Abd er-Rahman against Charles Martel (S. Guemriche)

Abd er-Rahman against Charles Martel (S. Guemriche)

The battle of Poitiers is still considered today as one of the great dates in French history. Its evocation still provokes a number of debates and recoveries, despite recent work which has relativized its importance, and explained the context which led to its mythification, until today. Salah Guemriche's book therefore returns to this battle, to "dissect this national myth".


The author ofAbd er-Rahman vs. Charles Martel , Salah Guemriche, is an Algerian writer and journalist, born in 1946, who has lived in France since 1976. He has already mentioned the battle of Poitiers in the historical novel A love of jihad (Balland, 1995), but this time seems to have wanted to accomplish more historical work. We know it since Amin Maalouf and his very (too?) Famous The Crusades as seen by the Arabs, it is sometimes necessary to take with a grain of salt the historical works made by writers (see our article "The Orient at the time of the crusades", Micheau / Eddé).

A pleasant style and a diversity of points of view

The book is made up of twenty-four short chapters, with literary titles such as "Eudes, the Wascon hâbleur", "Lampégie d´Aquitaine, un amour d´Antéchrist" or "La conjuration des djinns". We can specify it now, this literary side is both one of the positive points and one of the negative points of Salah Guemriche's work: the style is very pleasant, and we go through the chapters without to report, with great pleasure, even if we note several unnecessary repetitions on such and such a character or such an event. But conversely, using a literary, even romantic style, often causes a lack of historical rigor, as we have seen with Maalouf, and as is the case here, on several occasions. An interesting point, however, is the choice to focus on the two “camps” (and even three or four if we consider Aquitaine or the Berber chief Munuza as “camps” in their own right): we thus find ourselves as much in the entourage of Charles Martel, than in that of the emirs of Cordoba. The author even makes us almost enter the room of Munuza and Lampégie, a vision which is precisely more of the novel than of the story ... The "Annexes" section is very complete, thanks to its maps but also its texts and a timeline.

The battle of Poitiers put in its context

With this plan, the battle of Poitiers is placed in its general context: the author returns to the reputation of Charles Martel, bad in the centuries which followed the battle, because of his more than complicated relations with the Church and with his mother-in-law Plectrude, he who nevertheless became the champion of the Church and the heir of Pépin de Herstal, before being the ancestor of the Carolingians. We therefore see him gradually taking precedence over his rivals and establishing his domination over Merovingian Gaul before eyeing Aquitaine. The author also returns to this one, and to the fascinating character of Eudes, champion of the Church before Charles, precisely, thanks to his victory in Toulouse against the Saracens in 721. These same Saracens whose course Salah Guemriche retraces , from the conquest of the Maghreb to that of Al Andalus, without forgetting to give a significant place (because decisive according to him) to the struggles between Arabs and Berbers. He also insists (perhaps a little too much given the few sources and traces today) also on the conquest of Septimania and therefore on the establishment of Muslims in the south of present-day France, until 759. .

Fight clichés

In his foreword, Salah Guemriche explains his choice to evoke the Battle of Poitiers by a desire to combat the clichés he heard young during the Algerian War, such as "In the year 732, Charles Martel crushed the Arabs in Poitiers ”. He also claims a "national integration" approach, which he contrasts with the concept of "national identity", to explain that the descendants of the Saracens are no less legitimate to be considered as French than the descendants of the Austrasians. This choice may be a trap he falls into.

A confused and sometimes surprising conclusion

His afterword is a little more confusing: he concludes first with the debates surrounding this battle, such as the number of fighters (he does not stress enough that these figures are obviously exaggerated, something commonplace in the chronicles of the period, but it is always good to specify…), the date and the place. On the reasons which pushed the emir to act, he puts forward the punitive expedition against Munuza, because of his dissent and his marriage with Lampégie, a successful expedition which would have led him to push his raid further ... Yet the sources are not so verbose or unanimous, for the most part. Then, he comes back to what he announced in his foreword: why consider a Frank as "less foreign" to the Gallo-Roman world than a Saracen? According to him, moreover, the Duke of Aquitaine is a "Gallo-Roman", an expression that could be disputed, even if some historians use it. Salah Guemriche places here as central the role of the Church, and the use of Christianity and the (sometimes forced) support of the bishops to Charles, their rich lands included. However, we sometimes have the impression that he speaks more of the Church after the Carolingian reforms than that of the 8th century. He is also aware of the role of violent struggles between Arabs and Berbers in the Iberian Peninsula, and as far as Septimania, as well as religious (kharijism) and ethnic dissidence (the importation into Al Andalus of tribal rivalries from the 'Arabia).

It is following his conclusion that Salah Guemriche that we follow him much less: it is a little difficult, when he tries to determine whether the battle was decisive or not, to find himself in his evocation of the myth of Poitiers and above all its questioning. He evokes pell-mell Chateaubriand, Marc Bloch and an Algerian biologist "negationist", author of The Battle of Poitiers never took place (we know that even in Spain some say that "the Arabs never invaded Spain" ...). The author also addresses the questioning of the function of historians by "conspiracy theorists", and adds a layer on genetics, without really knowing where he is coming from, while qualifying Pirenne's thesis. of "revisionist" (sic)! Even if Pirenne was contested (and very quickly, in particular by Maurice Lombard), to qualify it thus is a bit too radical, and does not take into account the context and historiographical developments (read the preface by Christophe Picard in the new edition of " Mahomet and Charlemagne "). This afterword is deeply indigestible, especially compared to the pleasure of the previous pages, and one quickly wonders what is its use ...

Fortunately, this is gradually clearing up; the author therefore defines several "versions" of this battle: Homeric, alarmist, revisionist, negationist, then third worldist (Arab refinement stopped by Frankish barbarism) and finally globalist (the thesis of the clash of civilizations, but here Guemriche develops far too little). Then, the writer analyzes the repercussions of this battle, in relation to previous Saracen defeats, such as that of 721, but also in time. Here he notes with reason, but always confusion and shortcuts - unfortunately -, the different moments in history when this battle will be more or less considered as decisive, whether it is in the face of Islam or in the construction of the European identity. Salah Guemriche finally denounces what he calls "Poitiers syndrome", which is still alive today, according to him.

The end of this postscript, it must be admitted, is once again a little confusing. The author makes repetitions again, to really conclude on the need to put the scope of this battle into perspective, especially so as not to stigmatize the "little Saracens" (sic). For this, he regrets that we hammer so many generations "that in the year 732, Charles Martel crushed the Arabs in Poitiers ”. According to him, the formula would perhaps be "initiatory and structuring" for the "little Franks of stock" (sic), but "terrorizing for the little Saracens", which would have prevented "founding a serene relationship between immigration and national identity ". It is a very curious vision of the reality of the teaching of history, that of the programs (and not only of the textbooks), but especially of the field today.

Confusions and mistakes?

To conclude in our turn, let us approach the “historical approach” of Salah Guemriche. As has been said, there are always risks in approaching historical facts (the author says "room for facts") in an approach that is also very literary. The author himself agrees, and he warns in his foreword that he will not ignore legends, and that he will take some "narrative liberties"; it is problematic in an approach that claims to be historian. The bibliography is interesting and fairly comprehensive, even if we come across some curious references (such as Hitler) which we however explain by the famous afterword mentioned above. On the other hand, many references are relatively old and, above all, they seem to be the ones that Salah Guemriche used the most. Thus, the book by J-H Roy and J. Deviosse often returns in the notes, The battle of Poitiers (Gallimard, 1966) and that of J. Deviosse, Charles Martel (Tallandier, 1978), but especially studies from the 19th century, which we sometimes have the impression of being taken at face value, not placed in their context. This is also the case with the sources, cited apparently without real hindsight, as if to "illustrate" the story; the example of the number of fighters has already been noted, although the author notes that these figures are taken from another battle. However, the use and reference to Arabic sources is to be welcomed, which is still too rare in mainstream works revolving around the history of Islam (or even current debates on Islam).

There are also interpretations on which one can express reservations. Without dwelling on the debate over why Charles intervened, it is Munuza and Lampégie's marriage that we believe is the problem. First, the fact that it serves as a pretext for the Emir of Cordoba, but above all the circumstances of this marriage. In a very "romantic" vision, Salah Guemriche makes this union a kind of tragic love story, which would have almost alone sparked hostilities. His description of the "meeting" between the two lovers may already be questionable, but the fact that he sees it as a marriage of love also because it seems that no source reports it. We seem a little there in the "fantasy". This union would rather have been made to validate the rapprochement between the Duke of Aquitaine and the Berber, something much more commonplace for that time. And it should be noted that Michel Rouche, one of the references on the subject, considers "the reality of Munuza's marriage to a Christian princess" as "" elusive and even doubtful "(quoted by P. Sénac, but also present in the bibliography of this work)…

An interesting approach, but with problematic conclusions

The general feeling about Abd er-Rahman vs. Charles Martel is therefore mixed. To be honest, the author of this review is always reluctant to face "historical narratives", because they mix a literary style close to the novel and historical facts, and therefore tend to "romanticize history", and so do. confusions or errors. We also saw our reservations about the sometimes quick or confused conclusions of Salah Guemriche. It can also be said that someone who has taken a serious interest in this subject will not learn much new.

If the pleasure of reading, in the "history" part (or fictionalized history, shall we say), is present, and the desire to explain the battle and its stakes is laudable, it is despite everything embarrassing that the author should show proof. at too great a rate of a certain freedom on the facts, with interpretations of sometimes surprising sources, and choices of themes just as much. One can share many of his conclusions and choices, but cast serious doubts on others, and even more on the method. In history, rigor, particularly in critical commentary and the use of sources, is fundamental, otherwise good intentions can, boomerang effect, turn against their author and give arguments to his opponents (in this case the extreme right and supporters of a national novel and a closed French identity). In addition, we are not sure that responding to identity history with another identity history is the solution to combat the public uses of this kind of historical event.

Article updated June 2015.

Abd er-Rahman against Charles Martel: the real story of the Battle of Poitiers, Salah Guemriche, Perrin, 2010, 311 p.

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