The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, the Battle of Tours, and the Birth of Empire by Ed West is published by Sharpe Books. Ed West’s books and ideas can be found on his website: Ed West — Journalist and author . Among other attributes of this are its brevity (100 pages) and very cheap price (5.99).
I hate when I hear people “compliment” a history teacher or author when they say, “He/she makes history interesting.” This always sounds like history is a painful subject, forced on poor captive students, and desperately in need of of a makeover, a recasting, or a transformation from what it is to what it needs to be.
Granted, there are plenty of poor history teachers and rare is the history textbook that becomes the page-turner keeping students up too late at night. But bad teachers and poorly written texts are not confined to history. And students are not uniformly a group of neutral tabula rasas awaiting anxiously to be absorbing knowledge. Students, in many cases, are bored with almost everything. The “teach me by entertaining me” mindset is a different story.
Also, there are analytical, in-depth, highly scholarly accounts of history that are simply above the average reader. And they are above even the above average reader who is not a specialist in a particular area. Authors, particularly scholarly ones, assume a certain knowledge from their expected reading audience. If she is writing for non-historians who want to read a juicy biography, she writes a certain type of book. But if she is written to refute the claims of three other historians in their technical and critical biographies, she is assuming that the reader already has lots of knowledge of the subject. That is to be expected. All subjects can be examined at the more shallowed, wadable ends of the pool or be dived into on the deep end.
All of that is to say, Ed West’s little book doesn’t make history interesting. Instead, he does a fine job of tell a story that is already intrinsically and inescapably interesting, fun, and compelling. If you want to fit the book into a bigger picture, a meta-narrative, you can for it deals with an event that can be called “the Birth of Europe.”
Those serious, somber, scholarly types who prefer a more analytical and in-depth look at the rise of Europe would do well to read Stephen Davies’ book The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity, which I reviewed in a previous post.
Births are not easy, painless events. I say that as a personal witness to four of them. The metaphor of a birth is not an apt way to describe anything easy either. The fate of the world was hinging on two major worldviews, world orders, and philosophy/religions. The prevailing power of the age in which this book is set was the Muslim religion. While much of history bemoans (rightly so) European efforts during the Crusades to defeat Muslims (and Jews) in the Holy Land, that was just one chapter in a long history of struggles between the Christian West and the Muslim East. (And I know that both of those labels are inadequate.)
Islamic forces had long since captured what we call the Middle East. North Africa was also under their sway, and Spain had been taken by them as well. Europe, in contrast, was a hodgepodge of smaller, less powerful, but emerging nation-states. Judging from the look of the times, one would have speculated that Islam would become the ruling ideology and political force of the following ages. Europe would have been a weak holdout at best or a number of vassal states under Islamic domination.
But Charles Martel and the forces aligned with him changed all of that. France had been under the “rule” of wimpy, inadequate kings, but the real powers were exercised behind the throne by the Mayors of the Palace. As Muslim forces advanced by conquest and raids into the Frankish Kingdom, Charles Martel led the resistance.
The climatic battle, the one often regarded as a turning point in world or at least European history, took place somewhere in west-central France. Outnumbered by the Muslim forces, Charles’ heavy massed infantry not only held the battlefield but administered a sound defeat to the Muslim armies.
With the never ending debates and revisions and rewriting of history, some more recent historians have questioned the centrality of the Battle of Tours. Carry on with such explorations, but many of us profit from the less detailed historical records with the more catchy bullet points as markers. So, we can be allowed to persist in calling this victory of European Christendom over Islamic expansion as the “Birth of Europe.”
The events in this book are usually covered rather matter of factly in a paragraph or two in the textbooks. And I don’t mean to completely dismiss the role of such learning tools. But the richer story, which West tells, is one that the history teacher needs to learn and learn to tell. Or, since the book is short and inexpensive, it could be assigned to a class. The historical events are the background to a grand piece of literature called The Song of Roland, ably translated by Dorothy Sayers, so anyone teaching that poem should read this account.
For me, I was looking for a short book to read in between two rather lengthy ones. So, I picked this book up, little knowing that it would be a really enjoyable read.
I feel compelled to add that for the more serious reader, Ed West has the habit of inserting a few bits of humor along with way. I confess to having the same tendency. Plus–horror of horrors–he has based the book on a number of other books, all of which are secondary sources. I confess to having the same tendency. And finally, he includes a bibliography that only lists the names of the authors and titles of their books. How can we read a book that sites a secondary source and then doesn’t tell us that it was published in London in 1984? Actually, I didn’t have any problem with that, and in typical Ben House-fashion, I found several titles that I wish I had.
To repeat, Ed West failed to make history interesting. Instead, he aptly told a story that is more than merely interesting, but is rather fantastic. I think we might say it has had an impact on our lives as well.