Home > > History of Islam in France: the Middle Ages (part I)
History of Islam in France: the Middle Ages (part I)
History of Islam in France: the Middle Ages (part I)
First broadcast date06/15/2003
AbstractIn Middle Ages, Muslims were living in Southwestern France for more than eighty years, and even maintained diplomatic relations with Christian political leaders of the time. Interview with Philippe Senac, University Professor, who evokes the settlement of Muslims in the south west of France during the 8th century AD, their progression in France, before being repelled by Charles Martel, and the relations between the Frankish Princes and the Arab kings. Professor Pierre Guichard explains that the Arabs entered the region around 720 and refers to the symbolic aspect of the battle of Poitiers in 732. Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, evokes the invasion of the ‘Narbonnaise’ by Muslims.
- France 2 - Own production
BroadcasterFTV - F2
- Senac Philippe
- Guichard Pierre
- Boubakeur Dalil
- Bresc Henri
Primary themeArab and muslim worlds
- Art, Culture and Knowledge
- Historical heritages / Latin and oriental christendom
Credits / Cast
- Le Guern Marie Annick - Director
Period of events
- From 500 to 1000
- France - South West
- France - Centre and Ile-de-France - Paris
Media running time29m5
- Collective memory has retained from the medieval period its confrontational dimension between Christian and Muslim world.
- And yet, beyond fighting, Middle Ages was a period of mutual discovery.
- Far from the split between Islam and Christianity,
- the first part of Middle Ages allowed alliances and meetings, and we often forget it,
- Muslims settled in a lasting manner in the southern part of present-day France.
- Islam was born in the early 7th century, and then it spread to North Africa, Spain, and first mentions of incursion into Gaul date from the early 8th century.
- In Narbonne it was during the year 719, when probably the city fell into the hands of Muslims.
- The exact date is not quite certain, probably Muslims arrived in Septimania,
- the current Mediterranean Languedoc, in the 720, around.
- Probably between 719 and 720.
- At that time, Muslim Spain, that it might be better to call Al-Andalus to keep the name the Arab-Muslims from Middle Ages give it,
- this province of Spain is a province of the Umayyad caliph of Damascus, who is ending a period of conquest that spread to Spain,
- and who submitted at least superficially the entire Iberian Peninsula.
- The Battle of Poitiers and the death of Roland at Roncesvalles,
- these two events feed largely collective memory and representation of Muslims in the history of France.
- The work of historians today help to better understand their reality.
- From the year 720, the Muslims were in the region of Narbonne, from 720, the first mosque was built,
- and this entire region was conquered by Muslims, which was previously a Visigoth region,
- after the battle of Vouillé who had driven all the Visigoths to the south of France and to Spain,
- so there was still the region called Septimania, in Latin:
- septima Legiao Romana, the seventh region of the Roman legion,
- and Septimania went from Barcelona, Toulouse, Narbonne, Montpellier to the borders of Provence.
- At first, it is the Aquitaine who was hit with a pretty fierce battle in the year 721 in Toulouse,
- In a second phase, the Rhone Valley was abandoned following the Frankish pressure that was beginning.
- According to some texts, from here they went far,
- they reached the town of Sens, within 100 km from Paris.
- In a second phase, the Rhone Valley was abandoned following the Frankish pressure that was beginning.
- This is the region of Aquitain that has been severely hit with the famous raid of 732.
- The Emir was advised to go much further, especially to Saint Martin of Tours, which was the goal of the Arab army.
- St. Martin of Tours, extremely famous Abbey in the Middle Ages, held wealth that interested Abderrahmane Al-Ghafiqi.
- Thus he didn't got to Poitou, but towards Touraine, Arabs already took Poitiers,
- and it is therefore in Touraine, in St. Martin of Tours, that Charles Martel in Paris has been called for help.
- For Muslims, the name of the Battle of Poitiers is called Balat Al-Shuhada, the battle of martyrs' road, this is what was adopted by Arabic historians,
- saying Abderrahmane Al-Ghafiqi went to France, and that after this battle he didn't go further.
- that this battle was not decisive for the continuation of the Arab conquest in Gaul or France,
- and that at the end of this battle he was killed and his troops actually came back.
- As Anatole France said, this is where the Arab civilization stopped.
- The battle of Poitiers doesn't require special attention insofar as it did not put an end to Muslim raids in Gaul.
- These raids continued, Narbonne fell into the hands of Christians only in 759,
- but it is still over time something obviously important
- insofar as in the 19th century, the event was rediscovered and we made it a victory of Christianity over Islam.
- This is a bit a founding myth of the European consciousness, a Latin Europe, Christian, based in part on the idea of the battle of Poitiers,
- but it is the 19th century that will make the battle of Poitiers a very important event, to establish the French nation,
- in a whole mythology, an historical knowledge that supports and strengthens nationalism.
- What also seems important to explain the particular resonance of the Battle of Poitiers is the fact that in the 8th century,
- there is a first text that reports it accurately, its author comes from the region of Cordoba,
- the text is called the Anonymous from Cordoba precisely because we don't know the monk who wrote it,
- and in this text appears for the first time the word European, so that Poitiers would be a kind of cultural boundary between two worlds,
- and it is very interesting to observe that for a southern man, to describe those who will fight against the Arabs,
- he uses the Latin word europenses, the first known mention, as if, and this is what justifies the work of some historians,
- it is in Poitiers, in a way, that would be born Medieval Europe.
- Arabs from Spain settled in Septimania were the heirs of the Visigoths, they kept Septimania as the Visigoths always kept it.
- But they didn't have settlements or large garrisons, the only important garrison is Narbonne.
- This is why Narbonne resists a little longer, about 6 months.
- The fall of Narbonne has a great psychological importance in Christianity.
- French will then make their first epics with the Song of Roland and the Battle of Roncesvalles.
- But also with the taking of Nîmes, Orange and Narbonne.
- It will be William of Orange and Aymeri of Narbonne.
- A political, national and military glory.
- Roland in Roncesvalles.
- It has been nearly seven years since Charlemagne went to Spain, he fought infidels.
- Charlemagne conquered every cities except Zaragoza, still ruled by the Emir Marsilio seeking a ruse to avoid shame and looting.
- Roncesvalles is a defeat, the defeat of an army that has always been victorious since it went down to Zaragoza,
- it has solved the conflict between two Muslim emirs,
- it also ensured the survival of Marca Hispanica around Barcelona,
- which is a Frankish county of Charlemagne, that will remain very late linked to France,
- and on the other hand, it is a shameful defeat caused by a people of savages and barbarians from the mountain:
- Basque people, that can't be assimilated by Franks. And therefore Franks will develop an epic that will magnify the defeat, attributing it to a glorious enemy:
- Saracens of Spain, coming from the whole Spain to avenge Zaragoza.
- The Epic of Roncesvalles joins the presence of relics,
- fighters of Roncesvalles relics which were distributed in southwestern abbeys.
- The historical information transmitted by Arab authors is relatively poor.
- The authors write only few lines about this or that raid, led by such and such governor in Gaul.
- This is an area they designate under the name of Ardh Al-Kabira in the 8th century, that is to say the great land,
- which is an area otherwise very few quoted in Arabic texts.
- We should not forget we are at the edges of Dar Al-Islam,
- the edges of the Muslim world, but on the other hand, sometimes, these authors and in particular in the accounts of travelers,
- peoples of France are listed under the term Ifrandj, they use the term Ifrandj to qualify them,
- but very often it is actually also Catalans, that is to say subjects of Count of Barcelona, that are qualified in the same way.
- With these memories we construct in a purely literary way an epic that has nothing to do with reality.
- Besides, in the romance of Roland, Saracens are not real but imaginary, they are pagans, giants,
- savages that come from very far, from every Muslim countries, that are brutes.
- Roland appears as the Christian hero par excellence, a martyr who does not hesitate to sacrifice himself against the Muslim enemy.
- In Roncesvalles case it is Basque people,
- even if Arabic sources show the presence of Zaragoza sovereign's sons.
- But it is true that the character of Roland will be rediscovered.
- Until the 19th century, we worked only with second-hand sources,
- with the song of Roland itself, that is to say with an epic legend.
- Conflicts start again at the end of the 9th century, when from Almeria in Spain,
- a community of sailors takes part in the privateering phenomenon and reach shores of Provence, facts are fairly well known,
- in the years 890 to 893 this community of sailors settled following a shipwreck in the area that corresponds to the Gulf of Saint-Tropez,
- which is designated in Latin texts as the fraxinea, this word is known in Arabic, it is transcribed by a historian called Ibn Hayyan,
- and who speaks in Moqtabas about Farakhechini, which is a transcription of the Latin franxinitum. So this community settled during the years 890-893,
- it remained in the present township of Saint-Tropez until the very end of the 10th century, exactly until the year 972,
- which corresponds to the region taking over by counts and viscounts of Marseille, and Muslim presence ended definitively at this moment.
- Thereafter, raids continued but much more sporadically, the city of Narbonne was hit in the years 1010-1020,
- and then corsairs' initiatives appear, which are known in Provence as the Barbary pirates.
- Beyond conflicts, this period was the first concrete experience of mutual discovery between Muslims and peoples of southern Gaul.
- Regarding diplomatic relations, they are quite well known, we know them mainly through Carolingian sources,
- and we have fairly accurate references to arrivals of ambassadors. Ambassadors of several kinds.
- We know that in Aachen or in different places where Charlemagne could be found, ambassadors of Haroun Al-Rashid came several times,
- especially the caliph of Baghdad, the Abbasid caliph. Ambassadors of Arab leaders from Al-Andalous also came.
- But most of the time they were hostile to the Umayyad and they came to Aachen to find support,
- to have support to fight Cordoba, the Emir of Cordoba.
- Sometimes there were alliances,
- sometimes even marriages, that developed between these two cultural worlds,
- and military alliances, as Maurontus did, the Patrician of Marseille who succeeded with the governor of Narbonne, Youssouf,
- to maintain his authority in the region of Avignon, in the region of Narbonne, in Marseille, for several years.
- Muslims occupy Avignon, I think it is in 725, and apparently with the approval of the most important political leader of Provence at the time,
- with the Patrician of Provence that will be eleminated by Franks when they will have conquered lower Rhône valley.
- Frankish sovereigns and in particular Carolingians have maintained more peaceful relations with Muslim sovereigns,
- especially with the Abbasid caliphs.
- It is a story that lasted nearly 60 years and which began in 765,
- when at the initiative of the supreme pontiff, with a message transmitted by the Abbot of Saint-Denis, Fulrad,
- Pepin the Short sent a first embassy to Baghdad. These relations developed at the time of Charlemagne, between 797 and 807.
- At the time of Charlemagne, we have embassy relations that are regular, around 800, with Cordoba,
- regular relations of captives ransoming, and especially Sicilian captives, that Charlemagne release,
- and also relations of recapture,
- since it's at that time Charlemagne equips his fleets to ensure the safety of Corsica and Sardinia.
- On these diplomatic exchanges, I think it is important to emphasize that they are two worlds mixing,
- we have mentions of Abbasid ambassadors for example, who come in very northern areas, the borders of Austrasia,
- areas they absolutely don't know, and that have not excite their lust but rather their curiosity,
- cities such as Metz have served as asylum places for Abbasid ambassadors, as Chenonceau in the Loire Valley,
- or places like the city of Pisa and Pavia, for a few weeks,
- in the other way, numerous Carolingians went in the direction of Jerusalem, Baghdad, certainly in more difficult conditions,
- they were not used to this journey, chronicles report many of these Carolingians disappeared in these regions, they died during their journey.
- One has the impression that in the Iberian Peninsula, as in the rest of the ancient kingdom of the Visigoths,
- Arab-Muslims have made a fairly flexible occupation, provided that people have had some kind of protection treaty,
- local populations, particularly urban populations, they had a considerable freedom,
- they could maintain their customs, practice their religion.
- In all probability some inhabitants of these regions at that time converted to Islam,
- we have historical evidences witnessing these conversions in Spain, in the Iberian Peninsula itself,
- there is very little information on what could happen in Languedoc,
- what is known is that the inhabitants of these regions appear to have found Arab domination more acceptable than Franks'one,
- which threatened to invade them to remove Muslims, or to recapture southern Gaul,
- and we actually know that this Carolingian recapture of Languedoc was quite difficult,
- The Patrician of Provence relied on them to fight Franks.
- So there was a Frankish recapture of these regions.
- This shows once again that beyond conflict, beyond differences, there is an agreement sometimes,
- sometimes there is a much more peaceful military collaboration.
- Again the fact that it is the supreme pontiff who advised, in 765,
- a Frankish king to come into contact with a Muslim caliph shows that there is no religious barrier that is very sensitive at this time.
- This is the first lesson, that sometimes it exists in the Mediterranean world a community of interest between two regimes,
- be it the Abbasids or Carolingians for example,
- it is true that Carolingian sovereigns came in touch with Muslim sovereigns of Al-Andalous,
- be it the local chief, as governor of Saragossa in 777-778, shortly before the famous defeat of Roncesvalles,
- or be it more generally in the frame of truces with the Umayyad emir himself, at the time of Louis the Pious or Charles the Bald.
- Franks were probably considered by Christian inhabitants of southern Gaul as invaders,
- and may be they preferred an Arabic domination, which was softer somehow,
- as it was the case throughout the history of Muslims, who let human groups live almost as they wished,
- provided they do not harm the interests of Muslim community,
- and then there were certainly many passages from one side to the other, there are examples of leaders of northern Spain, from the Muslim side,
- who marry Christian women, I mean from a Christian dynasty, especially in the north of Spain,
- we have families that had a part converted to Islam and another that remained Christian, there has always been passages from one side to the other,
- a crossing of what we can hardly call a frontier, a kind of dividing line,
- and during a long time there was a forward or backward movement of the border. Why Girona and Barcelona are recaptured by Christians?
- Why Zaragoza and Huesca remain Muslim? We actually don't know how to explain it clearly.
- Finally, I think we need to emphasize that apart from the 40 years of Muslim domination in Narbonne,
- and apart from this period of about a century that is more about Provence,
- the designation of Muslim incursion sums up pretty well contacts that occurred between the Arab-Muslim world and Christian West before the year 1000,
- and it is not possible to relate what happened in Gaul with what happened in Spain,
- or what will happen in Sicily in the 9th, 10th and 11th century.
- There in an extraordinary contradiction between the absence of traces of Muslim presence, both in Narbonne and in the region of Garde-Freinet,
- except a mosque in Narbonne, and on the contrary a literary proliferation witnessing the presence of Muslims,
- but it is literature, in French or in Occitan, and so it is obviously a literary Muslim figure,
- they do not have realistic traits, women are very beautiful, very cruel, but they can become Christian, men are brave but a little inhuman, violent,
- but they can also convert. Somehow the fullness of humanity is the Christian figure.
- And the Muslim of stories can access this Christian humanity,
- he just have to convert. But they are respected for their courage, their virtues,
- their wisdom, old men are always wise Muslims, rarely Christians. There are very few old Christians in chivalric romance.
- It's always the old Muslim with a white beard who is a wise man.
- Contrary to popular belief, it does not seem that Christianity has differentiated Muslims from other enemies of Christian West at this time,
- since in Frankish chronicles there is no distinct vocabulary, everyone is at the same level,
- all are enemies of Christianity, are enemies of Franks, and all have the name of treacherous nations.
- Again, it was not until the year 1000, the late 10th century and early 11th century, that a form of toughening develops in the Christian West,
- perhaps because of the raid against Santiago de Compostela by Al-Hajib Al-Mansour,
- but much more likely because of the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre by the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim in the early 11th century.
- An Italian colleague called Franco Cardini wrote a book to say that crusades or jihads should not hide the peace, we can't see the wood for the trees,
- crusade, jihad or other conflicts are 10% of the Middle Ages history. And peaceful relations, trade relations,
- cultural relations, exchange of books, transfer of knowledge, it is 90% of the time and action of Middle Ages men.
- Our next program about history of Islam in France will deal with the transmission of knowledge to the West by way of translations of Arabic works between the 12th and 14th.
- To learn more about how textbooks present the meeting between the Muslim world and the Latin world,
- you can refer to history textbooks of secondary and high school from different publishers,
- we also invite you to discover some books dealing with this topic:
- "De la Conquête Arabe à la Reconquête, Grandeur et Fragilité d’al-Andalus", by Pierre Guichard, published by Fundación el-Legado Andalusi,
- a chapter by Pierre Guichard and Henry Bresc in "Moyen Age, l’éveil de l’Europe", edited by Robert Fossi and published by Armand Colin,
- and "Les carolingiens et al-Andalus" by Philippe Sénac, published by Maisonneuve et Larose.
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