superbly well-informed people talking intelligently and without the chicken yard yapping of the other place.

Now, as I speak, I’m doing this and then a bit of reading and on to have a non-drink (dry January) with Howard Jacobson. And then to bed.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.

Tagged with:


This entry is now closed for comments.

  • Comment number 5. Posted by colinporter

    on 18 Jan 2014 13:03

    KevynR's scorn for the historians on the programme would have slightly more weight if he knew how to spell 'Al-Andalus' correctly. His parallel between Islamic Spain and Morsi's Egypt is completely false, since it is well documented that many Christian and Jewish scholars lived quite happily under Muslim rule during this and later centuries, including one of the chroniclers who wrote about this battle. In later centuries Al-Andalus was home to a particularly thriving Jewish intellectual community which included figures like Moses ibn Ezra and Moses Maimonides. The guests on the programme were only articulating the majority view of modern scholars, who tend to reject the 'battle of civilisations' narrative favoured by some earlier historians. The fact is, there isn't much evidence either way. There is unfortunately a minority who, seeing contemporary Islamism as a monolithic threat, would prefer to paint history in primary colours when the evidence does not justify such an interpretation.

    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 5: 1
    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 5: 0
  • Comment number 4. Posted by ChukTatum

    on 17 Jan 2014 19:56

    Sounds to me that this was probably more of a prolonged skirmish, maybe lasting a few weeks or even months between marauding Saracens and the Franks, rather than a single cataclysmic battle and I imagine these were fairly regular occurences and the participants would never have recognised the historical signifigance of the engagement that was later ascribed to it by chauvinist historians.

    Nonetheless, the program does acknowlegde that such 'raids in force' were often the prelude to a sustained invasion by the moslems, and if the effect of these battles discouraged them from further incursions over the Pyrennees then in some way it deserves its status as a historically decisive clash.

    We also know from the reconquista in Spain, which began around this time there were never clearly defined battle lines between moslem and christian kingdoms that allegiances overlapped between kingdoms, and that mercenary armies were important to both sides, and even El Cid changed allegiances based on who could pay more, and like any shrewd businessman knew that the longer the war dragged on, the more money was to be made, which probably explains why it went on for 700 years - everyone had something to gain!

    Mythologising the past is nothing new, we see it with more recent hsitory like the current discussion around the First World War that shows how passionate conflicting interpretations of the past are a way of defining ourselves, who we are and what we stand for.

    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 4: 0
    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 4: 0
  • Comment number 3. Posted by KevynR

    on 17 Jan 2014 19:42

    It's almost as if the Muslim armies weren't defeated at Tours such was the dhimmi attitude of these so called historians, but then I suppose the Reconquesta hardly mattered to them either.

    These 'historians', for all their supposed knowledge failed to grasp the essential reality of events—the saving of Christian Europe from the ravages of Islamic conquest. Lacking even basic understanding of what that would have meant in Europe at that time, their embarrassment and obfuscation was plain to see. They were almost falling over themselves to diminish that victory and apologise for it. For Muslim Spain in 732 read Modern Egypt under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood or any Islamic country with a Christian minority because nothing really much has changed in the Islamic world for dhimmis in all that time, the minority live in fear with little or no rights and the active persecution of the state. This is the reality of El Andalus, not the golden age myth of unity perpetrated by the muslim victors and it would have been the fate of the Franks too if not for the victory at Tours in 732.

    I normally enjoy 'in our time', but this was embarrassing and lamentable, and as a listener it insulted my intelligence.

    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 3: 0
    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 3: 0
  • Comment number 2. Posted by Chris

    on 17 Jan 2014 17:24

    I sided with Melvyn on the defense of Bede against the onslaught of (the normally rational) historians - who would barely let him breath Bede's name, so intent on crossing their own Pyrenees - by downplaying any victors description of events. Where were the historians when the terracotta army was discovered, or the pyramids, or Richards remains at Leicester...sometimes events are even more underplayed than expected, even by victors. Unfortunately Tours will always come down to those of the Muslim faith (and some liberal historians) vs those of the Christian faith....until perhaps we do dig up 30,000 or 30 skeletons at the battle site...something that will give an indication of the size and importance of Tours. For Europe - it will always be important because without Tours there would unlikely be a Holy Roman Emperor and without that development - Europe would look very different today

    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 2: 0
    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 2: 0
  • Comment number 1. Posted by John Thompson

    on 17 Jan 2014 11:54

    The programme seemed to find no evidence on what happened at Poitiers or Tours in terms of numbers who fought on both sides,or the motives for fighting,the numbers of cavalry or infantry, etc.It certainly didn’t come across as a clash of civilizations,or a turning point in the west as Gibbon or Bede would have us believe in the defeat of Islam in Europe,driving it out.No,we heard that the Moslems were fighting for booty.Just another battle.

    Their defeat was not perceived by the Moslems as a defeat,it was too far away from Damascus. The speakers were like spies sent to spy in the enemies’ tents only to find they had disappeared into the night.Lord Bragg kept trying to tease out a master narrative which would show evidence of the triumph of Christianity or Western civilization.The Arabs were defeated because their leader was killed.What is clear is that in later centuries,the propaganda and mythology of what occurred come from the West,the Franks standing as ‘firm as a northern glacier’.No Arabic source mentions the battle, classed by Crecy as one of the effective battles of the world.Both sides could mobilize large numbers,it’s the beginnings of effectiveness of mounted cavalry. There are more Franks and they were better armed,with the technology of the Frankish sword.

    What was not mentioned was the amount of resources provided by the Church for Charles Martel in terms of training for battle and lands provided, in order to protect Christian lands,wealth and Churches against Islam.The idea that the Moslems did not want to settle and dominate north of the Pyrenees,their conquests were superficial, moving on all the time,acquiring booty in a jihad state, conquering new areas.Arab numbers are hard to estimate,but they were a force. The tide of conquest poured along the north coast of Africa to the Straits of Gibraltar and Spain. Spain was invaded in 710 and the Pyrenees mountains were reached in 720.In 732 the Arab advance had reached the centre of France,but then it was stopped for good at the battle of Poitiers and thrust back as far as the foothills of the Pyrenees again.Thus a final limit was put to Islamic expansion in the west.But the most extraordinary fact about the conquests is that with the exception of Spain and Portugal,they were all permanent,the countries concerned being Islamic to this day.What was remarkable was that the Moslem conquests had not been of uncivilized outposts of the ancient world,but of the main centres of Persian and Hellenistic civilization.In a few decisive battles they had won an empire as comparable to that of Alexander the Great.

    Charles Martel had been a warlord,illegitimate,not part of the Merovingian line.His son, Pepin III, was educated by monks at St.Denis.His grandson was Charlemagne,Holy Roman Emeror of Western Europe.Military might had gone hand in hand with Biblical sanctification. The Carolingians.And so it came to pass….

    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 1: 0
    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 1: 0

More Posts