Following the breakup and decline of the Western Roman Empire, many contemporary writers described the subsequent rise to prominence of the Germanic powers (such as the Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Vandals) as nothing short of a ‘barbarian’ invasion. Despite the many disruptions that occurred- some more violent and protracted than others- a sort of tenuous equilibrium was eventually reached within the West. Wars, uprisings, and power struggles went on as they had before, (The Empire had never achieved the Pax Romana which has been presumed of it) but so did trade, farming and all the things that had comprised life up until then. For many it may have even been a little better, as the oppressive taxation under the Empire was exchanged for lesser taxes under the more localized political structures, and some may have even found themselves in possession of some land, which came to be the real currency for centuries to come.
In the East, Justinian’s vision of restoring the glories of the Empire nearly came to fruition; well executed military excursions combined with a widespread lack of unity among the West allowed Byzantium to reclaim large swaths of territory- North Africa, Spain, and parts of Italy all came back under Eastern jurisdiction. His reconquests had the effect of all but eliminating the power of the Vandal and Ostrogoth kingdoms, while severely weakening the Visigoths in Spain. This would leave the Franks in former Gaul as the major power in the West, which would have repercussions for the next thousand years.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to follow greatness. Justinian’s successors were mostly useless, albeit with a few exceptions. None could live up to the dream he had created, and ever so slowly the Empire began to recede again.
By the middle of the 7th century a new power had emerged out of Arabia- Islam. Already near the end of Mohammed’s life incursions had been made into Syria (part of Byzantium) and Persia. Muslim conquests came at a startling pace: Syria by 611, Persia in 636, Palestine in 638, Egypt by 649, North Africa near the end of the seventh century and Spain around 711.
It would be a mistake to view all of these conquests as a monolithic effort; rather, most of these campaigns were undertaken by relatively small forces, forces which were generally as inclined to attack other Muslim cities and strongholds as they were those held by Christians or Persians. In this respect there is little difference from the situation in the West and Byzantium- western Christians were often embroiled in conflicts with each other or with the Byzantines.
At this time Byzantium was in a rather weakened state due to both the protracted conflicts with neighboring Persia as well being spread too thin in resources and manpower due to the sheer size of its holdings. Even though Byzantine forces often had numerical advantages over their Muslim enemies in military engagements, nevertheless the Muslims were often able to achieve astounding victories.
This is partially attributable to their small and mobile strike forces. Muslim military units generally utilized light cavalry for the bulk of their battle force. These quick and agile units were able to hit the enemy fast and hard. Byzantine forces were not accustomed to fighting such foes, and as at this time Byzantium and Persia both tended to field mercenary soldiers, desertion was common and often finances ran short. Persia itself did not outlast the onslaught, and while Byzantium was able to weather the storm and still retain some of its land, most of Justinian’s accomplishments slipped away.
The result was that areas such as North Africa and Syria which had been Christian for centuries found themselves in enemy territory. North Africa in particular had been one of the staunchest of Christian lands and had produced such luminaries as St. Cyprian and St. Augustine. Now under the constant pressure of different regimes and religious policies the Christian faith began to subside. Christian forces all around the Mediterranean had experienced defeat after defeat, (albeit with a few scattered victories) and it seemed the Muslim surge might not be contained.
In 732 Muslim forces in Spain executed a planned invasion of Gaul. After laying siege to Toulouse, Muslim forces drove deeper into Gaul. Charles Martel, the ruler of the Franks, led his Frankish army to a strategic position between Poitiers and Tours to meet the enemy.
After positioning his infantry in a nearly solid wall of spears and shields, the Muslim attack began. Because of the position of the Frankish army, the Muslim light cavalry had to charge uphill, only to meet lines of spears and swords. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Frankish infantry was able to hold its position against wave after wave of attacks. Eventually some Muslim commanders started to worry about the safety of the captured booty back in camp, and began to ride back to check on it. This seemed to indicate to much of the Muslim army (as well as to the Franks) that a retreat was underway. At this point the Franks sent their heavy cavalry charge ahead, which began to route the retreating enemy.
While some view the Battle of Poitiers as a minor skirmish in European history, it may have been a crucial turning point in that it prevented a Muslim foothold from being established in Western Europe.
From this moment on Western confidence began to rise, for the Muslims who hitherto had seemed unstoppable had been defeated. And not only defeated, but defeated by a smaller force. Although there would be numerous exceptions, Western forces would from here on consistently achieve military victories against stronger and more numerous Muslim opponents. The West would become a mighty power.
Despite the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ generally being perceived as a period of backwardness and ignorance, they were in all actuality marked by a rapid expansion of technological innovation, some of which I have highlighted before. Westerners were able to markedly improve agricultural output, increase transport efficiency and a host of other advancements, not least of which were military in nature. These would have profound effects in the subsequent centuries.
Although both Christians in the West and Muslims were experts at breeding horses, Westerners liked horses to be big, while Muslims preferred the smaller and lighter variety. On average the horse bred in the West was around 400-500 pounds heavier. This served well for agriculture and transport as well as for war. While Muslim horses were faster, Western horses were made for the heavy cavalry charges. They could trample opponents, push smaller horses aside while their riders did battle, and carry heavier loads, whether pulling a cart or carrying a heavily armed and armored soldier.
Westerners during this time developed horseshoes, which not only cut down on the wear and tear of the horse’s hooves but also gave them better traction over a wide variety of terrain, increased a horse’s acceleration and agility, and allowed them to pull heavier loads. Whether charging into battle or towing provisions and treasure, the Western horse was bred for war. A heavy cavalry charge by a group of Western soldiers could break through Muslim lines, scattering the enemy and bringing complete disarray.
The only way these devastating charges could occur was with the introduction of the high-backed saddle and stirrups. Up until this time riding a horse was a daunting task- one had to squeeze one’s legs on the animal to maintain balance. Combine this with carrying weapons and wearing armor and the chance of falling off during a battle was very real. Hence, even during the glory days of the Empire the cavalry was generally only employed for cutting down retreating enemies. Even in these cases even the best riders could only carry a short sword or a battle axe.
With the high backed saddle and stirrups a well armed and armored knight could charge headlong into the fray with a lance. Even if the lance met a reasonable amount of resistance (say the enemy’s horse) the knight would have a high likelihood of staying mounted on his steed. After the lance was employed the knight could then pull out a heavy sword to cut down the enemy. Since the knight was more securely mounted, he could swing with more powerful strokes which had a greater chance of killing an enemy, knocking him off his horse or otherwise dealing a great deal of damage.
Archers had become an important element of any army, with the ability to rain a hail of missiles down upon an enemy from long range. In the West a new innovation in warfare was brought about by the introduction of the crossbow. Instead of firing arrows, the crossbow fired heavy bolts which, although more limited in range than a longbow, were far more accurate and effective.
Prior to the crossbow archers had to spend years developing the accuracy and arm strength to shoot an arrow. The crossbow revolutionized this form or artillery in that it was fired more like a rifle. In as little as a week or two anyone could be taught to fire a crossbow with relative effectiveness, meaning that Western armies could field large contingents of crossbowmen in a relatively short period of time.
Westerners even developed a sort of assembly line crossbow comprised of a team of three. One would hold up a huge shield to protect the team, one would fire the crossbow and one would load another crossbow to have it waiting. In this way crossbow teams could fire around eight times a minute, and these teams in union could do immense damage to approaching enemy soldiers.
Muslim military units liked to be fast and mobile, and since they were generally shorter and rode smaller horses, the armor these soldiers wore were generally light and thin- usually some sort of thick leather or leather vests with metal scales hanging in front. Westerners preferred a more heavy-duty approach, which usually meant chain mail. These links of small chains could withstand conventional arrows (many wouldn’t even pierce the skin) and all but the most powerful sword and axe swings. As such, a well armored knight or infantryman could wade onto the field of battle and take numerous attacks without necessarily sustaining wounds.
Western armies (at least in pitched battles) preferred a solid line of infantry. With these well armored soldiers locked side to side, lighter units that the Muslims favored often did not fare well unless the numerical advantage was extraordinary. During the Crusades time and time again smaller Christian forces were able to achieve victories against much larger Muslim foes.
Westerners had nearly perfected the art of fortifications after centuries of building them in western Europe. As the Crusader kingdoms were established following the First Crusade, orders like the Templars and the Hospitallers built heavily fortified castles in Palestine in which much smaller but well trained forces could withstand armies of thousands. This penchant for fortification extended to conquered cities such as Tripoli, Antioch, Jerusalem and Edessa. Although all were eventually overrun, relatively small contingents of Western soldiers could stave off a besieging enemy for aggravatingly long periods of time until reinforcements arrived.
While in this period the Mediterranean has been described as a Muslim lake due to the supposed superiority of Muslim fleets, in all reality they were never able to control it to the extent that seriously encroached on either Western or Byzantine naval efforts. During the crusades Western forces were routinely resupplied via ships, and the Byzantines maintained many of their old trade routes and shipping patrols. In fact, Christian naval innovation often outpaced that of Muslim fleets.
Muslim naval power had initially been dependent on Christian, Jewish and Persian shipwrights within conquered lands. The Copts of Egypt in particular were excellent shipwrights often employed by Muslim rulers, and most Muslim fleets were actually manned by mercenary crews. (This was nothing new- during Persia’s battle with the Greeks at Salamis centuries earlier there were probably more Greek sailors fighting for the Persians than against them.) In this respect Muslim naval technology always lagged behind that of both the Byzantines and the West.
Thus, due to an explosion of technological innovation during the ‘Dark Ages’, the West was able to move by leaps and bounds beyond its neighbors in the art and craft of warfare, securing not only its continued existence but also its subsequent rise as a world power in the centuries to come.
*Much of the information in this post is gleaned from God’s Batallions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark.