In the News: Muslims (and Christians) in Early Medieval France

Our latest news item is a BBC story about the discovery of a Muslim burial site at Nimes in southern France.  You might be thinking, “Um… wait a minute, CHEF — that says Muslim burial site, not Christian.”  Well done, perceptive reader — that’s correct!  🙂  But it does impact Christian history because of what kept the Muslims of that time in southern France, namely, the armies of people like Charles Martel.

As the story indicates, Muslim armies had crossed the Pyrenees from Spain (whither they had previously come from North Africa) in the early 700s, and they were threatening to occupy even more of Western Europe.  The pivotal event that’s usually named in historical surveys is the battle of Tours in north-central France (732), at which Charles’s armies repelled the Umayyad forces.  Historians have wondered what would have happened if the Muslim armies had prevailed that day.  Would there have even been what we know as the “Christian Middle Ages”?

As it happens, there were still Muslims in southern France for years — there was even a battle at Nimes, where these burials were found, in the later 730s — but ultimately, the Christian Franks under Charles Martel (and his grandson, Charlemagne) ruled “Gaul,” which became what we know as France, with almost no Muslim presence until the modern day.  By contrast, of course, there were Muslim kingdoms in Spain all the way until 1492 (yes, that year), and there were smaller groups of Muslims even after that.  In other words, while we hear about the Pyrenees every summer in the context of the Tour de France, in the Middle Ages they provided a much more significant boundary: between Christian Gaul and Muslim Spain.

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